“Unzipping” languages in your brain

Author: Inês Carvalho

I sometimes use a metaphor to talk about language learning that depicts the inability to simultaneously use all the languages you’ve learnt in “full potential”. I’ve talked with other polyglots and they share similar experiences. For example, let’s imagine that you speak French at an upper-intermediate level and Italian at a pre-intermediate level. You decide to put in a lot of effort to improve your Italian, but after a few weeks, you realize you’re struggling more than before with French. The metaphor that I’ll introduce you to also covers that phenomenon of feeling that you forgot a certain language and that it’s all lost forever, but after a few hours of practice you’re back on track.

At Mundolingo, “unzipping” languages

Maybe someone else has already thought of this metaphor before, but I consider that it’s something worth discussing, if only to alleviate the pain of those language learners who delved into another language only to, weeks later, find out that their language skills in all their previous languages have apparently become impaired.

Bear in mind that this metaphor has no background in neurolinguistics, and that I’m using it to rather describe a feeling that I often have when learning foreign languages. Now, to the metaphor. Imagine that your brain is a computer and that your language knowledge is stored in folders. For the sake of convenience, and because you need some of these files and folders on a daily basis, they are unzipped on your brain desktop. In my case, the unzipped folders on my “brain” desktop are: the Portuguese folder, which I use every day; quite a lot of the files in the English folder, since I need them for work and entertainment; the Spanish files for daily communication with my Mexican exchange students; and all the Italian files, because I am learning it at the moment and I watch YouTube videos in Italian every single day before falling asleep.

Now let us check the other folders, which are compressed: German, a large folder, lots of vocabulary and grammar inside, can be rapidly unzipped but some old files may have been lost; Swedish, a smaller folder, not very well organised somehow. It looks like it is going to be hard to unzip unless you pre-heat the computer – wait, you don’t do that to computers, do you? Never mind, it is just a metaphor anyway. And then there is the French folder. The Dutch folder. The Mandarin folder. The Latin folder. The Japanese folder. The Russian folder. The Esperanto folder.

So I am here in Lisbon and you tell me that there is a cool language exchange going on around the corner tonight. I’m all excited about it, of course I’m going. Will there be any Swedes? I definitely miss speaking Swedish! Of course, I also want to practice my Italian since that’s my focus right now.

We arrive at the bar where the language exchange is taking place. A tall blond person sitting shy at the corner. That must be a Swede! I approach them. “Hej hej”, I say. They reply and ask something, but my Swedish is so unbelievably rusty! I even manage to confuse Esperanto pronouns (“ni” first person plural) with Swedish ones (“ni” second person plural) and that makes me feel awful. Have I really lost Swedish? No, wait, don’t even think of switching to English! That’s nice of you, such a polite Swede, but we are NOT going to have this conversation in English! It’s just that it takes some time to unzip the Swedish folder. Please, be patient. Tack. Let me listen a bit to you speaking Swedish, let me think in Swedish while we’re at it and let me feel it again. After some minutes it is going to be much better, still a little bit rusty, I’ll still have to think a lot, but you’ll have no excuses to switch to English. Keep talking to me please, I can understand what you say, it is just that “unzipping the files” is taking longer than usual. Another beer, please. Or maybe not, my Spanish friend told me that my Spanish does not get any better after a few beers. Maybe we just lose the ability to notice our mistakes and stop worrying about grammar details.

We have now been talking for a while in Swedish, haven’t we? It’s now flowing much better than at the beginning. For my Swedish to reach its full potential I would probably need a couple of hours, but it’s a language exchange after all, maybe we should go and try talking to other people too. Just let me exchange Facebook profiles with this Swede.

Now you introduce me to your Dutch friend. You told him before that I could speak Dutch. Yes, you are totally right. I could. But then I started learning Swedish some years ago and now the Dutch is all gone. I cannot unzip that folder. It says that the files are corrupted, what can I do? This time I won’t even try. I politely say something in English to your friend and then from the corner of my eye I spot some people doing a lot of gestures and laughing very loudly. They might be Italians, let’s go and check!

After two hours, on our way home, you are puzzled. “Why didn’t you try to speak Dutch?”. I reply that I might have completely forgotten how to. “Why don’t you try to have it back?”, you ask. Well, I’m afraid that if I try to fix it, I’ll damage my Swedish files. I could have a simple conversation in Dutch a few years ago, but after living in Sweden I’ve never been able to speak Dutch again – not that I’ve tried that much anyway. Well, my fear is that if I learn Dutch again, it’ll negatively affect my Swedish – and I really don’t want to lose it! “Oh but that makes no sense according to your ‘zipped folders’ metaphor”, you say. “You just have to be careful not to unzip the Dutch folder into the Swedish folder”. Now I can’t even understand what you’ve just said implies in practical terms. I got caught in my own metaphor.

But what you said did get me thinking. So tonight, before going to bed, instead of watching Italian videos on YouTube, I’m choosing a very easy Dutch video for beginners.  Of course I’m able to understand it, I’ve never stopped being able to understand it. But this time I am pausing, I am taking the time to internalize every sentence that appears on the screen. Suddenly, a grey window appears somewhere in my brain: “Unzip file?”. And I click “Yes”. I fall asleep with a confident smile. There might still be hope for my Dutch after all!

Written in 2017

冠状病毒 – The Coronavirus :-(

It is strange to think that about three or four weeks ago most people in countries like Portugal still did not think the coronavirus was a big deal. Most of us (including me) thought it was mostly the media feeding the flames of panic and hysteria. However, within a week, most people went from not worrying about it to not wanting to leave the house, and demanding the government to take stronger measures.

I wrote the first text below on March 8th. A few days before I had started to get a bit worried about the virus because a conference I was going to attend in May was cancelled. At the time, I was not convinced that it was necessary to cancel the conference, although it would be attended by hundreds of people from all over the world. However, only a few days after, I wrote the first text, and it is clear that I was already concerned about the virus, but not yet seeing what the situation would be like. Less than one week after that, my thoughts about the virus and the whole situation had completely changed. The second text was written two weeks after the first one.

Below are the texts I wrote in Chinese, corrected by my online teacher on Italki. It seems that the text was written by a child, but that is because my Chinese is still weak 😀

March 8th 2020


Coronavirus has arrived in Portugal. Coronavirus is not welcome! There have been more than a dozen infected people, and in my city there are sick people alredy.


I don’t think the virus is too dangerous, but if many people have the virus, maybe Portuguese hospitals can’t treat everyone. Besides, I take the bus every day, and I also work at a university. Because I have contact with many people every day, it gets more dangerous.

[…] 我讨厌这个病毒。我五月在一个其他的城市会有一个很大的会议,但是他们已经决定不会有会议,因为有病毒。 我希望在夏天的时候不会有病毒,因为我想要到荷兰旅行!

I hate this virus. I was going to attend a big in another city in May, but they have decided to cancel the conference because of the virus. I hope there will be no viruses in the summer, because I want to travel to the Netherlands!

March 22nd, 2020

外面天气很好,太阳很大,温度比较高。小鸟也在唱歌。看起来今天是完美的! 但是今天不是那么完美。所有的人应该在家里,不应该出去。从三月二号在葡萄牙有冠状病毒。 感染者越来越快速增加。 感染者已经增加到一千多人,已经有十四人死了。我觉得这样的情况会持续很久。

The weather is beautiful, the sun is shining, and it is warm. The birds are singing. It seems like the perfect day! But it is not perfect, because everyone has to stay home, they cannot go out. The coronavirus has been in Portugal since March 3rd. The number of infected people is increasing rapidly. The number of infected people has increased to more than a thousand, and 14 people have died. I think this situation will last for a long time.

幸好我不是一个人。而且我有一些目标,比如,提高我的中文。现在我有比较多时间学汉语,上网课,所以我可以开始准备, 然后考HSK 4。而且我有很多书。在圣诞节的时候,我的朋友和家里人送给我很多外语的书。现在我终于有空看这些书。我也有很多外国的朋友,现在我有机会跟他们聊天。我有空用skype跟他们交流。我跟我的男朋友也玩游戏。幸好我们在家里有阳台,我可以坐那里看街道或者一边晒太阳,一边写这篇文章。

Fortunately, I am not alone. Besides, I have some goals, such as improving my Chinese. Now I have more time to learn Chinese and take online courses, so I can start prepare for HSK 4. I also have many books. On Christmas, my friends and family gave me many foreign language books. Now I finally have time to read them. I also have many foreign friends, and now it is the opportunity to chat with them. I have time to Skype with them. I also play games with my boyfriend. Fortunately, we have a balcony at home. I can sit there and watch the street, or write this article while sunbathing.

April 3rd, 2020

The number of cases keeps on escalating all around the world. In Portugal, we are soon reaching 10,000 cases. I am sending virtual hugs to anyone out there who needs them, and wishing for the world to be over this crisis as soon as possible. I’m not really a Star Wars fan but… “May the force be with you”.

Language exchange & integration in a community

Moving to a new city or country can be challenging! Not speaking the local language further increases this challenge.

Marco, from Italy, came to Lisbon to do his Master’s in Psychology. For almost two years, he has been taking part in the language exchange meetups that I organize. Meanwhile, we have become good friends! After defending his Master’s dissertation, he wrote this text to let other people know how taking part in the language exchange meetups has helped him make new friends, and feel integrated in a new country. Besides, I have always seen him actively practicing Portuguese, English and Spanish at these events.

I challenged Marco to write a testimonial in a foreign language about his experience… Marco chose to write in English (I guess Portuguese is now too easy for him!) and here it is:

“First of all, I want to write down these lines in order to thank Inês for her initiative and her willingness to provide this opportunity to every expat living in Lisbon, and her enthusiasm every day we met. I say this, because I have met here most of my friends in Lisbon, who have been sharing their days with me.

It was so nice to be surrounded by people from all over the world, every two weekends, with a special “carinho” [let’s translate is as “affection”] for all the Brazilians that made my days so beautiful. I used to be, since the first Language Exchange in Intendente (I CANNOT forget it !!), wondering every day to live again this event and merge into it.

This event has a special power. It makes you feel connected to everybody, and it lets you feel the others as a mirror of the parts of your Self that you have yet to discover.

Opportunities like this should be provided by schools and by society for children and teenagers, in order to make us appreciate the beauty of human diversity from a young age, as a kind of pleasant vaccination against hate and racist speeches promoted by dominant classes, in order to manipulate the class conflict from the bottom and not from the top.

Marco, Italy”

Whether you are new in Lisbon or not, join the next language exchange! To find out more about languages and inclusive cities, check SPEAK’s website.

我的台湾之旅 – My trip to Taiwan (Day 1)

Author: Inês Carvalho

我2018年决定重新开始学中文。今年我决定八月去中国旅行。因为我想要练习我的中文,也想在中国跟中国人聊天。但是办中国的签证很麻烦,所以我决定去台湾香港和澳门旅行三个星期。 因为在香港和澳门,本地人不说普通话,所以我决定大部分的时间都住在台湾。这是我第一次飞这么远! 也是我第一次去亚洲。

I decided to start learning Chinese again in 2018. Since I wanted to practice my Chinese, and to chat with Chinese people in China, I decided that I would travel to China in August this year [2019]. However, getting the Chinese visa is very complicated, so I decided to travel instead to Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau for three weeks. Since locals do not speak Mandarin in Hong Kong and Macau, I decided to spend most of the time in Taiwan. It was my first time traveling so far away!

在飞机上我认识了一个台湾人: 在飞机上他们给我一个有小麦的蛋糕,但是我不能吃有小麦的东西,所以我把这个蛋糕给了我右边的旅客。他很友善。 他是台湾人但是住在比利时,以前他住在美国, 所以他的英语说得非常好。但是我要练习普通话,所以我没用英语和他聊天。我的中文还不太好,但是他明白了我说的话。我们到台湾的时候,他还帮助我买了一个SIM卡。然后他去了台北,我去了台南。

I met a Taiwanese on the plane: I got a cake that contained gluten, and since I could not eat it, I gave it to the passenger on my rigt. He was very friendly. He was Taiwanese, but he lived in Belgium, and since he had lived in the US previously, his English was really good. However, I wanted to practice my Mandarin, so I did not speak to him in English. My Chinese is not that good, but he understood what I was saying [I guess!!]. When we arrived in Taiwan, he helped me buy a SIM card. Then he went to Taipei and I went to Tainan.


I bought the tickets for the high-speed train. The train station was very clean. The high-speed train traveled really fast. I wanted to called my parents, but it was very early in Portugal, most people were still sleeping. However, my boyfriend was not asleep yet, so I called him and we chatted a bit.


The weather was very hot and humid in Tainan. The high-speed train station was not in the center of Tainan, so I had to take a bus. There was no need to buy a ticket for this bus. This was quite an unusual bus, and it had beautiful curtains [I forgot to mention in Chinese that it broke half way, and we had to change to another one].

很好吃! Delicious!

我下了公交车以后用Google Maps 找我订的旅馆。旅馆在一条很小的街道上。旅馆老板的太太很友善,我到的时候,她给了我一盘非常好吃的水果。然后我换了衣服,一条裙子和一件T恤。

After I got off the bus, I used Google Maps to look for the hostel I had booked. The hostel was located in a very narrow street. The hostel owner’s wife was very friendly. As soon as I arrived, she gave me a plate with delicious fruit. After that I changed clothes, I put on a skirt and a T-shirt-

在寺庙里面我问了一个员工为什么在坛下面有那么多甜食。她给我说那些东西都是给爱神的。她问我有没有男朋友,还问我我的男朋友在哪里。我回答他在英国写他的论文。员工说那个神能帮增进 我和我男朋的友关系,这样我们会很幸福。她还给了我很多甜品,但是那么多东西我拿不了,一些掉在地上。我笑着拿了东西,感谢了员工的介绍,然后走了。 那以前我没见过寺庙, 这是第一次! 所以我在寺庙里逛了很久。我也拍了很多照片!

There was a temple not so far away from the hostel. I had never seen a temple before, this was the first time! Therefore, I was inside the temple for quite a while. I also took a lot of pictures [note: I asked before if it was ok]!

在寺庙里面我问了一个员工为什么在坛下面有那么多甜食。她给我说那些东西都是给爱神的。她问我有没有男朋友,还问我我的男朋友在哪里。我回答他在英国写他的论文。员工说那个神能帮增进 我和我男朋的友关系,这样我们会很幸福。她还给了我很多甜品,但是那么多东西我拿不了,一些掉在地上。我笑着拿了东西,感谢了员工的介绍,然后走了。

Messages to the God of Love

Inside the temple, I asked one of the staff members why there were so many candies below the altar. She told me that those candies were for the God of Love. She then asked me if I had a boyfriend, and where he was. I answered that he was in England writing his thesis. The staff member told me that god could help improve our relationship, this way we would be even happier. She also gave me a lot of candies, but I could not hold them in my hands, so some of them fell on the floor. I smilingly picked them, thanked the woman for her explanation, and walked out.

Altar *with candies*
Chikhan Tower or Fort Provintia or

然后我去了赤嵌楼。很多年前荷兰人建了这个塔。 我觉得赤嵌楼很漂亮,但是我比较喜欢寺庙。

Then I went to the Chikhan Tower. The Dutch built this tower many years ago. I thought it was very beautiful, but I still preferred the temple.

晚上七点我去了花园夜市。我吃了很多奇怪的东西,但是都好吃!我吃了芝麻蛋糕,很多肉,甘薯, 珍珠奶茶, 火龙果 – 火龙果的颜色很漂亮,这是我第一次吃这种水果。吃完火龙果以后,我找了找在葡萄牙语里这种水果怎么说: “pitaia”.

Pitaya… 火龙果 fire dragon fruit

At 7 p.m. I went to the Garden night market. I ate a lot of strange things, but everything was really tasty! I had sesame cakes, lots of meat, sweet potatoes, pearl milk tea, pitaya – it has a really beautiful color, it was the first time I tasted this kind of fruit. After eating pitaya, I looked for the Portuguese word for it: pitaia [I didn’t know the English name at the time, I just knew the Chinese name: “dragon fire fruit”].


About 8 p.m. I was feeling very tired, so I went back to the hostel. But there is a party every night at that hostel at 9 p,m. The host invites all the guests for some Taiwanese fruit and some beer. This way, I had the opportunity to talk to the other guests. There were not any other Europeans besides me, there was an American, a Japanese, two Hong Kongers, a guy from Beijing, and all the others were Taiwanese.

At Tainan Quiet Hostel (I highly recommend it!)


I talked to the Taiwanese and Chinese guests because I wanted to practice my Chinese. At the beginning they were speaking very slowly, so I could understand what they were saying. But after a while they were talking faster and I did not quite understand them, but it was OK. I was feeling really happy when I went to bed. I had a great time on my first day in Asia!

I would like to thank my Chinese teacher, Dan, for her corrections throughout the text! 谢谢老师!

How to have a fruitful language exchange

Author: Inês Carvalho

Have you ever participated in a language exchange? It can be a lot of fun! It’s all about meeting interesting people from many different countries, speaking different languages and making new friends.

There are many different kinds of language exchange. In some events, there are tables assigned to a specific language, or to language pairs (e.g. English-Portuguese, Spanish-Portuguese), in other cases there are no tables and you choose who you want to interact with. Mundolingo has an interesting system, where participants use flag stickers to show which languages they can speak and which ones they are trying to improve. You can also have your own language exchange with a friend that speaks your target language and whom you help improving in their target language. This article is about language exchange events where you have different physical areas (such as tables) assigned to specific languages, and how to benefit the most of these events in terms of language learning (but there are many other benefits besides the language learning aspect).

SPEAK Language exchange at Casa do Impacto

If you have zero passive knowledge of a language, don’t expect that you will learn a lot at such an event. What I mean is that if you don’t understand anything in that language (let’s say you’re Portuguese and want to learn Japanese from scratch), it’s very unlikely that you will learn more than just a few words at such an event. That’s because most of the participants are not teachers and they don’t know how to “teach” the language from scratch. However, if you don’t speak a language but can understand a little bit (imagine you’re Spanish and don’t know any Portuguese), you might be able to learn a lot because you can understand what people say to some extent and take part in the conversation. My point is not that you should only come to the event if you already speak the language, but rather that you should adjust your expectations. It might still be great to get to know native speakers of your target language, make friends with them and learn a few words – maybe in the future you will be able to speak back to them in their mother tongue! If you’re a beginner taking the first steps in a language, another approach is to be proactive and bring with you a text or some words and ask a native speaker to help you read and pronounce them, or bring some questions/answers that you would like to practice . This way, it will be easier for your language partners to help you out in such an informal context.

Italian notes I took at one of the events

If you’re really focused on improving your language skills, I suggest that you bring a notebook with you to write down new words, “false friends”, and all the corrections you get (or just use your phone to take notes). This implies not only noting down words, but sometimes whole sentences. This is a great way of learning grammar structures. Always check if your spelling is correct after taking notes. At home, look at these words again every now and then, so that they slowly stick to your brain.

Another important aspect is asking your language partners to correct you, and thanking them whenever they do that. If you’re talking a lot and don’t get any corrections, you will intuitively assume that you’re speaking correctly, and the wrong structures and words will be “fossilized” in your brain (“fossilization” is actually a concept in linguistics). Once fossilization occurs, you are more likely to repeat the same mistake over and over again, believing that you’re speaking correctly. It will also be harder to get rid of this mistake in the future.

I believe that the best way of improving is to set times for specific languages, i.e. 15 minutes for Portuguese, 15 minutes for French. People are more likely to speak their target language, while their language partners answer back in their own target language. It also works well, but I still think that it is important to listen to people speaking their mother tongue.

In some kinds of events (at least the ones I organize), arriving early also guarantees better opportunities of being paired up with someone that speaks the language you’re interested in. At the end of the event, don’t forget to ask people for their phone number or Facebook addresses so that you stay in touch!

Finally, let’s not forget one of the most basic rules of language exchange etiquette, which is helping your language partners by also giving them the opportunity to practice their target language with you (assuming that you speak the language they’re trying to learn).

If you live in Lisbon, these are some of the Facebook groups where you can find more information about language exchange events. Have fun!

Language Exchange Lisbon: This group is managed by me. I share here the free events that I organize for SPEAK (usually on Saturdays) and other cultural and language-related events that take place in Lisbon.

SPEAK Lisbon – Language & Culture Exchange: SPEAK has several Language & Culture Exchange events, and not only in Lisbon. I organize some of the Lisbon events, but there are more events organized by other people. They also offer language courses!

MundoLingo Lisbon: There’s a language exchange meetup every Tuesday at Anjos70. You pay €2 the first time you go and then it’s free.

BlaBla Language Exchange: They used to have meetups on Thursdays, but I think that the last ones have been on Wednesdays. You should register beforehand.

Italian B1-B2: L’italiano e la gioia di vivere (Italian and the joy of life)

Some time ago I wrote this text in Italian about how learning Italian made me happier. This text was corrected by my dear Italian friend Valentinha. There were several mistakes, because my level of Italian is not very high, it is somewhere between a B1 and B2 level. Below the text in Italian, there are translations into Portuguese and English.

L’italiano è una lingua che mi ha dato molta gioia! Il 2017 non è stato un anno facile per varie ragioni. La decisione di imparare l’italiano mi ha spinto a viaggiare in Italia due volte, conoscere buoni amici italiani e mi ha anche dato la motivazione per iniziare ad organizzare “language cafés” (scambi linguistici) a Lisbona!

In Aprile avevo già imparato un po’ d’italiano, però non era sufficiente per comunicare le cose semplici di cui uno ha bisogno quando viaggia: chiedere dove si può trovare un posto per mangiare o chiedere indicazioni. Stavo lavorando tanto e volevo viaggiare per Pasqua. Nessuno poteva venire con me, e così ho deciso di andare da sola a Roma. Dieci giorni prima di viaggiare, ho cominciato ad ascoltare video di “One World Italiano” per migliorare il mio italiano. A mano a mano che il giorno della partenza si stava avvicinando, ho iniziato a fare la valigia e ancora non sapevo cosa aspettarmi da questa decisione di iniziare a studiare  una lingua e dopo solo dieci giorni andare a visitare quel paese. Chiaro che potevo sempre parlare in inglese, inoltre l’italiano è abbastanza simile al portoghese, e tra gesti e qualche parola gli italiani e i portoghesi riescano a capirsi  abbastanza bene. Tuttavia il mio obiettivo non era solo quello di visitare Roma, ma anche di migliorarmi in una lingua in soli cinque giorni, mi sembrava difficile  migliorare tanto in pochi giorni.

Pantheon (Rome)

Anche se sono migliorata poco in quei giorni a Roma, la cosa più importante che è successa, è stata la nascita di una passione e di un obiettivo che avrebbe avuto più importanza nella mia vita di quanto potessi immaginare. Ogni giorno avevo un nuovo obiettivo, avevo una “scusa” per fare più facilmente amicizia con altre persone a Lisbona (perché cercavo qualcuno con cui parlare e che volesse in cambio imparare il portoghese).

Inoltre, per imparare l’italiano ho ascoltato Alberto (di “Italiano Automatico”) che è veramente un’inspirazione per il suo ottimismo. Ascoltarlo ogni giorno e sentire la sua gioia di vivere, la sua organizzazione e la sua  tenacia nel non abbandonare i suoi sogni mi ha fatto sentire meglio con me stessa. Mi ha anche fatto pensare ai miei obiettivi. L’ho ascoltato per così tante ore su YouTube, che mi sembra che, senza conoscerlo personalmente, sia diventato un buon amico. Lui e, naturalmente, la sua famosa nonna!

Agosto, il Colosseo di Roma
Io e il Colosseo di Roma (Agosto 2017)

Poco mesi dopo, ho deciso di ritornare in Italia in estate, però questa volta volevo viaggiare per il paese e passare tre settimane lì. Non avevo mai viaggiato da sola per così tanto tempo! Questo mi ha fatto crescere e ho avuto l’opportunità di riflettere sulla vita e sulla relazione con me stessa. In queste tre settimane ho veramente migliorato il mio italiano, anche se non ho trovato tanti italiani lì come mi aspettavo (erano tutti in spiaggia altrove). Ho anche acquistato uno dei migliori libri che abbia letto fino ad oggi: Il nome della Rosa, di Umberto Eco.

Picture of books I bought in Italy, including Il Nome della Rosa
I libri che ho acquistato in Italia

Qualche mese dopo essere ritornata, ho organizzato per la prima volta un “language café” a Lisbona. Questo era una cosa che volevo già fare da molto tempo. Da quella volta, ho già organizzato altri eventi. Mi sembra che gli italiani siano sempre più attivi nel gruppo e a me dà sempre molta gioia  vederli tutti.

La conclusione più importante è questa: se uno vuole fare o raggiungere qualcosa, non deve aspettare e neanche avere paura. L’italiano mi ha fornito l’empowerment per fissare obiettivi pazzi come quello di imparare una lingua in poco tempo (adesso però sto impazzendo con il mandarino, è una sfida più complicata); viaggiare da sola per tre settimane (e divertirmi con i miei pensieri o con persone che avevo appena conosciuto); e organizzare scambi linguistici, superando sempre la paura di fallire.

(Grazie Valentina per le correzioni!)



O italiano é uma língua que me deu muita alegria! 2017 não foi um ano fácil por várias razões. A decisão de aprender italiano levou-me a viajar duas vezes a Itália, a fazer bons amigos italianos e também me deu a motivação para começar a organizar “language cafés” (“trocas de línguas”) em Lisboa!

Em abril eu já tinha aprendido um pouco de italiano, mas não era suficiente para comunicar as coisas simples de que alguém precisa quando viaja, por exemplo, perguntar onde é que se pode comer ou pedir informações. Eu estava a trabalhar muito na altura e queria viajar na altura da Páscoa. Como ninguém podia vir comigo, decidi ir a Roma sozinha. Dez dias antes de viajar, comecei a ouvir vídeos do “One World Italiano” para melhorar o meu italiano. À medida que o dia da partida se aproximava, comecei a fazer as malas e ainda não sabia o que esperar desta decisão de começar a estudar uma língua e, depois de apenas dez dias, ir visitar esse país. Claro que eu podia sempre falar inglês, para além disso o italiano é muito parecido com o português e, entre gestos e algumas palavras, os italianos e portugueses conseguem entender-se mutuamente bastante bem. No entanto, o meu objetivo não era apenas o de visitar Roma, mas também o de melhorar uma língua em apenas cinco dias – parecia difícil melhorar em tão pouco tempo.

Embora tenha melhorado um pouco durante aqueles dias em Roma, o que de mais importante aconteceu foi o nascimento de uma paixão e de um objetivo que viriam a ter mais importância na minha vida do que eu poderia imaginar. Todos os dias eu tinha um novo objetivo, eu tinha uma “desculpa” para fazer amigos mais facilmente com outras pessoas em Lisboa (porque eu estava a procurar alguém que quisesse conversar em italiano e aprender português em troca).

Para além disso, para aprender italiano, eu ouvia o Alberto (do canal “Italiano Automático”), que é realmente uma inspiração devido ao seu otimismo. Ao ouvi-lo todos os dias, eu sentia-me contagiada pela sua alegria de viver, pela sua organização e tenacidade em não abandonar os seus sonhos, o que fez com que eu me sentisse melhor comigo mesma. Isto também me fez refletir sobre os meus objetivos. Eu ouvi-o por tantas horas no YouTube, que quase que me parecia que ele se tinha tornado um bom amigo, mesmo sem o conhecer pessoalmente. Ele e, claro, a sua famosa avó!

Alguns meses depois, decidi voltar a Itália no verão, mas desta vez quis viajar pelo país e passar três semanas lá. Eu nunca tinha viajado tanto tempo sozinha! Isto fez-me crescer e tive a oportunidade de refletir sobre a vida e sobre o relacionamento comigo mesma. Nestas três semanas, eu de facto melhorei o meu italiano, embora eu não tenha encontrado tantos italianos como esperava (estavam todos na praia, noutras partes de Itália). Comprei também um dos melhores livros que li até hoje: O Nome da Rosa, de Umberto Eco.

Alguns meses depois de voltar, organizei pela primeira vez um “language café” em Lisboa. Isto era algo que eu já queria fazer há muito tempo. Desde aquela altura que tenho vindo sempre a organizar outros eventos. Parece-me que os italianos estão cada vez mais ativos no grupo e fico sempre muito feliz por vê-los a todos.

A conclusão mais importante é esta: se alguém quer fazer ou alcançar algo, não deve esperar nem ter medo. O italiano ajudou-me a definir objetivos amalucados como o de aprender uma língua num curto espaço de tempo (mas agora estou a enlouquecer com o mandarim, é um desafio mais complicado); deu-me coragem para viajar sozinha por três semanas (divertindo-me com os meus pensamentos ou com pessoas acabadas de conhecer); e motivou-me a perder o receio de organizar “intercâmbios de línguas”, superando sempre o medo do fracasso.



Italian is a language that has given me a lot of joy! 2017 was not an easy year for several reasons. The decision to learn Italian led me to travel to Italy twice, to make new Italian friends and it also gave me the motivation to start organizing “language cafés” in Lisbon!

In April I had already learned a little Italian, but it was not enough to communicate the simple things you need to say when traveling: asking for a place to eat or asking for directions. I was working a lot at the time and I wanted to travel for Easter. No one could come with me, so I decided to go on my own to Rome. Ten days before traveling, I started listening to videos from “One World Italiano” to improve my Italian. When the day of departure was approaching, I started to pack and I still didn’t know what to expect from this decision to start studying a language and after only ten days traveling to that country. Of course I could always speak English, and Italian is also quite similar to Portuguese, so between gestures and a few words the Italians and the Portuguese manage to understand each other quite well. However my goal was not only to visit Rome, but also to improve my knowledge of a language in just five days – it seemed difficult to improve much in a few days!

Although my Italian only improved a little in those days in Rome, the most important thing that happened was the beginning of a passion and a goal that would have more importance in my life than I could imagine. Every day I had a new goal, I had an “excuse” to make friends more easily in Lisbon (because I was looking for someone to talk to in Italian and who wanted to learn Portuguese in return).

Moreover, to learn Italian I listened to Alberto (from “Italiano Automatico”), who is quite an inspiration for his optimism. Listening to him every day and feeling his joy of life, his organization and his tenacity in not abandoning his dreams, made me feel better about myself. It also made me think about my goals. I listened to him for so many hours on YouTube, that it seems to me as though he has become a good friend despite not knowing him in person. He and, of course, his famous grandmother!

A few months later, I decided to return to Italy in the summer, but this time I wanted to travel around the country and spend three weeks there. I had never traveled for so long by myself! This made me grow and I had the opportunity to reflect on life and on the relationship with myself. In these three weeks I really improved my Italian, even though I didn’t find many Italians there as I expected (they were all on the beach somewhere else). I also bought one of the best books I’ve read to date: The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco.

A few months after returning, I organized a language café in Lisbon for the first time. This was something I had been wanting to do for a long time. Since then, I have organized many other events. It seems to me that Italians are increasingly active in the group and I am always very happy to see them all.

The most important conclusion is this: if you wants to do or to reach something, you should not wait too much or be afraid. Italian gave me the empowerment to set crazy goals like learning a language in a short time (but now I’m going crazy with Mandarin, it’s a more complicated challenge); traveling alone for three weeks (and having fun with my thoughts or with people I had just met); and organizing language exchange meetups, always overcoming the fear of failure.

Swedish B2-C1: Därför reser vi (That’s why we travel)

Inês Carvalho – Text written while I was living in Sweden for the B2/C1 course that I was (kind of ) attending at the time (2014). Reading this text really makes me want to go back to improving my Swedish 🙂 (Translation into English below the Swedish text)

Det finns många anledningar till att människor reser: resor kan göras för nöjes skull, för att lära sig, för att fly eller för att upptäcka.

Stämmer det att resa ökar förståelsen från andra kulturer? Forskaren Per Lundberg hävdar att fördomarna kan ibland bli ännu starkare om man är oförberedd på den kulturen man möter. Enligt honom tolkar vi andras beteende utifrån vår egen kultur och egna värderingar och vi uppmärksammar det som stämmer med den bild vi redan har.

För att undvika etnocentrism behöver man känna till sin egen kultur. Det är bra om man är medveten om kultursskillnader så att man kan acceptera kulturkrocken, eftersom det ibland kan vara svårt att acceptera oerhört stora kulturskillnader. Vissa människor ser kulturskillnader som en ”evolutionsprocess”, men detta sätt att tänka kan leda till en överlägsen syn och elitistisk attityd till människor till exempel i tredje världen som kan ses som ”gulliga men dumma”. Bästa sättet att resa är att acceptera att man inte alltid kan förstå andras beteenden eller värderingar, dessutom är det viktigt att undvika att värdera och döma.

Jag är fascinerad av andra kulturer och älskar att träffa nya människor. Jag har intresse för olika samhällen och språk. Att tala språket som man pratar i landet man besöker är viktigt för att man lyckas ta sig bortom fasader och också för att närma sig lokalinvånare. Jag behöver bara ha råd så att jag kan resa mer.

Nantes (or some place close to it), 2012

Jag skulle vilja resa till Asien i sällskap med endast mig själv och mina tänkar – jag kallar det min ”odyssée” i Asien. Jag drömmer om att bara gå ut och låta mig uppslukas av atmosfären… att lunka och spana på gatan… allt är nytt och det finns så mycket som jag inte kan förstå! Men vad min hjärna inte kan förstå, kan jag kanske uppfatta med mitt hjärta. Man måste öppna sitt hjärta när man resar och ha förståelse för det främmande.

Jag har inte rest så mycket. Jag har vara rest till Sverige, Tyskland, Englad, Spanien, Frankrike, Kroatien, Denmark och Estland. Jag har aldrig varit utanför Europa, trots att jag har brasilianskt medborgarskap och är av brasiliansk nationalitet. Den viktigaste erfarenheten för mig var min första resa till Tyskland. Jag vara bara 17 år gammal och jag förändrades mycket som person. Jag fick möjligheten att vara utbytesstudent i gymnasiet med fler än 200 studenter från hela världen. Jag hade aldrig varit utanför Portugal och det var inte lätt att umgås med andra unga människor som var så annorlunda och ”konstiga” för mig.

Estonia (Tallinn) 2013

Nu, mer än tretton år senare, är jag doktorand i Turism, och har lärt mig många språk och bott i Tyskland och Sverige. Hade jag aldrig upplevt denna erfarenhet i Tyskland när jag var tonårig, skulle jag ha valt ett annat ämne.

Men… jag tycker att jag borde resa mycket mer… jag är doktorand i Turism… och väskan är färdigpackad!!

TRANSLATION INTO (LAZY) ENGLISH – thanks Google for translating 95% of this text!

That’s why we travel
There are many reasons why people travel: you can travel for fun, to learn, to escape or to discover.

Is it true that traveling increases understanding of other cultures? The researcher Per Lundberg claims that prejudice can sometimes become even stronger if one is unprepared for the culture one meets. According to him, we interpret the behavior of others based on our own culture and our own values, ​​and we pay attention to what corresponds to the image we already have.
In order to avoid ethnocentrism, you need to know your own culture. It is great if you are aware of cultural differences so that you can accept the cultural shock, because sometimes it can be difficult to accept extremely large cultural differences. Some people see cultural differences as an “evolutionary process”, but this way of thinking can lead to a superior vision and elitist attitude towards people, for example in the Third World, which can be seen as “sweet but stupid”. The best way to travel is to accept that one cannot always understand the behavior or values ​​of others, and it is important to avoid valuing and judging.
I am fascinated by other cultures and love to meet new people. I have an interest in various societies and languages. Speaking the language that is spoken in the country you visit is important because you manage to get past façades and can approach local residents more easily. I just need the money so that I can travel more.
I would like to travel to Asia by myself only with my thoughts – I call it my “odyssey” in Asia. I dream of just going out and allowing myself to be swallowed up by the atmosphere … walking and scouting around the streets … everything is new and there is so much that I cannot understand! But what my brain can’t understand, I may perhaps perceive with my heart. You have to open your heart when traveling and have an understanding of the foreign.
I haven’t traveled so much. I have traveled to Sweden, Germany, Englad, Spain, France, Croatia, Denmark and Estonia. I have never been outside of Europe, even though I have Brazilian citizenship and am of Brazilian nationality. The most important experience for me was my first trip to Germany. I was only 17 years old and I changed a lot as a person. I had the opportunity to be an exchange student in high school with more than 200 students from all over the world. I had never been outside Portugal and it was not easy to hang out with other young people who were so different and “weird” for me.
Now, more than thirteen years later, I am a PhD student in Tourism, and have learned many languages ​​and lived in Germany and Sweden. Had never had this experience in Germany when I was a teenager, I would have chosen another subject.
But … I think I should travel a lot more … I am a PhD student in Tourism … and the bag is packed!

PS – I would like to thank Patrícia Coutinho for the corrections!

DELF B2 – Une lettre au maire (A letter to the mayor)

Author: Inês Carvalho

While practicing French last year, I decided to solve one of the writing tasks for DELF B2 (Diplôme d’Études en Langue Français). Writing is a great exercise, especially when someone corrects you afterwards and you learn more about your mistakes 🙂 Although this text was corrected by a native French teacher, beware that it may still not be “perfect” French! By the way, the text is completely fictional: I have no house, no kids and I don’t live in France 😀 Below the description of the task (copied from the mock exam) and my text:

Vous vivez en France dans une zone piétonne du centre-ville. Le maire de votre ville a décider d’ouvrir certaines des rues de cette zone à la circulation des autobus pendant la journée. Comme représentant(e) de votre immeuble, vous écrives une lettre au maire pour contester cette décision en justifiant votre point de vue.

Cher maire de la ville B,

Je vous écris parce que j’ai lu que vous avez décidé d’ouvrir la rue X, dans laquelle j’habite, à la circulation des autobus. J’habite dans cette rue depuis 25 ans et j’ai décidé d’acheter cet immeuble parce que la circulation des voitures était interdite ici. Il y avait beaucoup d’autres rues que je pouvais avoir choisi, mais j’avais déjà une préférence pour cette zone piétonne, malgré les hauts prix des maisons ici.

Vingt-cinq ans plus tard, j’ai des enfants qui jouent toujours après l’école en dehors de la maison avec leurs amis. Si cette rue devient ouverte à la circulation des autobus, les enfants ne pourront plus faire du foot, et ça aura des conséquences graves pour leur santé physique et mentale.

Aujourd’hui, il y a de plus en plus d’enfants et de jeunes qui sont toujours à la maison devant la télévision ou l’ordinateur. Ça porte des graves conséquences à leur santé. Même les personnes âgées ont besoin d’un endroit où ils peuvent se promener et socialiser sois avec les gens du même âge, sois avec les enfants.

À mon avis, cette zone piétonne a besoin d’infrastructures pour que les enfants et les jeunes puissent jouer et s’amuser. De plus, on a besoin d’un jardin pour élever la qualité de vie de tout le monde. Ce type de changements serait plus positif pour les habitants de notre ville.

Merci pour votre attention.

Je vous prie d’agréer, Monsieur, l’expression de mes salutations distinguées,


Learn with my mistakes!

  • avoir une préférence POUR
  • EN dehors de la maison
  • ils jouent avec LEURS amis
  • la rue, DANS LAQUELLE j’habite

The Gift of Language: How I am teaching my son three languages

Guestblogger: Bryce DeCora, founder of Finite Languages

I’m a recovering monolingual who is teaching my son three languages. Interested in hearing how? I thought you might be. Let me start by saying only an estimated 15% of people born in America are able to speak another language conversationally. It’s no wonder Americans are sometimes viewed as self-centered and non-empathetic. In my experience, learning other languages has drastically opened up my eyes to cultural differences and world struggles. This is something I had to pass on to my son, Atlas.

We had some immediate hurdles to get over on this new adventure. Our parents are from the Midwest, where everyone speaks English really well… and that’s it. Nothing against the Midwest, but they are not very culturally diverse and the idea of raising a multilingual child was pretty foreign to them. They said things like, “Why can’t he just grow up like a normal boy?” and “He will fall far behind all of the other kids who are just learning one language.”

In addition to the lack of support, my wife and I only spoke English fluently. I had studied Italian for 18 months by the time Atlas was born but was not fluent by any means. So how were we going to raise Atlas multilingual? Lots of hard work and good planning.

By the time Atlas had turned one I was an intermediate Italian speaker and decided to only speak Italian to him from that point on. It’s been one and a half years now and I have yet to speak to him in English. Let me pat myself on the back here for a second. I have multiple friends who do speak another language natively. People who have failed to teach their children this language because it was hard for them to switch between speaking English all day at work, to their other language at home. If it’s difficult for a bilingual to do this, just imagine the strain I go through every day. After 8 hours at work as an engineer, I keep my brain turned on to the max when I arrive home to speak Italian with Atlas. It’s not easy. At times, it’s borderline torture.

Imagine never saying, “I love you” to your child in your native language. Imagine if your spouse couldn’t understand anything you were saying to your child. Imagine never having a time in the day where your brain can rest. It’s even more difficult than you can imagine, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.
Let’s get into the details of how I teach Atlas Italian. Kids are very active learners. Anyone with kids knows how well sitting a toddler down with flashcards works… not well. We mix Italian into his daily life wherever possible. He loves to draw – We draw shapes and animals together and name them in Italian. He loves cartoons – He watches cartoons with me in Italian. He loves his toys – We play together with his toys while speaking Italian. He loves to dance – We listen and dance to Italian music. The only way to teach a child is through immersion.
I have recently come to realize that this is not something I can accomplish alone. Kids learn best from watching interactions between people. This means it’s necessary for him to be around other Italian speaking children and to see me interact with other Italian speakers. Recently, we have started attending an Italian story time and Italian immersion class for kids two times per month. This way Atlas is able to grow through interactions in addition to the work we put in at home.

Did I mention Atlas is learning Russian as well? One year ago, we decided it would be possible to gift Atlas with another language when it was time to select a nanny for him. Fortunately, we were able to find a native Russian girl who would take care of Atlas for 20 hours every week while my wife and I worked. Atlas soon became part of the nanny’s family. He plays with her siblings, nieces and nephews and even attends her church every so often.
Atlas is now two and a half and is able to easily understand most of what he hears in English, Russian and Italian as well as say simple phrases. His Midwestern grandparents have seen his remarkable progress and now give us their full support. I’ve gotten used to speaking with him in Italian and even feel satisfied saying “Ti voglio bene caro” instead of “I love you”.
If you’re thinking of raising your child or children multilingual, I would highly recommend it. Nothing compares to hearing your child say he or she loves you in another language. Nothing compares to seeing them grow in their language skills because of you; something they will have with them their entire life. Be prepared for the difficulties, but press on. The gift of language is one of the greatest gifts you can give a child.

Bryce DeCora founder of Finite Languages. A place for writers to write in their target language, get corrections from a native speaker and be published online for free.

Language goals 2018: 普通话 (Mandarin!)

by Inês Carvalho

This blog post is coming a bit late, I know! But I had a lot of work to do, and I also wanted to try out some resources before setting a plan for language learning in 2018.

I suppose you’ve guessed it by now… in 2018 my goal is to learn… Mandarin! Yeay! I want to finally become (relatively) fluent in a non-European language.

I attended a Mandarin course about eight years ago, but after the first year almost everyone gave up, except for two people. Therefore, the university decided not to open a second-level Chinese course.

At the time, I decided to keep learning by myself, so I finished the course book we were using and I even bought the course book for the next level. I was never able to say a lot in Chinese, but I learnt the basics (about A1 level), I could speak a little bit and I studied about 400 characters (“studied”… it doesn’t mean that I actually remembered them).

I stopped studying Chinese in 2011 because I started my PhD at the time and I had no free time in the first semester. In mid-2012 I finally had the time to study languages again, but I wanted to start something new, so I did a short Japanese course and then I started studying Swedish by myself since I was going to move to Sweden in September 2012. The last thing I wrote in Chinese was an e-mail to  a Chinese girl who was renting out a room in Sweden. I don’t think my Chinese was brilliant, but it worked, because out of 35 applicants, she picked me immediately! This is what I wrote at the time:

我叫 Inês。 我是一个葡萄牙学生。 我在LiU大学学习 Gender studies。 我要和你一起住! 我爱 Ryd Linköping, 也在 Ryd 有很多朋友。
我是女人, 没有狗还没有猫 哈哈 I don’t have pets and I don’t smoke!
我认为学习汉语语言和文化很有意思。我只学习了一年仲文, 所以我的中文很差。我的中文很差, 但是我很爱写中文哦。


在中国, 你来自哪里?

I hope my Chinese isn’t too bad :))) Please, take me!! 🙂 Hope my Chinese skills impressed you hehehe just kidding, but I gave my best!!
Last year I realised that I urgently needed to go back to learning Chinese, otherwise I was at risk of forgetting all that I had learnt before!
At the end of 2017 my feeling was that I only remembered very little Chinese. I decided that I would study everything from the beginning but using better resources this time. I think that the resources my teachers used when I first learnt Chinese were outdated. They taught us characters and grammar structures, instead of teaching us useful phrases. When I went on learning by myself after the Chinese course ended, I should have changed the resources and the method. For each word I learnt I always learnt to HANDWRITE the character and I would get upset whenever I couldn’t write them. The problem was that this perfectionism made learning a very slow process. Had my focus been on speaking the language and writing using pinyin (based on Latin letters) to introduce the characters in the mobile phone or computer, I would have been able to reach a much higher Chinese level.
Nowadays I am a  much more skilled language learner than in 2010 (I hope), so let’s talk about language goals and resources.
My goal in 2018 is to be able to use Chinese to speak about areas of immediate relevance (personal information, family, shopping, employment, asking for directions, travelling), express opinions about simple topics or describe experiences and personal interests. Hence, I would describe it as reaching a point between A2 and B1 level. I’d like to aim higher, but I also have a demanding a time-consuming career, so my language goals have to be more modest.
I took some time to do some research on the best learning resources out there. After my successful experience with Italian, I searched for YouTube channels with videos for Chinese newbies and I found these ones:

YouTube channels are an awesome away of learning languages! I don’t have a lot of time to sit and study, so this way I can watch the videos while I’m eating or listen to them while cleaning or cooking. That’s how I learned Italian, and I think that this strategy will also work for other languages.

I also looked for podcasts. For now, I’m following ChinesePod, and I listen to it mostly when I’m on the bus (unfortunately I spend too much time on buses… fortunately there are podcasts!). ChinesePod‘s website is really cool too! I highly recommend it (though I think that at some point you have to pay to use it).

As to course books, I’m starting New Practical Chinese Reader 1. This is going to be my main resource. My plan is to finish this book by the end of February, then study New Practical Chinese Reader 2 for three or four months and then do New Practical Chinese Reader 3. I plan to study four lessons a week at the beginning while the lessons are still easy and there’s more that I can remember, and then slow down a bit as lessons get more complicated, probably to one or two lessons a week.

As to speaking practice, I’ve already found a nice exchange group in Lisbon and I think it’s going to be fun and motivating.

After my first week of Chinese learning, I’m highly motivated and I’ve realised that I can remember so much more than I had thought at the beginning! I told my boyfriend that my goal was to be able to have a simple conversation with a friend of his who is from Taiwan by the end of March, and he has already shared with him my goal, so now I really have to learn Mandarin because I don’t want to disappoint them!

As to the remaining languages, my plan is:

  • recover my C2 Spanish (sniff) and remove as much as possible Italian interference;
  • B and C level languages (i.e. French, Italian, Swedish, German, English, Dutch): listen to podcasts, YouTube videos, movies, maybe read literature in these languages, find language buddies and hang out with them every now and then;
  • A level languages (Japanese, Esperanto): do some Memrise or Duolingo so that at least I don’t forget the basics I’ve learnt. In Esperanto, I want to keep on doing lessons in lernu.net every once in a while.

You can follow my language progress and tips on Instagram: @ines_wordwideweb

Happy 2018, you language freaks! Or… 新年快乐! 🙂