What I discovered about myself while learning English in the US

What I discovered about myself while learning English in the US

Krystel Leal

I spent the first 19 years of my life not wanting to speak English.

I grew up speaking French and Portuguese at home. I wasn’t aware of how lucky I was to have the opportunity to take English classes at school. It was so arrogant of me, thinking that learning a third language was not worth the effort.

“I already know two languages, that’s enough. I don’t want to spend any time of my incredible life (#not) learning and studying another language.”

My English grades at school were awful. English was, after Math, my worst nightmare.

At 19, I decided to study and live alone in Paris. There, I developed a passion for travel.

And there I was, excited to have a whole world to discover. I quickly understood that I didn’t need to know English to travel to other countries. A language is not a barrier. But knowing languages (the more, the better), is a way to be more connected with people.

English is a “universal” language (although I don’t like this definition); you can break the ice and start a conversation if you know some English words.

But if you want to travel (and I mean really travel, discover different cultures, speak to locals, and challenge yourself with other realities), it’s important to learn a little bit your destination’s official language. It’s such a great feeling to meet tourists in Lisbon or Paris and listen to them trying to start a conversation in Portuguese or French.

@Chantelle via Twenty20

In 2017, when I moved to California, I was so scared and ashamed of my English.

With a 19-year history of hatred for the English language and almost six years in which I spoke basic English only when I traveled, I suffered a reality shock.

I had to face one of my biggest fears and one of my biggest embarrassments: speaking English with natives.

My best friends and my husband mastered the language. I was ashamed of my level of English, and I spent the first months in California not challenging myself to meet new people.

I didn’t want to open my mouth and articulate words in my horrible English.

But then, after so many months of loneliness and frustration, I realized that the only way that I could be entirely happy in California and adapt was to put myself outside, as I am, with all my flaws, and ask for help.

I signed up for free English classes at the Adult School in Palo Alto and searched for meetups, where I could meet people and talk to them.

I speak ~a lot~ in my native languages, but when I need to express myself in English, I still have moments when I think in Portuguese or French and try to translate into English before speaking, and that makes the whole process super slow.

My “technique” now is to train my brain to think in English first. I believe reading and writing in English is an excellent exercise for me.

If at first I was super ashamed to admit my difficulties and struggles with the English language, now I know that being self-aware and trying to speak more is the best way to learn.

It’s almost impossible to learn a language if you don’t practice it, and to master a language, you have to make mistakes along the way.

I joined some Work Clubs in Silicon Valley, and being surrounded by people that make you feel safe to talk about your work and ideas, without external pressure, is a great place to improve your language skills.

If you are new in the Bay Area, check out these work clubs: you can meet new people and work in cool places around the Bay.

Last but not least, as someone who is trying to improve their English skills living in the US, if you are a native speaker and see someone who is struggling to speak English, try to help; but the most important thing is to listen to that person and listen to what they’re saying. Because if that person is making such an effort to share their thought or reflection, it means a lot to them.

When we challenge ourselves and face our fears to share an idea, it’s because we really want to get our message across. And for that I’m grateful that you have finished reading this article: it was a challenge to write it, but it means a lot to me.