Learning a New Language as an Adult

Christian in Portugal

Author: Christian Schofield

Christian is a teacher of English and has a large following on YouTube for his Schofield on Shakespeare channel where he extols the beauty of written English. He has taught in the UK and abroad including in Nottingham and is currently Head of Learning Support and Teacher of English at Winchester College. Outside of teaching, Christian is an accomplished musician and a tidy footballer despite supporting Crystal Palace.

21st April 2021

4 minutes

For years, I had resisted.  Whazza point?  No need, innit.  But then, an excruciatingly embarrassing incident in a café in Funchal, Madeira.  “Your wife is Portuguese; your children are half-Portuguese.  You should be able to speak the language!” yelled the no-nonsense waitress in a local bakery-cum-café.  (All Portuguese women yell – it’s normal.)

I blushed.  I looked away.  But after a while, I began to think – could she, just possibly, have a point?


Christian Schofield Mountains

It is much easier to explore a country and get to know it well when you can understand the language and communicate with those around you. 

And so, hands a-trembling, I typed those fateful words into Google: how to learn Portuguese.  I was immediately bombarded with suggested websites, albeit a majority focussing on Brazilian Portuguese.  Even better, or worse, everything was so easy to use – there really was no excuse not to try.

Secretively, furtively, daringly, I began!  I settled on the website Memrise.com, which had seven free beginner’s Portuguese courses for me to get my teeth into, each with an average of 400 words or phrases to learn.  Even more promisingly, each word or phrase had a recording by a Portuguese native speaker: this was important for me, as the main reason for learning was to be able to get triumphant revenge on Sara at the Grão de Farinha café.

Memrise.com is set up to help you commit new words and phrases to your long-term memory.  After learning the words, you are automatically retested at periodic intervals after logging into the website.  I don’t know exactly how the formula works, but provided you get the word right after learning it, you will be retested the next day, and then 7 days later, then a month later, and then, probably, three months later.  As long as you log in to the website regularly – I would recommend daily, if only for 10 minutes or so – then you WILL make progress.

However, I eventually exhausted the seven Memrise courses, and so enlisted the services of my wife to record the audio for all sorts of other words which I had seen in various places – notably, within the pages of the local Sports newspaper, A Bola.  I started creating my own courses on Memrise, and also found a tutor, even more patient than my wife, to have regular conversational practice online via Verbalplanet.com

And then, just over two years ago, I had a brainwave.  Why not, at the ripe old age of 40, have a go at sitting GCSE Portuguese?  It would give me something to aim for, and I was mildly amused at the prospect of sitting in an exam hall amidst bemused, incredulous teenagers.  I am fortunate in that I already work in a school, and it was relatively easy to persuade the examinations officer.

Unless it is a new specification, there are usually plenty of past paper materials available, including audio files for the listening component – and it was no different with GCSE Portuguese.  I found the early questions within both the reading and listening practice papers reassuringly easy, and my confidence grew.  I used Memrise more and more, and asked my online tutor to mark a few writing papers.

Fast forward to 15th May 2019 – my first Portuguese exam.  Curiously, there are no other GCSE exams that day, and so I’m on my own within a small library, and have a stern-looking invigilator all to myself.  I am reminded about the rules and regulations, and the consequences for malpractice.  I then hear those words I thought I would never hear again: “You may start writing.”

Looking back on the experience, I’m so pleased both that I began to learn Portuguese, and that I took the GCSE.  I know I didn’t deserve an A*, but I was disproportionately delighted with my A, and the exam certificate is framed within our kitchen (next to a treasured picture of myself, my two sons, and the late, great, Eric Bristow).

That summer, I strutted into Grão de Farinha, and breezily stammered: “Pode dar-me uma cerveja e essa bola deliciosa, por favor.”  And Sara’s reaction?  Well, sadly, I never found out, as she had subsequently moved onto pastures new…

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