How to Master a Language for Life
My motivation to help you master a foreign language is intimately related to my life story. The ability to learn languages has given me the luxury of living where and how I want. Along the way, I’ve discovered highly effective language acquisition strategies that I will share throughout this blog.
I graduated from Williams College in Massachusetts in the year 2000, but instead of the typical investment banking job, I decided to live on an abandoned farm in the Brazilian countryside, without electricity and with the closest town a five-mile walk or an eight-mile bike ride away. I was hungry for challenges and adventure.
One challenge which particularly appealed to me was language related. Could I get rid of the American accent in my Portuguese? Could I learn to speak with the finesse and write with the precision of an eloquent Brazilian? In other words, could I become a native speaker of a second language? I soon ditched my thousand-word-long vocabulary list and my grammar handbook, as I realized those methods of mastering a language were unwieldy at best. Instead, I plunged head-first into work, which gave me constant immersion in Portuguese—first on the farm and then in an English-teaching business I started in town.
I was motivated to teach languages, and not just learn them, by my observations while traveling abroad during my childhood as to what worked well, and what didn’t, in people’s varied approaches to language acquisition. My experience teaching substantiated many of my early perceptions, while challenging others. For example, it confirmed that people who dive into authentic communication—reading, listening, speaking, and writing—learn much better and more quickly than those who treat language as something to be studied through grammar rules, explanations, and translations. On the other hand, it contradicted my assumption that one needs to live in a foreign country to master a language. While many people spend extended periods abroad without making notable progress, I encountered several cases of people who had never left Brazil yet spoke impeccable English.
To continue financing my farm restoration project, I moved my entrepreneurial ambitions to Brasilia, the national capital, less than a two-hour drive from the farm. I soon hired other native speakers to teach not only English, but also Spanish, French, and Portuguese-for-foreigners: The Natural Language Institute was born. As I gradually achieved my goal of native-level mastery of Portuguese, I helped thousands of students take their English to the next level, first as a teacher, then as coordinator and course developer.
While I continued to enjoy weekends at the farm, the Institute grew steadily, but was still not turning a profit. So, when my beautiful daughter Camila was born, I decided to try out a highly competitive entrance examination to an auditing career at the Brazilian Court of Accounts—just to get a first glimpse of what these notoriously difficult exams were like. My years-long immersion in Portuguese paid off and, to my surprise, I passed with a top score.
I was placed in the international relations department, where I believed my native English skills would be in high demand. Curiously, due to the growing importance of relations with peer institutions in Latin American countries and the fact that our department already had plenty of fluent English speakers, I was handed a project entirely in Spanish. I seized the opportunity to focus on mastering a third language. I had learned Spanish in high school and college in the States, but I loved the idea of taking my fluency up several notches.
Daily emails, phone calls, and official letters were complemented by occasional trips in which I would immerse myself in the local language for several days at a time. I cannot claim I reached a native level in Spanish, but over time I did get to the point where I was able to negotiate complex, controversial issues with native speakers at no disadvantage and draft complex documents with the same ease as I do in English and Portuguese. During evenings and weekends on the town, I was happy to find no one ever took me for a Brazilian or an American. I was able to blend in as a local or a visitor from another Spanish-speaking country.
While my English and especially Portuguese had allowed me to pass the entrance exam, it was thus my Spanish that was instrumental in allowing me to perform well on the job, which eventually led me to be named head of international relations at the Court.
I finally left international relations two years ago to join the IT department, hoping to become fluent in a completely different type of language—Python, a programming language used in all kinds of software, data science, and machine learning applications. While communicating with computers is quite distinct from conversing in a human language, a deepening understanding of both is allowing me to guide the use of technology to enhance the Institute’s methodology.
Five months ago, I decided to begin improving my French, which I had learned during a semester at a French school when I was twelve years old, but which I had made scant use of since. It is great fun to use the language-learning method that I created to improve my French. Although I only have time for a one-hour class per week and a couple of hours of self-study, I am pleased with my progress and intend to continue until I’ve reached a level of mastery akin to what I achieved in Spanish.
Now I want to help you reach your language-related goals and dreams. As you now know, I love languages and I am passionate about helping people learn them. If you’d like to tell me about your experiences or ask me any questions, please send me a message right now using the form below. Rest assured that I will get back to you.
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