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When Language Learning Teaches You Life Lessons

TAY GLASS, HOST: And now for the next installment in our commentary series. Reporter Ciara Long got over her fear of public speaking by… speaking. CIARA LONG, BYLINE: When I was younger, I was really shy. In school, I was the kid in class who went deep red if the teacher called on me. I’ve always hated speaking up in groups, terrified of getting something wrong in front of everyone. But when I was 11, I started learning languages — and something began to change. Somehow, when teachers asked, “Dónde está la biblioteca?” or “Qu'est-ce que tu fais ce fin de semaine?”, I wasn’t as scared to raise my hand and answer. I still blushed and squirmed in the hard, plastic school chairs, but for the first time in my life, I felt like I was naturally good at something. It didn’t seem to take as much work as everything else. I stayed shy though, until more than a decade later, when I I left my job to spend six months in Brazil. I didn’t speak Portuguese, but I figured I could learn. Something about Portuguese clicked for me. Maybe it was the language’s way of telling stories in concentric circles, so that you hint and hover and build to an anecdote’s crescendo. Maybe it was the casual dark humor Brazilians used to talk about traumatic events, or the genuine-ness of everyone I spoke to. Maybe it was just that I was going to make mistakes no matter what I did, so they stopped being as embarrassing. In my first few weeks, I was introduced to a delicious Brazilian snack: cheese bread, or pão de queijo. They’re golden, centimeter-wide globes with crispy outsides and chewy, cheesy centers. In Rio’s humidity, they’re the perfect light, salty, satisfying mid-afternoon bite. But one of the first times I tried to order them...

As I approached a bored, pouting server behind a diner counter, I tried to ask for a coffee and a portion of cheese breads. The server looked up from inspecting her nails to raise an eyebrow, and waited for me to realize what I’d said. See, pronunciation that can make a big difference in Portuguese. Pão de queijo is cheese bread. But what I had asked for, pau de queijo, means… cheese dick. There’s not a lot you can do when you realize you’ve accidentally asked for cheese dick… in a diner… in front of a dozen or so people… plenty of whom are old enough to be your grandparents. I felt a familiar embarrassment warming up in my cheeks, took a deep breath and stuttered my order again — this time, pronouncing it right. And I kept making mistakes. But somehow, each time, it got less and less terrifying. Without meaning to, I had created an alter-ego: a person who could speak publicly, openly, articulately, without worrying about being wrong. Sometimes I was even funny… on purpose. (I have never been funny.) When I left Brazil, I worried that I would leave this other version of myself behind. Would I go back to being that painfully shy, awkward person who mumbled in classes or meetings? Going back to the town I had come from, would I regress? But back at home, I ran into someone from high school, on a packed, rush hour train into London from my parents’ house in the suburbs. We had never spoken in school. We had that weird moment where it takes you a minute to figure out where you know someone from, and that moment where the penny drops, your eyes widen and you both exclaim, “You!” He wove his way through the carriage’s crowd so we could sit next to each other for the hour-long train ride, and we chatted about what had happened in both of our lives since high school. Halfway through the journey, he said, “You never used to speak. I can’t believe you talk now.” I can’t really believe I talk, either. It’s still hard. But that moment was when I realized that I hadn’t lost a part of myself when I lost the chance to speak in Portuguese. Making mistakes is normal, and I had found a way to accept that I, like everyone else, would make mistakes. So now, when I’m trying to find the courage to speak up in crowded classes at graduate school, I remind myself: I’ll probably keep saying stupid things for as long as I’m alive. And that doesn’t make anything I have to say less worthy.

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