Panic Attack

I have recently received an email from someone saying he has the sensation of a panic attack just with the thought of speaking Portuguese, much like giving a presentation to a large audience.

Unfortunately, this is actually quite a common feeling amongst students. This email made me think a lot about the process of learning a language and the things we can do to get rid of this feeling of panic.  I have no training in psychology but I can certainly write about my own experience as a teacher and also a language student (I learned English as a foreign language in Brazil and I also speak a little bit of French, German and Spanish).

1. You learn by making mistakes. A few people have said to me they would only try speaking Portuguese with someone once they are fluent, when they speak perfect Portuguese. The reality is, this will never happen. No matter what method you use, you will only really learn by “doing it”,  by using the information that you have, even if you’re just starting learning the language. So, embrace the mistakes! And don’t take learning Portuguese too seriously! It’s got to be fun as well. I love trying out bits of language that I learn with native speakers. They might even be sentences that I memorised,  but it’s a great feeling when they understand what I said! Even if I don’t understand their reply!

2. Brazilians love when a person from another country tries to speak Portuguese with them. They find it endearing and amusing that someone would want to learn their language! If you make a mistake or mispronounce a word they might smile and even laugh, but they mean no harm by it, they’re laughing with you. So, not only it’s important to accept that making mistakes is inevitable, but also to learn how to laugh at yourself. A friend, who recently came to England, went to a supermarket and asked for a “soup machine” (he meant “soap machine” – a liquid soap dispenser). When he realised he’d made a mistake he laughed more than the supermarket assistant. I’m sure that he will be proudly telling this anecdote to all his friends in Brazil for some time. Some people might say he made a fool of himself, but my view is that he should be proud for having tried, for not being scared or shy to try out his English. Yes, he made a mistake but now he will never forget the difference between soup and soap! And let’s face it, it’s not the end of the world to make a small mistake like this!

3. Practice, practice, practice! When I was at University in Brazil I joined an international “pen friends” club and started exchanging letters with people from English-speaking countries (that was before the advent of email. I’m showing my age!). I didn’t know any English native speakers in my hometown, Porto Alegre, so that was a way I found to practice my English, even if it just my writing. I would also sometimes try to buy English magazines or newspapers, but they were hard to find and very expensive. Today with the Internet it has never been easy to learn a language. You can meet people from all over the world on Skype, you can watch videos in foreign languages, read foreign magazines, listen to radio stations from other countries, etc. But, if I had to give you just one tip on how to improve your Portuguese I would say the best one is to join one of the many online language exchange websites. Nothing beats speaking Portuguese with a Brazilian over live video. There are many people in Brazil that would love the opportunity to practice their English as well (or any other foreign language for that matter), in exchange of speaking Portuguese with you. And you can still do it even if you’re a beginner. Click here for the post I wrote on language exchange websites.

So, these are my tips on how to minimize the feeling of panic when speaking Portuguese. In short, learn to embrace making mistakes, learn to laugh at yourself, take every opportunity you have to practice, and above all, have fun! Oh, and be proud that you are learning a foreign language as well – here’s an excellent article I came across recently: 12 Reasons to be proud of learning a second language.

Have you ever experienced the same feeling of panic when trying out your Portuguese? Do you have any tips on how to deal with this feeling? Do you have any funny anecdotes involving “mistakes” you’ve made while speaking Portuguese? If you’ve had the opportunity to try your Portuguese with Brazilians, how did they react? Do you agree that Brazilians love when people from other countries try to speak Portuguese with them, even if they’re not fluent? I would love to hear your comments.


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