I am very excited to share this post by Guest Blogger, Marina Khonina.(previous post) She is using our online language learning program and will be providing monthly updates on her progress to learn Portuguese. She approached us with this assignment - to learn the language and blog about it. We thought...what a great way for us to share how Mango works and see if there are areas where we can improve.
Today I am starting my experiment in learning Brazilian Portuguese with Mango Languages. I will track my progress with regular blog posts, in which I will reflect on my experience, as a fairly seasoned language learner, with the lessons designed by Mango.
Before I delve into lesson-specific details, however, some background information is in order. I find Brazilian Portuguese an exceptionally beautiful language, but I have been hesitant about learning it because I could not possibly imagine how I would get my tongue around all these strange, mesmerizing sounds. I have been exposed to a fair amount of spoken Brazilian Portuguese (my long-time flatmate is from Brazil), yet pronunciation remains for me the most difficult aspect of this language. I hope that Mango Languages will help me surmount this challenge, which is exacerbated by the fact that I am extremely shy about speaking in a new tongue.
I dabbled with Portuguese about a year ago, listening briefly to a couple of Brazilian podcasts and asking my flatmate to teach me a few basic words. At that time, however, I had too many things on my plate to start a new language. Now I have a great opportunity to devote some serious (albeit, limited) time to the study of this language.
Portuguese is not my first Romance language: I studied French in school, achieving upper-intermediate proficiency, but since then my French has gotten rusty. I also have a basic command of Esperanto, which should be helpful in my study of Portuguese. In fact, after I started learning Esperanto, I noticed some improvement in my understanding of written Portuguese.
Now on to the actual lesson. Today I completed Lesson 1, and it was absolutely delightful to discover that Mango did not expect me to learn to say "This is a cat" or some other such nonsense before learning how to greet another person properly. Another thing that I immediately liked about my Mango Languages lesson was how each sentence or conversational unit (e.g. "Hello. How are you?") is presented with an appropriate English equivalent and a word-by-word translation. This enabled me to see from the very first lesson how the language is structured and to pay attention to any peculiarities of grammar or word usage.
For example, I discovered that in Portuguese, you say "How goes the Mrs.?" when politely asking a woman about how she is doing. Furthermore, a literal translation of this sentence shows that Portuguese speakers use the verb "to go" where an English speaker would use "to be." Even more importantly, the individual is addressed in the third person (the Mrs./Mr.), rather than in the second person (you). These two facts, gleaned from a word-by-word translation of a single sentence, can give me, the learner, plenty of insights into the culture and the language: i.e. politeness is expressed by emphasizing the distance between the speakers through the use of the third person/noun instead of second person/pronoun; a person's daily life is seen in terms of movement (going) rather than existence (being). Of course, it's easy to go too far with this analysis, and my insights may not necessarily be correct, but they certainly motivate me to explore more of the language and to embrace the culture along with the linguistic aspects. Failure to do the latter often proves to be a major hindrance to language mastery; as was the case with my study of Turkish, until recently.
What I did not necessarily like was the anglicized pronunciation given for each word in addition to the audio. I would advise you to regard this as a personal pet peeve, however. As a language geek, I prefer the International Phonetic Alphabet (of course!), but it would be too much to expect a first-time or casual language-learner to learn IPA conventions before starting a language course. In fact, this requirement is likely to discourage the learner! At any rate, the phonetic help in Mango Languages only appears on mouse-over, so learners like me, who prefer not to use it, can easily ignore this otherwise useful function.
While I initially found the lesson long-ish and repetitive, it was reasonably—and surprisingly—challenging. When it comes to learning languages, I tend to prefer speed and novelty over repetition. Yet, with Mango Languages I discovered that if I let my attention wander even a little, I begin to flounder. This means that Mango lessons are comprehensive enough, so there's no danger of skimming and forgetting soon thereafter. Most importantly, the built-in repetition algorithm (and my experience leads me to assume there is one) is close enough to the natural memory curve to ensure sufficient retention.
To conclude, I am happy with my first Mango Languages lesson in Brazilian Portuguese. I like the feeling of learner autonomy, contrasted to the force-feeding of information that characterizes some other programs. The recordings are clear enough for a first-time learner without being unnaturally stilted. The pace feels a tad slow for my taste, but I am beginning to see the value of not rushing through the lesson too much.
As for my study plan, I will try to cover one lesson per week. This is a relatively slow pace, which leaves large gaps between each lesson, but, given my current schedule, this is the only realistic plan. Looking ahead, I wonder whether the communicative emphasis of Mango Languages will help me, a self-admitted introvert and fearer of native speakers, to overcome the communication barrier. If I manage to utter something (anything!) in Portuguese to my flatmate, that would be a major breakthrough already.
Question to ponder: How soon should a language learner attempt to speak the new language? Some learners believe that speaking a language as soon as you possibly can makes all the difference (Benny Lewis, a.k.a. the Irish polyglot, is an ardent supporter of this view). Others, like Steve Kauffmann, argue that a certain "silent period" is necessary before a learner can converse in a new language. What do you think? What has your experience been with trying to speak a new foreign language?