I could have learned any language. Spanish, Italian, French, German, etc. But I didn't. I chose Portuguese. Why?
I chose to pursue Portuguese because my maternal family is from Portugal, and I wanted to communicate with my grandmother who cannot speak English. In addition, I promised myself I would not graduate college without learning a language. Despite my familial connection, I was never taught Portuguese. As a child, my mother worked all day and did not have the time to teach me. Also, I was disinterested in learning foreign languages. That changed when I went to college.
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I began studying Portuguese as a first semester freshman at Syracuse University. The University only had one professor who taught Portuguese, and she taught it in the Brazilian dialect. Throughout my life, I was used to hearing the sound of the original Portuguese from Portugal accent. That's what my mother, grandmother, aunts and uncles spoke. Therefore, any familiarity with the language that I picked up through osmosis did not help me in my college Portuguese classes. Nonetheless, I was excited to learn the Brazilian dialect because I felt it would open me up to a brand new culture that I did not grow up learning about.
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I took all four Portuguese courses offered at Syracuse University over the span of two years: POR 101, 102, 201 and 202. The textbook shown on the right was the one I used for every Portuguese course. My experience taking these courses can be best described as bipolar. On countless occasions, I felt like I was grasping the language -- as though I was really starting to get it. Unfortunately, each of those occasions had an equal and opposite counterpart. I just as frequently felt lost, confused and bewildered by the language. There were many times when I felt unsure of whether or not I could do it -- whether or not I could reach a point of high proficiency. Thankfully, I did not let my lows of confidence deter me from continuing my studies. I forged ahead, maintaining an inextinguishable belief in myself and my capabilities. I asked questions, completed all assignments and practiced the language on my own time. After passing all four courses, I decided to supplement my Portuguese skills by studying abroad in São Paulo, Brazil, for four months.
Living in a country that does not speak English was invigorating. I loved the daily challenge of having to decode every interaction. Such intense language immersion took my Portuguese skills to new heights. I was no longer strictly in a classroom environment. I had to grapple with a multitude of new slang terms and adapt my formal Portuguese to the informal parlance of every day Brazilians. However, I was enrolled in an advanced Portuguese course through my study abroad program, along with two other courses taught in the language. Needless to say, my mind was constantly processing new information, which was both mentally stimulating and exhausting.
When I returned from Brazil, I was highly conversational in Portuguese. I'm certainly not fluent, but I know enough to navigate low- to mid-level conversations with ease. I take much pride in being able to speak the language because my path to learning it was so long and arduous. I had to maintain dedication, focus and a positive work ethic for several years to heighten my skills to where they are today.
Despite the time and energy it takes to learn a foreign language, I strongly encourage everyone to do it. I've heard people say that they simply can't learn a new language; that they are not equipped with the proper neurons to do so. I wholehearted disagree with such self-assessments. If you stay focused and approach your studies with enthusiasm, you can learn any language. Take it from me: a guy who knew zero Portuguese before college and can now speak the language of his ancestors.