Saturday, September 12, 2009

Bilingual (in which I use more parentheses and commas than usual)

When you were learning something, did you ever experience one of those phases when it just didn’t click in your brain?

When I was in the 2nd grade, I had a really (memorably) hard time learning basic subtraction tables. In my child-mind, and based on the reaction of my teacher, Mrs. Hockspiel (uh, there’s a good reason I remember that name), and my parents, I remember feeling like I must be severely deficient because I had a really hard time mastering the concept. I remember that my Dad (the mathematical parent) tutored me at home for hours (I am still, today, grateful for his patience and will).

I also remember, one day, I got it. I understood it, and I moved on with my education and my life.

I have been “studying” (in quotes because it has been sometimes to a mild, other times to a major, extent) Portuguese for about four years now. I learned the four survival tenses (the indicative present, past perfect, past imperfect, and future [which were two, actually]) before I moved here. There are 16 verb tenses in Portuguese, mind you*.

In my pre-departure lessons, I touched on the subjunctive tenses, but my brain—reasonably distracted by the immediacy of life transformation—didn’t hold them in. I have dabbled in the subjunctive in my time here, understanding more and more, bit by bit, of TV news programs, newspapers, and daily conversation. Still, there was always this... block... a haunting of 2nd grade subtraction.

So I avoided it, like we do.

Three weeks ago I enrolled in a writing course in the Português para Estrangeiros program at Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul (the federal university). Actually, the class is Leitura e Produção do Texto, (Reading [Comprehension] and Text Production). My professora, Simone, is wonderful. I love the class. I love the homework assignments—for their stimulation and diversity.

But today I had a little breakthough. Yay me!

Backtrack: When I did the placement test for the university course they told me, unsurprisingly, that my speaking was good, my vocabulary was good; (pause) but…what about my subjuntivo? I smiled, knowingly. When Simone read my first text, she said, “your writing style is very complex, but what about the subjuntivo?”

I admitted, on both occasions, that I had hit a wall with the subjunctive. I explained that I'd made fits and starts, but I, embarrassingly, never managed to wrap my head around it.

I realized that the time had come to get over it. I spent hours, today, looking at grammar books and dictionaries...until I had a huge eureka moment. Ah-ha!

I figured it out. I compartmentalized the tenses I knew with the tenses I knew I should know. If my brain is a complex system of "wires", and some wires are supposed to go in easy, direct channels, but don’t—then I just needed to figure out another method, albeit longer perhaps, to connect the wires and obtain functionality, right? Like Dad helped me do with 2nd grade subtraction, I re-wired today. I comprehended something I’ve been stalling on for a long time, making into a much more impressive monster than it was. I am so thrilled to know that an old dog (more or less) can learn new tricks.

Bring on the bilingual postings. I’m one step closer to achieving my goal of being a polyglot.

Happy girl,


* For the mathematically inclined (ha!), there are 14 verb tenses in English**, in case you care to know. And, to complicate matters, generally speaking, each verb tense has 2 conjugations in English, whereas, in Portuguese, there are 6.

** A good estimate, anyway, though some linguists may argue. I'm no linguistics expert—trust me, I'm a simpleton.

***I know, now, through my English teaching experience, that English speakers get screwed on learning the conjugations of Latin-derived languages, but native speakers of a romance language get it back on phrasal verbs and erratic pronunciation. So we're even (I figure)!

**** Surely this addendum is thinking too far ahead, which is always my foolish nature, but I can't decide which language I'd like to learn next: French or Russian. French is certainly more practical, but also more cliché, n'est-ce pas?