Growing up, the elders around me spoke multiple languages. Though they only allowed my generation to speak English (allegedly to protect us from developing accents that identified us as outsiders of the unwelcome variety). However, their voices blasted forth in Portuguese and Spanish, a few words of Mandarin, a spattering of French and Italian, and my mother often resorted to Pig Latin[i]. The non-English languages appeared to come into use when nobody knew an English equivalent (I didn’t realize until my 30s that funcho was fennel or tremoços were cured lupini beans). The incomprehensible also came into play to hide topics of conversation, or to scold, to curse, or to taunt the younger generation. At a young age, though, I discovered other families practiced similar obfuscation techniques employing a multitude of other languages.
It’s not surprising that many of today’s grandparent-generation folks encouraged their offspring to learn another language. It didn’t take me long to figure out how much I had missed by not tuning my ears into the beautiful incomprehensible words flying over my head. To fill that void, in high school my acts of rebellion included studying Spanish, reading poetry, and cutting school to read science, psych, and Ian Fleming books in the park while retaining a high (but not dazzling) GPA. At one time I attempted to learn Hawaiian and Esperanto[ii], but lacking access to recordings of speakers left me floundering with pronunciation.
While I disagreed with my great-grandfather, the immigrant sailor/farmer, who changed José to Joe so he sounded more American, I appreciated his effort. He learned to speak, read and write English as an adult, and spoke Portuguese and Spanish with contemporaries. At the same time, my dad insisted Joe threatened to backhand any children who dared utter any non-English phrase. Even with that, my dad understood enough Portuguese to conduct conversations (responding in English). He also understood more Spanish than I imagined. Apparently, though Great-Grandpa Joe knew his lack of language skills hurt him, he missed cues about the value of speaking other languages. Plenty of famous people understood.
To know another language is to possess a second soul. -Charlemagne
A different language is a different vision of life. -Federico Fellini
It also turns out that learning other languages is good for our brains, no matter our age. Knowing another language can give us a competitive advantage in business situations and help us connect more meaningfully with others in social situations. It can also help us connect with cultures we never thought much about: think Hygge![iii] Anything that exercises our brains and expands our world view sounds like good self-care to me!
Expanding my very limited Portuguese vocabulary popped on my radar screen recently. Since speaking any other language was forbidden, my cousins and I only remembered very important words like “aonde” (where) and “festa” (party). We understood a few comments, at least the more popular ones. “Coitadinha” (poor thing – usually used sarcastically) and “Fique quieto” (be quiet). Taking advantage of a sale for a well-known app, I started practicing about 15 minutes a day while I wait for my grandsons to get out of school. Do I look ridiculous talking aloud while I repeat phrases to my phone? Possibly, but I’m okay with that. What disappointed me is that the second week I began to notice differences in pronunciation for words I remember…and I did some digging and discovered the only version of Portuguese this company offers is Brazilian. They did not make that clear up front, though I looked.
With the hope of learning European Portuguese, I felt a bit deflated. Brazil and Portugal are different cultures with different idioms and different pronunciation/styles. The vocabulary I’m learning involves basics and my time commitment hasn’t been stressful. It keeps me occupied without social media while I await the school bell. And it keeps my brain functioning. I’m going to continue for a short time and enjoy some more Brazilian movies, but not renew the language software.
Having taken in-person language classes that I didn’t feel prepared me well for speaking to others, I’m a big fan of self-learning options. If you’re considering exploring another language, here are some tools I’ve tried:
- Over 10 years ago, hooked on French films, I picked up a Pimsleur[iv] basic French course on CDs (I believe it was at a local Costco) and it gave me sufficient vocabulary – listening and repeating during my daily commute – to understand enough of what was said in most movies to look up from the subtitles enough to enjoy the movies far more. That was exactly what I hoped to achieve!
- I liked the Pimsleur approach enough that when I moved to Hawaii and had a few encounters with Japanese tourists who appeared uncomfortable speaking English, I picked up the intro course to spoken Japanese and learned enough for a very basic conversation: greet someone, talk about the weather, give directions. Those were really all I needed. Watching Japanese series on Netflix helped with my pronunciation (and I loved Atelier, Midnight Diner, Samurai Gourmet).
- When the pandemic lock-down started and I first wanted to build my Portuguese language skills, the local library had free access to Rosetta Stone and they clearly identified languages like Portuguese and Spanish by geographical areas. I enjoyed the lessons but had to re-enroll often through the library system for free access and couldn’t afford the paid access so moved on.
- To brush up on Spanish I tried a free course through www.edx.org and quickly discovered the course overly-challenged me with the Spanish/Castilian pronunciation and vocabulary that isn’t useful around local Latinx folks, so I dropped the course. Still, it’s an option, traditional learning, and may be free!
- I investigated Mondly and discovered they have Spanish with the flag of Spain, so looked at Portuguese (both a Brazilian flag and the Portuguese flag are available). My laptop touchscreen and mouse are flaky, so using this app frustrated me. If your hardware works, Mondly has free options, so why not check it out?
- Duolingo is quite popular (and they have courses in Esperanto and Hawaiian) but their courses in Spanish and Portuguese seem focused on Spain and Brazil. I didn’t dig around a lot, but left a little disappointed.
- Babbel is also a popular option. Their Portuguese course seems well put-together and gives options that help focus on speaking, writing, or hearing the language. The course is Brazilian Portuguese, though.
- There are also language courses available on Udemy[v] and on Netflix (search for “learning” + language name). The Udemy courses go on sale frequently, so you can look for discounts or try short courses to complete to see if you want to continue with any language.
Yes, I love languages. I love words. I love learning about cultures.
I appreciate you! I hope you appreciate each step you have taken along your life’s path so far and acknowledge what you have accomplished – in whatever language (or languages) you prefer.
May you be fluent, healthy, happy, safe, and strong.
Last words: Please remember that neither my opinions/experiences nor resources I mention are meant as cures or treatment. This is intended to uplift and educate, not as counseling or professional advice. If you are in a moment in your life when most efforts feel huge, consider finding a mental health professional to support you.[vi] If you’re considering ending your life or if you are in crisis, please reach out to emergency services (9-1-1) or a crisis hotline[vii] to connect with someone who will have your best interests at heart. Your tender heart deserves respect.
Copyright 2021 D.R. deLuis
[iv] Look for CD versions online where you might find a good set or a used one at a good price. For more info, visit https://www.pimsleur.com/ where they often offer a free 7-day trial. (Always try first to see if the style fits your needs!)
[v] Visit Udemy here and search for the languages you’re interested in. Be sure to view the course intro material before paying for anything – it gives you a glimpse at the instructor and their technique. Some are quite professional and others quite casual. https://www.udemy.com/
[vii] If you’re not comfortable speaking with someone, try reaching out to the Crisis Text Line. In the US and Canada text “HOME” to 741741; in the UK text 85258; in Ireland text 2050808. To speak with someone, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or visit the website to text/chat at https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat/.
A STEP AT A TIME
The proverb The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step[i] shows up in various forms, with somewhat different endings. The point, though, remains the same. All beginnings require some action.
Last week I wrote about Life Plans and how, with all the challenges and opportunities, life doesn’t often go as planned. From my youth, I can cite nearly endless examples. The future model became a grocery store check-out clerk. The promising businessman from the wealthy family disappeared in a cloud of addiction. The future preschool owner became a medical doctor. The shy girl who planned to teach moved to Europe and went into broadcasting. The future school administrator sold insurance. While I know a few people who worked in the field they felt pulled toward (a dentist, two nurses), most did not. Still, they seem happy.
During my high school (secondary school) years, my dad repeatedly assured me that he would never help a female (me) with any college costs, nor would he disclose his income by filling out financial aid forms. Guidance counselors assured me of my capabilities and the importance of a university education. Knowing my dad meant what he said, I held onto my high school enrollment in a college-bound educational track instead of focusing on vocational training, but all my elective classes related to clerical skills I believed would help me secure work. And they did.
After graduation, I married young and my spouse groused constantly about my interest in education. Nevertheless, I took college classes – one or two at a time – and I worked.
What I wanted to be as a child – an elementary school teacher – sounded delightful until I volunteered in a classroom. It took one day for me to acknowledge few students would appear as a mini-Me, filled with a love of learning and a desire to make the world a better place. In fact, the classroom environment felt more like the inside of a food processor at full speed, without the pulverizing but complete with action, distraction, and some combat.
That cold day, one student came to school without a coat (shivering and swearing they were not chilly), two had thrown a small blanket over the head of the bus driver with the bus in motion on a busy street, and one student kept falling asleep between complaints of being hungry. The other challenges elude me, except a pair of kids who found cursing and passing gas a hilarious pastime. Before the first recess ended, the teacher dug up a coat from an abandoned-objects box secreted somewhere on the school grounds, engaged in a stern and motivational talk with the miscreants, and provided snacks for the hungry child (this was at a time before everyone understood allergies could be fatal and nobody ever talked about gluten). Amid the spurts of teaching, the 25 bodies in the classroom remained in some sort of constant motion and need.
When I left the school, I felt adrift and as if the life raft I’d been floating on had become a bit deflated and wobbly. I could not envision myself doing that every day (though long periods of time off work sounded heavenly). On the way home, I realized that the time in the classroom had taught me a lot about the challenges teachers face as well as my own perceptions. Clerical work seemed a bit more pleasant while I pondered other options, feeling like a late-20-something dud.
When I received an offer to fast-track from clerical work into a tech program (nerdy me loved that), I jumped at the chance and pushed myself to focus on an undergrad degree to improve my promotion potential. When my marriage crashed and burned, a decision to face some completely unplanned and generally unpleasant events in both my marriage and my youth led me to seek help from a therapist and then a healing group. Still, I never planned to transition from computer programming to social services.
However, while working part-time as a fund-raising assistant, I received an opportunity to help low-income people overcome their fear of computers, so took a full-time job in non-profit world. From there, I did not plan to get a graduate degree in Counseling Psychology, work in a mental health field, or work with houseless people. Yet that’s where I found my career home. For a while, I kept meeting people who wanted to share their painful stories with me, seeking reassurance. I felt honored to be trusted to hold a space for them to examine their experiences and drawn to that healing path. I took the road later in life than many, but the experience of grad school and the opportunities it gave me: better than any Plan.
All that to say, I hope you appreciate each step you have taken along your life’s path so far and acknowledge what you have accomplished – whether it’s surviving or you’re a future Nobel, Oscar, or Pulitzer winner. Give yourself a pat on the back.
You deserve to celebrate your accomplishments. May you have the strength to take each step forward with appreciation.
May you be healthy, happy, safe, and strong.
Last words: Please remember that neither my opinions/experiences nor resources I mention are meant as cures or treatment. This is intended to uplift and educate, not as counseling or professional advice. If you are in a moment in your life when most efforts feel huge, consider finding a mental health professional to support you.[ii] If you’re considering ending your life or if you are in crisis, please reach out to emergency services (9-1-1) or a crisis hotline[iii] to connect with someone who will have your best interests at heart. Your tender heart deserves respect.
Copyright 2021 D.R. deLuis