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.


9 thoughts on “Panic Attack”

  1. John Copestake

    Hi, I´ve just discovered your site and this article is so true!

    I always get a warm laugh saying ´´Gostoso“, with a sort of singing higher register in the middle, an alternative regional accent.

    Brazilians are so open and friendly, they always seem to laugh with you. So, there´s no embarrassment in trying, they like to help!

    Eu adoro os brasileiros!

    1. Thanks, John. Good to hear you’ve had positive experience trying out your Portuguese with Brazilians! Have you seen this video of Madonna saying “gostosa” (with a carioca accent!)?


      1. John Copestake

        Well, it may mean ´´hot´´ or ´´delicious´´, but it certainly is a lot different sounding from a Goiânio accent!

        I remember the first time I heard ´´nos´´ (normally: nohs) with a carioca accent, it sounded something like ´´noish´´, and totally threw me out when I´d gotten used to a normal(to me)nos sound.

        It´s such a big country there will be lots of regional variations and even some Brazilians can´t understand each other.

        Not surprising when you think of all the English regional accents in such a small country as the British Isles and some of them can be virtually incomprehensible when spoken with a strong local dialect e.g the Geordie accent.

        Language and people can be fun!

  2. Oi Fernando, tudo bem?

    My experiences are a little different but that might depend on the region (nordeste) and the setting (commercial).

    In one case this actually embarrassed me because I was trying so hard to tell I had made a reservation but she got her manager to help me…. How do they do this with the other tourists who don’t even speak Portuguese at all?
    The manager didn’t understood English as well but somehow he was not afraid to try to understand my bad Portuguese.
    Actually the Brazilians showed me they are the ones who are afraid. 😉

    I discovered that in the south a lot of Brazilians speak a second language like Italian, Spanish or German. When they speak a second language they are more likely to understand you even if you don’t speak the second language…
    People who understand more then one language are less afraid to communicate with foreigners and are more flexible in understanding what one means.

    In the mean time I have improved my Portuguese a lot with private lessons. Also I spent more time in the sudeste where I come across this problem less often.

    But there is something other that surprises me.
    In the nordeste people don’t correct me if I make a mistake. Yes they do laugh with you. In Rio e.g. people often correct my mistakes. I really like this but I assume this attitude needs courage as well. Maybe the people in the south are more direct in their approach.

    Last but not least I always joke about learning Portuguese;
    Try to sing it and with a glass of caipirinha the singing goes a lot better…


    1. Hi Jeroen, Thank you for your comments. I totally agree with you that people who speak more than one language are less afraid to communicate with foreigners and are more flexible in trying to understand what one means. Which goes back in a way to what I said about not being scared of making mistakes and making a fool of yourself. The more languages you try and learn the more used you get to just trying to communicate. Regarding people correcting mistakes (or not correcting them) – I guess there are different reasons why people might chose not to do it. It might be out of politeness – they might think it’s rude, or they might not even know how to explain why something is incorrect. Even when I’m teaching there are moments that the focus of the lesson is on fluency, not accuracy, so correction is not appropriate. Too much correction make students self-concious and every word they say they want a confirmation that it’s correct, and of course this affects their fluency. So, it’s important to know when to correct and when to let students just speak. Outside the classroom though, in day-to-day situations sometimes it’s good to just try not to worry too much about mistakes and really have a go at just being understood. If you make a really big mistake people will say something, otherwise if it’s a small mistake, which doesn’t impact on the overall meaning of the message, it’s likely that people will just let you off and not say anthing! :o)
      PS: Good tip about re. caipirinha! People get a lot more fluent after a glass or two! :o)

  3. Larry North

    I remember an ‘incident’ I had when trying to talk to one of only two Portuguese people in my town. (At least that I have knowledge of.) I was tring to have a conversation about the weather as we are apt to do in the UK. I commented in my best Portuguese “Não há uma nuvem no céu hoje.” This was met by a puzzled look – not quite what I was expecting or hoping. Apparently my pronunciation of ‘céu’ was much nearer to ‘seio’. “There’s not a cloud in the breast today…” I think I would looked puzzled too if someone had said that to me in English.

    1. Normally there are some confusion in the pronunciation of “céu” (sky) and “seu” (your). I think I would look puzzled too if someone said “seio” (breast) when referring to the sky! Imagine if you’d said “Que seio bonito!” (What a pretty breast!) instead of “Que céu bonito!” (What a pretty sky!). :o)

  4. Olá Fernando!

    Great article! I have a big understanding of Portuguese, mainly from Portugal, because I live just across the border from them and I also speak Galician, which is basically the same language with different orthography. I can understand written Portuguese but I am also afraid of speaking it, since the accent is so complicated. I have a good friend in Rio who taught me a lot, but I still need to speak more! I don’t have any anecdotes, but I laughed when I came across the Portuguese word “borracha” while translating a text. It means “drunk” in Spanish so I was shocked to find that word, until I looked it up!

    1. Hi Paula,
      There are a lot of similar sounding words in Portuguese and Spanish, sometimes they mean the same, but then sometimes they mean something totally different! Regarding the accent, don’t worry too much about it. Try and learn the standard Brazilian (or Portuguese) pronunciation. A particular accent will come naturally, depending on who you have more contact with and what your interests are. Try one of the language exchange websites to practice your Portuguese, they’re really fun and it means you’re also making new friends. Obrigado!

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