How the simple past didn’t got in my way when I first went abroad*

This text is about a short, personal story. I hope it helps everyone get confident to engage more and more in English conversations.

Back in 2012, I stayed for two and a half months in Los Angeles, California. I was doing fieldwork for my Master’s in Communication and Culture in the office of a nonprofit. That was my first time ever abroad. I was 23. Being there had nothing to do with English, but it was, of course, an English-speaking environment. My arrangements to be there were as follows: part of the time I had to work as an intern for the Spanish-language Media division of the organization; the rest of the time was for my fieldwork, which included a few interviews (I’ll get back to this soon).

Well, I formally started studying English when I was 8 and got to the advanced level when I was 15. I regard this period as crucial due to the intensive presence of English during my literacy stage both in Portuguese and English. Being a young learner also has pronunciation implications [1] that I became aware of only later. Anyway, in the mid-2000s I felt I could manage most situations in English.

After 2004, I kept using the language, but not as regularly as before. In college and after it, I studied English in more detail, especially because I got involved in teaching Portuguese, so I kind of “mirrored” my interest in Portuguese grammar to English likewise. Conversation, however, was minimal because of many reasons I have explored in another text.

That’s me (in a bad hair day, but just the hair was bad) visiting the Getty Villa, in Malibu. License: CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

So it was 2012 and I was in LA. During my time there, I could communicate quite effectively with everyone in the office and elsewhere. There was never a situation in which someone asked me to repeat something or refused to interact because of my accent or the mistakes I was probably making. As I mentioned before, part of the research for my Master’s entailed interviewing the nonprofit staff. So I did. Some fifteen interviews were recorded in a few weeks. Interestingly, there were no communication problems. Months later, back in Brazil, I started to analyze the material for my thesis.

Stunningly, many of my questions in the past tense were incorrect. Something like “Did you thought that action was good for the organization?”. Any English teacher reading this knows that problems with the auxiliary did + infinitive is one of the top mistakes of English learners when it comes to the simple past. It was my case and I didn’t notice it during the interviews. Let me be clear: I knew the grammar stuff, I just wasn’t aware of that mistake while I was speaking. The benefits of recording ourselves…

Why is this story relevant? Because of this: no one interacting with me in that office, in the streets or elsewhere stopped the conversations or avoided talking to me. They could understand me despite this and possibly other mistakes. And I didn’t only talk about daily topics while there. I went to different places accompanied by some of the staff, and we chatted about Brazilian and US politics, ancient art, political strategies and activism (this was part of my research) and so on. That means many other mistakes were possibly in place, and they didn’t prevent communication.

Isn’t it pretty much the same when a foreigner (a gringo) says things like “Eu pensar que tinha um problema”? We can get the idea and the speaker’s intention of referring to the past.

So that’s my personal story and a message at the same time: when you’re communicating, mistakes might happen and they shouldn’t hinder you. If the people you’re talking to are able to understand you, then the interaction is being effective. You’re already making an effort to communicate in another language, which translates into challenges and exposure, so any sensible speaker should acknowledge it and help the conversation to flow.

*didn’t got” in the title was on purpose. I hope it’s clear why.

[1] Age effects on second language acquisition (SLA) is a well-studied topic, although the academic debate is involved. For specialized overviews, I suggest: Abrahamsson, N. and Hyltenstam, K. 2009. Age of Onset and Nativelikeness in a Second Language: Listener Perception Versus Linguistic Scrutiny. Language Learning, 59:2, 249–306. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467‐9922.2009.00507.x; and DeKeyser, R.M. 2012. Age Effects in Second Language Learning. In: Handbook of Second Language Acquisition, S.M. Gass and A. Mackey (eds.), 442–460, London: Routledge.

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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