What it’s like to speak several languages – the good and the challenging

I love learning and speaking foreign languages. To me, it’s like air to breathe (I’m being overdramatic but in a way it is). And I love empowering people to learn different languages!

I thought I wanted to give a little insight into what it means (to me) to speak different languages. As amazing as it is, there’s a few challenges and some funny things happening (see the last point ;)).

Let’s start with the obvious 😉

You’ll be able to travel much more smoothly if you speak the language of the country you are in.

Speaking Spanish has helped me a lot while traveling South-America as I was able to have nice small talk with people who’d help me out when I needed information or when it came down to haggling for prices (because you should if you want a good price). In Japan, I was able to travel to regions with little tourism and always managed to find my way around as I was able to communicate everything in Japanese. In general, I think being able to talk to locals make the trip more valuable as you will be able to get information first hand and learn more about the local culture.

Speaking several languages will help you find friends more easily in other countries and feel accepted and integrated more easily

I do generally think that I get accepted and make local friends rather quickly when I speak their language. These days most people speak English, so it really isn’t that much of a problem when you talk to a person one-on-one, however, once you start hanging out in a group of locals, you feel much better when you can simply tune in with what they’re talking about

It also allows you to follow sports classes and other events/activities more easily, making you feel more connected and at home in the new country. You might also have it easier with local authorities when speaking their language (there can be some ‘racism’ against not speaking the local language in countries at times)

The downside?

As I am not 100% fluent in most languages, people don’t necessarily slow down for me and will end up chatting my ear off, using a lot of technical vocabulary and slang, with me only understanding half of what they’re saying. It is very difficult going back to ‘I know I can speak quite quickly to you and express what I want, but I actually don’t understand you with your slang and speed’. 

When you only know a few words, people often try harder to make themselves understood.

The same goes with regards to ‘working proficiency‘. There were countless amount of times I had people say ‘wow you can use all of these languages for work’. And I had to let them know, that having a working proficiency in a language is completely different from being able to have conversations. Many languages use a different tone in more ‘professional environments’, especially Japanese, which means you have to study and prepare yourself accordingly to that. I am very greatful for example that I had Business English at university for 4 semesters, which was completely different to a regular class.

And because of these reasons, we get to the next point:

Sometimes I feel a little more distant to what I am saying when I am speaking a different language.

After all, this is not my mother tongue and I am ‘practicing’ so in a way I can feel less of the weight of the words I am using. I often have the feeling that I am rather blunt when I speak a language that I haven’t ‘fine-tuned’ yet.

I also feel as if the bonds I form with people who I speak German or English to are somewhat closer than people I speak other languages to as there is more ‘emotional connection’ for me in my native/near-native tongues. Again it usually makes me motivated to study more but it can be a bit of a struggle in the beginning.

You might start talking in a mix of languages and become lazy to think about the real word in the language you’re speaking in.

I have that problem with German, my native language. I don’t speak it very much and speak and think in English 99% of the time. However, when I then speak German, I will often end up throwing in lots of English words, because I expect the other person to understand what I am talking about. As this is often the case, I never actually pause to think about the correct word, which can damage your language ability. I do think however , that, once you take the time to focus on just one language again, you can improve in that regard.

Fun fact: my thoughts also go crazy and appear in all random languages. Though I usually think in English, there are many random words, may they be in French, Japanese or any other languages that pop up in my thoughts as well. I do find it amusing but am also aware of the danger I described above.

The more languages you speak, the harder it is to keep all of them at the level you left off after studying

This one is becoming bigger and bigger for me as I keep adding new languages to my portfolio. I love studying new languages, yet that often comes at the cost of another language. I remember being in Japan, having gotten to a conversational level, when one time I wanted to speak a few sentences of Spanish – and Japanese came out. I was shocked because my Spanish had always been pretty good but I simply couldn’t make the switch at that point. Now that I am in South-America, the opposite is happening and I have trouble keeping up my Japanese.

To overcome this, I spend time daily studying several languages, not necessarily to get much better at them but to keep my current level. That can be pretty time-consuming and challenging, especially to find people to talk to in that language but for me, it is worth it!

Language study has taught me a lot of discipline

To get to where I am at today, I had to learn to create a strong language learning habit. I realized that daily repetition and practice was the key to making steady progress in language learning. I created plans and schedules on when and what to study and have become very disciplined through that. This has also helped me in other areas of life, making me diligent and organized.

One point that people sometimes seem to forget is that it is not only about ‘speaking’ a foreign language:

You can access more global information in its original language

Of course, you have the chance to talk to more people, but what I also find fascinating is that I can do research in several languages or watch movies or documentaries that I cannot find in my mother tongue. Sometimes words get lost in translation, so it is always amazing when I can read/hear information in its original language.

And a little interesting point you might never have thought about:

The digital world and social media environment will notice your multilingual skills eventually .

Your spam might suddenly come in 5 different languages. Facebook might advertise you to work as a Japanese chat-representative or remind you not to forget your ‘Spanish mother tongue’. I am finding it hilarious and sometimes slightly confusing when ads pop all relating to all and in all sorts of languages. At least one thing Facebook hasn’t figured out about me so far 😉

I hope I could give you some insights into the ‘language jungle’ in my brain and probably a lot of other polyglots. I guess we wouldn’t want to have it any other way 😉

I’d love to hear if you have any other thoughts on this, so please comment!

How I am learning Portuguese

This post is specifically about how I am currently learning (Brazilian) Portuguese without being in the country. Note that I have been to the country and am planning on returning but I’d say that the majority of what I learned was not by being surrounded by Brazilians (although that could be the preferred way of studying for many) but through self-study.
All the products are non-sponsored, I simply love sharing what I found useful after a lot of trial and error 😉
Also, extra point: As I know Spanish and French, Brazilian Portuguese already seemed very familiar to me. I do believe that the below-mentioned resources are suitable for anyone, whether you know other Roman languages or not as they mostly start from zero. Enjoy!

Duolingo

I started off with Duolingo which I am currently still using. To be honest, I had never been a big fan of Duolingo because I don’t see it as very useful when you’re not a complete beginner and one might argue that the repetitiveness of some sentences that you might never use might not be the best. However, for Brazilian Portuguese especially I have found the app extremely useful and here’s why. I think it has a great progression in teaching you vocab and grammar. You usually have one or two vocabulary topics, then one or two grammar points. I love that as it gives a good rhythm to what you’re studying. Also as there are no grammar rules, you are basically acquiring the grammar just through example sentences, the way a child would learn it. Also, grammar is repeated regularly and so is vocab (meaning they come up in later lessons) so I am highly convinced of this language program on Duolingo.
My main advice for using it would be to really speak the sentences out loud. You will remember them so much easier and get a feeling for the language. Like this, you are living the language a little and it feels less dry than just passive listening and typing or drag and drop.
Also a little extra tip regarding the keyboard you’re typing with: You have the option on phones to install different keyboards for different languages in your input language settings. If you activate Portuguese, then it will be much easier to type and there will be a Portuguese autocorrect to help you with the spelling. I do sometimes leave the English keyboard on purpose so that I really have to think about the correct spelling myself but other times, it makes typing much faster and smoother.

Final note: I have found the quality and structure of Duolingo to be different from language to language. I had tried other languages and the way they were structured wasn’t for me. So if you weren’t convinced by one language, maybe give another one a try and see whether it works better for you.

Busuu

Another app I’ve been using has been Busuu. What I like about Busuu is its structure. Rather than just single vocabulary lesson or grammar sentences you have different units which are also categorized in different levels (according to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages from A1 to C1). Each lesson starts with some vocabulary that you later review in a separate section again (sort of like flashcards). This is then followed by a dialogue with questions, where you’ll be asked to fill in some gaps after a listening practice. Section 3 is the vocabulary review and the final section often comprises a free writing or speaking assignment.
I especially love the dialogue section as it gives you some real-life context and a chance to listen to a larger section of native pronunciation.
Another great section is the writing and speaking assignment. You get a topic for this assignment related to the lesson you just finished and are then prompted to either type a short answer or record some audio. This will be corrected by other users of the app (native speakers) and creates a great feeling of community and the possibility to get feedback pretty quickly (within a few minutes up to a day) from native speakers.
I have purchased the app’s paid plan to download lessons for offline use and have access to all lessons.

Semantica Portuguese

Another resource I had been using a lot in the very beginning has been Semantica Portuguese. This is a video online course that you can purchase (their first video telenovela is for free). I loved learning Portuguese by watching videos from day 1. It is entertaining learning by following a story which is broken into separate parts where vocabulary and grammar are taught.
Also, I didn’t find it too expensive for what I got. They have several whole video series and some small video lessons as well as explanatory blog posts to deepen your understanding.
You can find their telenovela Eduardo e Monica on YouTube for free to have a look into it.

Books

In order to practice my reading skills, I good a Portuguese beginner stories book from Kindle. This was Portuguese from Portugal which I didn’t mind because it is rather similar and rather for intermediate learners or learners with a previous understanding of Spanish.
For absolute beginners, there’s also an app called Beelinguapp. You can read a story in the language you’re learning with your native language on its side. I personally haven’t used it much as the stories are mostly for beginners.
I actually just finished reading ‘The Alchemist’ by Paolo Coelho in its original form which I read without major problems after about a year of semi-regular self-study (and knowing the English version of the book!)

YouTube vlogs

Last but not least after finishing the video course, I finally decided to move on to real-life Portuguese. As I don’t watch TV and don’t use Netflix, I resorted to YouTube and have been following several Brazilian vloggers. I enjoy listening to either Brazilians living abroad or foreigners living in Brazil (vlogging in Portuguese!!) talking about their experiences. I am able to follow the videos without subtitles and am generally not too bothered if I don’t understand 100%. The same goes for reading, I hardly ever look up words unless they come up so often that I really need them to follow the storyline.

Of course, as final words, I am returning to Brazil and am planning to spend as much time as possible talking to locals. This is always one of the best options, but I can say that the above methods really got me pretty far I’d say.

Até logo!