Nidinha and the story of Brazilians unconfident about their spoken English

When I first met Nidinha (this is her nickname), I got impressed by how much she knew about languages. We had an instant connection because of our common interests in arts, cultures, traveling, and languages. Our classes, therefore, were essentially long conversations.

Nidinha had been a college professor for decades. When she retired, I was born. It was only 30 years later that we first met. She wanted to brush up her English since she hadn’t traveled abroad for over six years at that time. Nidinha was fluent in Spanish and could communicate fairly well in French. She also had some knowledge of Italian. English, however, has always been her passion along with a city, to be more specific, New York. More often than not, our conversations would revolve around her trip memories to some 50 different countries. New York City was one of her favorite destinations, maybe the most one. She used to spend a month in the city that never sleeps every year. Due to medical conditions, she had to quit long-haul trips at the beginning of the decade.

After a few months of classes, I felt I had to suggest Nidinha she would talk to her physicians: I said, “You should travel”. Oftentimes our exchanges would dwell on the vicissitudes of being an elder. For Nidinha in particular, the gap between body tiredness and an active mind was the biggest issue. In some regards, she felt miserable about not being able to travel anymore. I quickly got that impression from our chats, hence I made that suggestion. It was clear to me that traveling again would give her the fresh air she needed, also the feeling of autonomy she craved so much.

Let’s fast-forward things a bit: after some planning, Nidinha was allowed to travel, but not alone. She couldn’t find a relative or a friend with the availability to be her companion, so she invited me. After some more planning, we made it to New York around Easter time. It was quite an adventure. She had some health issues, probably because of the combination of dietary changes and the weather, but we visited a lot of the places she remembered or suggested.

Speaking is about getting across

Adventures of the trip apart, the thing I want to highlight here is about language: when we were together, Nidinha was often shy or lacked confidence in her spoken English. It makes sense if you are with someone who knows the language a bit better than you, but it shouldn’t! Talking in another language is always challenging. This is what we all do when we take classes. We expose ourselves to others’ judgment.

Nidinha and I visiting the 9/11 Memorial in April 2019. License: CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

This is very impressionistic, based on the stories told by other Brazilian teachers of English and my personal experience: Brazilian speakers of English tend to undermine their spoken ability. Most of the time because of pronunciation issues. Also most of the time, this fear is unreasonable. Whenever I left Nidinha interacting with others, the moment I came back everyone praised her English to me. It was obvious to me that she could communicate in English perfectly. No matter if some words would slip her mind, she managed to make herself understood. And that’s what speaking a language is about.

Nidinha’s story illustrates quite well why you should always take the risks of talking in English if you want to improve your communicative skills. Mistakes will be made, and that’s perfectly fine. Spoken language is not (essentially) about using perfect grammar nor having all the vocabulary you wish you had for that occasion. It is about making it work, with gaps, body language, some extra explanation for words forgotten, etc.

Nidinha could speak with me really well in class. She found out that she could also do that back in New York after six years. When you know you have been studying the language and practicing it the most with your teacher and whenever you have a chance, then you should trust your progress. Take the risks and talk. Forget about grammar for a while and focus on this goal: you just need to get across.

Published by Luiz Coletto

I am a Ph.D. student (UFMG) and I hold an M.A. in Communication and Culture (UFRJ). I teach English online both as a Foreign Language (EFL) and as a Lingua Franca (ELF). My main areas of expertise are Conversation, English for Academic Purposes (EAP), and Exam preparation (TOEFL iBT, TOEFL ITP, and proficiency exams for Brazilian Graduate Programs). I am currently based in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

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