I didn’t really learn English growing up. I had to teach myself how to speak, read and write in English. It was definitely hard, but it was worth it. I’m very proud of how far I’ve come. This is the story of how I taught myself English.
I was born and raised in Brazil. I was 15 when my mom told me we would be moving to Canada. It was both the most exciting and terrifying news ever. On the one hand, I was very excited because I knew my chances of having a good career in the entertainment industry were far higher in Canada than in Brazil. On the other hand, it was absolutely terrifying because I could not speak English whatsoever. And it’s not like I had much time to prepare for the trip, and take English classes or anything. Within a month and a half, we boarded an airplane and never looked back.
No Hablo Ingles
Although my mother language is Brazilian Portuguese, no one knows what “não falo inglês” means, which is why whenever someone spoke too fast and I couldn’t understand them, I would say “no hablo”. It slowly became a meme amongst my friends.
The first thing I did to try to force myself to learn up-to-speed conversational English was to binge watch every animated movie I already memorized (in Portuguese) with audio AND captions in English. Since I already knew the context of the lines, it made it easier to start associating certain manners of speech to the translation.
A few days after I settled down in Toronto, it was time to take an English exam which would determine my grade in high school, as well as my level in ESL (English as a Second Language).
I was definitely not put in the appropriate level of ESL. It turned out that the people in charge of determining my proficiency did that entirely based on “conversations” which I was able to handle, copying what I saw from TV shows and movies. They did not, however, take into consideration that while I could get by with speaking, I could not LISTEN – meaning I had no idea what people were saying to me – and I could not WRITE or READ either. Had those people taken these factors into consideration, I believe I would have been in ESL Level 2 (out of 5). Instead, they put me in ESL 4.
Long story short, ESL classes were completely useless to me. There were maybe one or two units all year round that actually made sense to me. Everything else was gibberish, but when people talked to me, I acted like I knew what was happening, by saying things like “yes/no/maybe”.
If I relied on ESL classes and “life experiences” to reach English proficiency, I would probably still be fluent, but with much poorer grammar skills. I’ve got a bunch of foreigner friends that have been here for just as long as I have, and while they’re fluent and they can get by JUST FINE, their knowledge of grammar remains faulty.
And I understand that perfect grammar is NO REQUIREMENT, especially because most native speakers can’t tell the difference between “they’re/their/there”.
It’s just that, PERSONALLY, I could not stand to be one of those people who settle down after learning just enough. I had to learn how to read, write, speak and listen – just like a regular Canadian. And if ESL wasn’t going to teach me that, I was gonna pursue it myself.
Books, books, books!
I started off with babies’ books. I figured those books were meant to teach babies their first words, i.e: mommy, car, dog, etc. If babies learned the basics of English communication with these books and their illustrations, why shouldn’t I?
Let’s say I started reading the first page of my first chosen book. For every new word I saw, I would open a dictionary and find the translation. Now, I had a specific notebook I kept with me at all times. Once I had the translation for the new word, I would write it down on my little notebook, and then I would try to use that word in a sentence (as best as I could).
Eventually, I was able to go through pages and pages without having to check the dictionary. Before I knew it, I was moving on from babies’ books to children’s books. The How To Train Your Dragon series was my favourite because I could follow up with an audiobook, the illustrations were hilarious, and it didn’t feel like homework or anything. It was very fun.
Towards the end of my first school year here, I had gone from children’s books to young adult novels, and then regular fiction. I read around 80 books in my first year here.
I didn’t think it was making any difference.
Then I started my second year at a different school. And holy cow. My experience of introducing myself to others and vice-versa was completely different. I didn’t have a full VOCABULARY per se, but I could fluently communicate with people as if I had been learning English all along.
The books I owe my English development to:
The following are the books which had me fully fluent by the end of my second year in Canada:
- Where The Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak
- The Very Hungry Caterpillar, by Eric Carle
- Green Eggs and Ham, by Dr. Seuss
- The Gruffalo, by Julia Donaldson
- Click, Clack, Moo, by Doreen Cronin
Children/Young Adult books:
- How To Train Your Dragon (whole series), by Cressida Cowell
- Harry Potter (whole series), by J.K. Rowling
- Percy Jackson (whole series), by Rick Riordan
- Artemis Fowl (whole series), by Eoin Colfer
- Inheritance Cycle (whole series), by Christopher Paolini
- A Song of Ice and Fire (whole series), by George R. R. Martin
- Robert Langdon (whole series), by Dan Brown
- The Lord of The Rings (whole series), by J. R. R. Tolkien
- Sherlock Holmes (whole series), by Arthur Conan Doyle
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (whole series), by Douglas Adams & Eoin Colfer