Before a Language Teacher… I was a Language Learner

For me, one of the best things about blogging is reading the comments after the blog ans seeing how people from different places, different contexts and experiences read and understand the same post. How they see different aspects – our view of things passes through the lenses that our experiences have given us. I love learning about how other teachers around the world see things, wonder what makes them that way. And one of the most effective ways of doing that, and getting a wide variety of teachers sharing their experiences and views on the same topic, is a blog challenge.

Brad Patterson proposed the latest challenge in my PLN with a post where he shares his story of learning a foreign language and posing a question for anyone wiling to share their story:

“I challenge you to blog a story of your language learning, be it a success or a story about what didn’t work for you OR for your students if you’d like.”

So… without further ado, here’s my story.

Curly-haired, blondish Ceci with dad and bro

My mother used to be an English teacher. I was a very curious child – always wanting to learn things and asking questions. So naturally, I was intrigued by that different language my mother spoke. I leafed through her books, looked at the images and wanted, more than anything, understand what the books said. I learned to read and write earlier than most kids I played with – at 4 to 5 years old. Books have always been my passion.

So my mother bought me English books that came with records (Yes, records!) of cute songs and had beautiful pictures and words under it. And I listened to the records and repeated the words. I listened to and sung the songs. I wanted to be part of that. I wanted to communicate. So my mother tried to enroll me in a private English course when I was 6. The course wouldn’t accept me as a student, because the minimum age then was 7. My mother, after much talking, convinced them I wouldn’t fall behind or have discipline problems, so I started my formal studies of the English language.

And a whole new world opened up. It was easy for me. I could reproduce the sounds quite effortlessly, I learned without major problems, I spoke English in class all the time and progressed quickly. By the time I was 13 (with 2 hours of class a week) I had completed the whole course, including advanced conversation classes. Languages are a passion. Communication is a key aspect of my life. Nothing makes me more frustrated than not being able to talk to – or understand – someone.

The first time I really understood what it meant to be able to communicate in another language came when I was 12 – my first trip to the USA, to visit Disneyworld in Florida. I could talk to everyone, get around, order things and, most importantly I understood all the explanations, all the signs… I knew what people were talking about. More than the adults on  the trip! I could never understand how a person can visit a foreign country without being capable of fully understanding what is being said to them. How could they go on a ride (in one of the amusement parks) and not understand the story, what the guides said?

When you visit a foreign country and you don’t speak the language, you don’t get the full experience. You can’t really experience the culture. You don’t get a full idea of the people and their habits. That, for me, is special.

In Kansas, on top of some bails - at 15

After that, when I was 15, I spent a year as an exchange student in rural western Kansas – a year that changed my life and gave me a much broader view of the world, the different people in it. It opened my eyes to diversity and the beauty of it. To how much we learn and grow from being exposed to different cultures, habits and beliefs. I started teaching English when I came back from the exchange program, after some training at the school I had studied at (yes, I know…too young, no real training… that’s a topic to a whole post, I’m afraid)

At about the time I got back to Brazil, I also made a decision. My first life goal. By the time I was 35 I wanted to be fluent in 5 languages. I can tell you right now I did not accomplish that (35 is passed and gone). I did, however, study Spanish – where I consider myself fairly fluent. I also started studying French after I had my second child. But the method and the lack of time didn’t help and I quit after a year. I still want to go back to it. My phonetic talent has persisted, and I still seem to be able to internalize and process foreign languages fairly easily.

But for me, the biggest consequence of my experience was my awareness of the world and to how important knowing other languages is if you want to communicate effectively while experiencing the world. Both my children study at a bilingual school, and I plan for them to be fluent at English by the age most kids go on exchange programs, so they can go to a country to perfect their third language. I speak to them in English often – for them it’s not really any difference whether I speak in English or Portuguese (though they do struggle more with English). They love it and see the benefits and reason for it, because they have been to foreign countries and were able to communicate on their own. I took my kids to visit my Kansas host family and they felt confident (and safe) enough to spend full days with people other than me. They would go on their own to ask for things and information when we went to Disneyworld. They talk to my English-speaking friends when I am on a call on Skype. They see the why, even if they can’t quite verbalize it.

After all, in the age of globalization, information and communication… being able to express yourself properly is key, isn’t it?

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16 comments on “Before a Language Teacher… I was a Language Learner

  1. Great to have you back and sharing with us again!
    One of your previous posts helped me relate to Brad’s challenge – “Take a walk in the learner’s shoes”.
    Thanks!
    naomi

  2. I enjoyed reading that. I am always impressed when I talk to you or any fluent second language speaker and envy it. Here I am speaking quickly and without regard to others comprehension and you (or my students) are taking it all in, absorbing what I’m saying. I certainly couldn’t claim to reciprocate in any language.

    I wasn’t going to write anything for this challenge as all I could think of was French in school, but can’t remember any particular point about it. Then your trip abroad reminded me that I went to Korea, completely blind of its language and managed to suss it out on my own for survival purposes.

    • Hey Ty,

      Don’t be too hard on yourself! You probably did not have the amount of exposure (and number of years studying English) we have :-) I’m pretty sure you’d be able to do just the same in any language, under the same circumstances.

      I’d really like to read about your experience of going to Korea completely blind – it must have been scary. When I go to a country where the native language is one I can’t speak – or at least one that I have some notion of – I feel very anxious. Looking forward to your post joining in the challenge!

  3. CC!!!

    Nice to have a bit more of your background story. I knew you were in the States as a teenager, but seeing the pic and hearing how your mom’s profession impacted it all really rounds off the tale.

    Is expression a priority or understanding? I’ve seen a discussion recently on a blog where the question is: “Is it more important that our students be able to read and write in English or speak and understand?”. Depends totally on the context and the longterm goals. Also the net at this point is still very written, but who knows what it’ll be in 10 years and how that will change what kind of English is needed.

    I agree with Naomi. Great t have you back in the blogosphere! cheers, b

    • Hey B,

      Thanks for proposing the challenge! We can always count on you for coming up with challenges – many of which have the bonus of knowing more the people behind the teachers/PLN members.

      I agree with you that to say whether understanding or expression is more important (Can’t we just have it all??? ;) Yes, I know we can and that it’s a question of what happens before they reach that level) we need to know the context and the student’s goals. But I’d say, without taking those in consideration, generalising (always a big mistake ;-)) and all, I’d say speak and understanding what is said to them is what most people that I have taught want first.

      I would love to say it’s difficult to find one without the other, but we all know that’s not true :-(

      Thanks for joining Naomi in the warm welcome back, B ;-) Bisous!

  4. [...] learning language blog challenge, check ‘er out, and since then I’ve loved reading Ceci, Elinda, Naomi, and Shikha‘s stories and can’t wait to hear [...]

  5. “When you visit a foreign country and you don’t speak the language, you don’t get the full experience. You can’t really experience the culture.” I completely agree with this! I lived overseas for four years and it took me a long time to learn the language (Thai) because it was so completely different from English (my native language). But once I did, my entire experience changed. Locals who couldn’t communicate with me before were suddenly making an enormous effort to get to know me. I was able to be more adventurous in my life there by asking about local foods, festivals, and news. I still keep in touch with many of my Thai colleagues – though I must admit it takes me HOURS to read what once took me minutes. I now study the local language of every country I visit. I studied Chinese for three months in preparation for my trip to China and it allowed me to visit some pretty remote places without a guide! Excellent post, thanks for sharing it.

    • You gave a perfect description of my feelings, Carolyn :-) Before visiting a country where English is not the main language I always find a way of brushing up or at least learning the basics of the language (unfortunately, rarely I have the time to take a course :-( ). It makes a big difference being able to communicate.

      Thanks for sharing YOUR story :-)

  6. Nina says:

    Hi Cecilia, I loved your blog post and shared it on my FB profile today. Here is my story, well – at least its beginning: “How I started to speak English”: http://englishbrno.cz/2011/07/how-i-started-to-speak-english/

    • Hi Nina,

      Thanks for the feedback – and the sharing!!! I loved to read about your story and can’t imagine how scary it might have been to be left in a foreign place without understanding the language at all (thankfully you had Bob to rely on!).
      Cheers!

  7. Irene Cros says:

    I loved your story and seeing how languages opened up your life. This love of learning languages and discovering whole new cultures is what I try to pass on to my students. I hope your children do as well as you did.

    • Hi Nina,

      I have heard (and read about) that same love for cultures and languages and communication in most language teachers I have met. I guess there is a reson we chose the career we chose – or has it chosen each of us? I think that’s a whole other post :-) David Crystal wrote a beautiful blog post on it: “On Falling in Love With Language” (http://david-crystal.blogspot.com/2012/01/on-falling-in-love-with-language.html). I think (and hope) my children do as well as I did – the oldest has beautiful pronunciation and can somewhat carry out a conversation in English already :-) (Proud mama moment!)

      Thanks for your comment!

  8. Dara says:

    How beautiful Cecilia!
    I feel mirrored in many things and it’s curious that being so far away many of us can feel so close through sharing experiences. So, thanks for sharing.

    Dara

    • Hi Dara,

      The world of social media, the blogosphere and having a PLN have done much in changing my practice and making me a better professional. But if I have to say what is the biggest gain I have from it, is the interaction, connection with so many wonderful teachers from all over the world I would probably never meet otherwise. And, as you said, it is amazing to see how many similarities there are between us, no matter how far apart we are or how different our histories, lives and teaching realities are. Thank you for your comment :-)

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