Yo “Hablo” Español…?

Saudações do sol do equador!

Everything is still going swimmingly down here (well, except for me because I don’t really swim…) so for that I am very grateful! I’m in the (almost) full swing of school now and I’ve noticed something that has been tickling at my brain for awhile: the drastic differences between university, and even lower level education here in Brazil versus the United States when it comes to foreign language education.

Now, hang on a second before you start rolling your eyes and thinking this is one of those, “Oh, well in the US we do this but now I’m so ~cultured~ and ~worldly~ I think that my opinions are somehow superior” kind of posts. I am no fool. I realize that my 19-year-old opinion is worth truly about as much as the fun facts on Snapple caps, but hear me out.

Walking into my first day of one of my classes in Portuguese, História do Jornalismo no Brasil, needless to say I was extremely nervous. “Would I be able to communicate with the students? The professor? What if she asks me questions… Do I look Brazilian enough to lay low?” That all lasted about five minutes before the professor walked in, looked at us, and proceeded to ask in Portuguese, “Oh, you all are the Americans, right?” And of course, all eyes in the room were now on us.

In my head I was thinking, “No, we’re just the blonde, the Asian, and the blue-eyed girl but we are for sure not Americans…” but I resisted. We responded with a smile and a “yes” and she proceeded to tell us that we were completely welcome here and any questions or confusion we had we were free to ask in whatever language we preferred and work with her or the students directly on issues. An immediate sense of comfort and relief flooded over me. Needless to say, classes have been going great, everyone is so kind to us, and the topics are genuinely interesting. (I told you I remember how to school.)

One day I finally asked one of the students in our class where everyone learns to speak English so well. She told me all about how kids starting in our generation had been taking English in school since they were little. At the university level, some of the courses are even designed to teach English with a British accent. This amazed me and got me thinking.

Okay, so I have been taking classes in Spanish basically since pre-school. That seems to be the common trend in America as well. Why then do I feel like my speaking abilities are so far inferior to these students’ ability to speak English? It occurred to me that if anyone were to hand me a written test, have me translate what someone was saying, a listening activity, or asked to write an essay, I could do that with no problem. But as for my speaking, it has always been a weakness. Now important disclaimer: this has nothing to do with any of my Spanish teachers I have had over the years. In fact, my Spanish teachers in elementary, middle, and high school were some of the best I’ve ever had and I have extremely fond memories in each of their classrooms. (Looking at you, Ms. Griffen, Burnett, and Gnaedig!)

However, the same is now becoming true for my learning of Portuguese, and I may have finally come up with a reason why. In American schools in general, the focus has become very narrow: pass the test, get the grade, and move on. I feel as if many students have lost the ability and/or desire to absorb the material they are learning and simply cram enough to get by and forget it the next day. I recognize my own fault in this area as well. Many times I have found myself pulling all nighters to study material that I was behind in, doping up on caffeine to stay awake during the test, then having it all slip my mind by the time I wake up from my nap the following afternoon.

In terms of foreign language, Americans are too caught up in the mindset that everyone should learn English or that English is the “universal language” but rest assured: that is a naive assumption. Being here, I’ve truly learned the power that language possesses. It is more than just a communication issue. Language around the world is a sign of wealth, power, and education. Why then are Americans so quick to take it for granted? We are lucky enough to have such easy access to it in our schools and should work on getting students over this “passing the test” mentality. We owe it to the rest of the world and we certainly owe it to ourselves.

I’ve gained a new appreciation for the art of language in general. Every time I find myself speaking with a Brazilian who may not be confident in their English skills, or vise-versa, it is a beautiful thing to be able to test both of our knowledges and see what we come up with. The speed, rhythm,  and flow of language in general is fascinating to me. I truly think my English has improved, ironically enough, after my time here. So sue me if I do feel a little more ~cultured~ and ~worldly~ but the world and the people in it and the way we talk to each other is this super cool thing that I highly recommend exploring.

So for now when I’m not out and about, you’ll find me awkwardly having conversations with Siri in Portuguese. I wish I were kidding.





2 thoughts on “Yo “Hablo” Español…?

  1. Hi Molleigh,

    I continue to read your postings with interest. Very well written and enjoyable. I believe everyone should train in a second language – I only wish I had as a teen. I had the opportunity to take Spanish in high school, but it was an elective, not a requirement. I was naïve and thought I would never need a second language. How wrong I was.

    My main comment to your article is to caution against dismissing English as a universal language. And it’s not because I am an American. It is because many industries use English as the standard so that everyone can talk to each other in making transactions. For example:

    1. Did you know that all Air Traffic Controllers and Commercial Pilots are required to speak English in their communications? No matter what country or airlines – they are all required to be able to speak English

    2. Did you know that many Middle East countries send their military officers to the United States for training and to learn to speak English? It is because they are our allies and receive our defense products, training, and services.

    3. Most large chain international hotels require their staff (at the check-in counter) to speak English. The same is true for car rental agencies, travel agents, and 24/7 hotline support.

    4. Finally, many, many countries import American and British goods so they must be able to speak English to conduct business.

    Should Americans not sit on their “I only speak English” laurels and learn a second language? Absolutely. And I applaud your efforts in continuing your language education.

    Keep up the good posts. I enjoy reading them.


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