Sometimes when you reach a certain level of understanding in a language, you stop being able to remember just how hard it all was in the beginning. A few years ago, I went back to a forum I frequented during the early 2000s. It was where I went to talk about Brazil and, occasionally, to use my very limited Portuguese (I believe I had only just reached the end of the rather thin Portuguese in 10 Minutes a Day book).
That forum, set up by Brazzil.com, was pre-Myspace, just to give some reference. Those were the good ol’ days of learning Portuguese when if I needed an answer to a certain question and couldn’t find it (especially in the case of slang), I’d go to the forum. There, I’d ask the question at hand, then wait a day or two for answers, while 40% of the time being lightly trolled by a subset of the native speaking members. Looking back, I wonder if slow learning helped me more than someone nowadays who might mainly make use of an app, flipping through questions and answers at the tap of a thumb.
My forum days were when I made the most mistakes, using “possuir” (to possess) instead of “ter” (to have), and when I’d use the future tense for first person singular verbs (like “eu estarei” rather than the very colloquial “eu vou tá”).
The difference, written or spoken, between “avô” and “avó”? Forget about it! I was a lost cause trying to find my way.
When I wasn’t on the forum, I’d have been on a messaging service called ICQ (back before MSN Messenger was popular). I strictly added it in order to cold-message Brazilians to ask if they wanted to chat. In the beginning, they’d usually accept my invitation and soon the conversation would be mostly in English. As I got better at typing in Brazilian Portuguese, however, the percentage of people who thought I was really a Brazilian (not because my Portuguese was so convincing, but because they didn’t believe an American would learn anything about their language) went way up.
Soon, those people I made connections with told me to migrate to MSN, then Orkut, then Skype, then eventually Facebook. Today, I couldn’t tell you any of their names or what we talked about but I can say the daily chats really helped me hone my Brazilian Portuguese skills.
A word of advice, though, if someone tells you a good slang phrase to put on a t-shirt in order to show your love for the culture or language, double-check with other Brazilians first. A guy on ICQ once told me to get a phrase (I can’t repeat here) printed and so I did it, wearing it to a Brazilian party that weekend. Luckily, those Brazilians were my friends and told me it didn’t mean anything close to what I thought it did.
The main lesson there? Don’t be afraid to learn from mistakes.