Here’s How My Language Learning Journey Started… What’s Your Story?

“Love the life you live. Live the life you love.” ~Bob Marley

I heard this quote from the reggae legend, Bob Marley, 4 years ago when I first started my journey to master Portuguese, and it has stuck with me ever since.

I know it’s not Portuguese, but these words have constantly been in my head for the past few years throughout my journey.

I started my journey chasing these wise words from Bob Marley and with the dream of living a better life. However, the journey hasn’t been easy. Just like you, I have had difficulties understanding native speakers, forgotten vocabulary, mispronounced words, and been afraid to speak in public.

Without these struggles I wouldn’t be the person I am today. I wouldn’t be here sharing my experiences in order to help you grow along your journey to English fluency.

Every day, I think about the story that I’m writing for my life. I am the creator of my own reality. Every choice I make has an influence on my destiny.

I’ve learned along my journey that if you want to “love the life you live” and “live the life you love” right now, simply stop for a moment, take a deep breath, and just think about how great it is to be alive today.

Be grateful for your health, family, friends, nature, clean water, your job, a fresh cooked meal, your bed, and a good night’s sleep. There is an abundance of things to be thankful for.

Then, shortly after, go do something that you are afraid of. Step outside of your comfort zone, and lean1 towards discomfort.

As the talented comedian Jamie Foxx says: “What’s on the other side of fear? Nothing.”

I like to imagine our deepest fears as big internal “dragons” that our mind creates. We can face our fears and slay our dragons with gratitude. Instead of running away from them, accept and appreciate them as challenges along the journey.

On the other side of fear is our biggest opportunity to grow. When you slay your dragons, you are rewarded with a new level of confidence, power, and courage. You unlock your unlimited potential as a human, and are able to “live the life you love.”

I discovered this truth along my journey to Portuguese fluency. A journey that has had its ups and downs, heartbreaks2, and victories.

Although as a RealLife English coach, I can now say that I understand the process of learning any language, it wasn’t always that way. My journey to Portuguese fluency has been a tough3 process that actually started years before I even had any desire to learn the language.

My Ordinary World

Here’s a picture of me playing football in high school.

Looking back, my adventurous journey to master Portuguese probably started in a similar way to your journey with English.

My journey started in a pretty ordinary place, in a small suburb outside of Washington, D.C. called Ashburn, in the state of Virginia. Ashburn is a quiet, comfortable place where the most exciting event each week is usually the local high school football game.

Not many people know where that is, so when people ask me where I am from, I always tell them that I’m from DC.

I wasn’t studying Portuguese at the time actually, but rather Spanish. In high school, I studied Spanish for 3 years, however I struggled to really learn it. I basically memorized the vocabulary and grammar from the books so that I could pass my tests, but if someone came up to me in the street speaking Spanish, I would have no idea what to say.

I had even worked for my dad’s company on construction sites in the summer with people from Central America, and would get upset that, after studying Spanish for 3 years, I still couldn’t understand any of them.

Since I was really frustrated with my inability to understand native Spanish speakers, I had decided to give up on learning the language and to focus on learning other subjects, such as science, and playing football in high school.

As you can probably tell, I was a really shy teenager growing up. I grew up in a small town environment of safety and comfort. I was really afraid to go out on my own, to explore the world, and meet new people.

The fear of the unknown and discomfort that comes with meeting new people, trying to express myself, and speaking a language other than English in public have always been the biggest dragons in my life. They have held me back from doing the things that I really want to do and becoming the best version of myself.

I bet you have had a similar experience along your journey to English fluency. Whether you are just starting or pretty far down the road, you know that nervous feeling you get when you are about to do something that scares you in English.

Do you run from that feeling of fear? Or do you face it when it comes up?

Embarking On My Journey

Let’s fast forward4 to my college days where all of this started to change with one simple decision.

After high school, I continued to follow my passion for science and football by choosing to get a degree in geology while playing football at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. Lexington is a small town located in a valley in the Appalachian Mountains.

During my college days, this small town in Virginia helped me find my love for nature. When I arrived on campus for the first time, everywhere I had looked was surrounded by beautiful mountains, flowers, trees, animals, and rivers.

For the first time, I started to explore the world and my passion for nature on my own while studying geology. I started to travel to exotic locations around the United States, such as Zion Canyon in Utah, to understand the earth and its processes a little bit better.

I felt a connection that I had never felt before from finally facing the discomfort of exploring the unknown beauty of nature. My experiences traveling and connecting with the natural world changed my perspective.

I wanted to deepen that connection, so instead of finishing my senior year of football in college, I made the big decision to quit from the team so that I could study abroad in Rio de Janeiro, a city known for its beautiful beaches, forests, and mountains, and learn Portuguese.

I felt like Brazil was literally calling me, and I was ready to answer it. I knew it was time to accept the challenge to learn Portuguese, and start to face my fears for once.

But wait… I bet you are thinking about my experience with Spanish.

Why would I try to start a new language?

I wanted to restart. I wanted to try to learn Portuguese with a clean slate5. I was tired of running from my fears, and I had a feeling that Rio would be the perfect place for me to learn Portuguese, deepen my connection with nature, and of course spend some time relaxing at the beach.

In addition to connecting with nature, I wanted to connect with Brazilians and learn about their culture, so I restarted my language learning journey by ordering a book called Learn Portuguese in 15 Minutes and signing up for a year of Portuguese classes at my college (which seemed logical at the time).

After a year studying Portuguese and preparing for my trip to Brazil, I found that I had the same difficulties that I had learning Spanish. I could read and write okay, but it was really tough for me to speak it and I couldn’t really understand natives.

I felt discouraged again, but this time I wasn’t going to quit. I had learned my lesson from my failures with Spanish. This time I was determined to learn how to speak Portuguese. It was important for me to have determination in this moment in order to keep going and to achieve my goals.

I learned that I would have to be patient with myself and the journey. Instead of thinking about becoming fluent in 3 months or 1 year, I approached learning Portuguese as a lifelong journey.

I’m 4 years into this journey, and I believe that I have just started. There’s just so much to learn. You always have room for improvement.

I imagine that if you are reading this, you really want to improve your English skills. Understand that throughout the journey there will be moments where you will be upset with yourself or feel frustrated that you aren’t making any progress. Maybe you can’t understand native jokes, or maybe you are afraid to speak English in public and make mistakes.

Whatever happens, don’t give up. Stay determined. Keep finding resources and ways to get better along the journey.

No matter where you are at in your journey, you’ve come way too far to quit.

What’s Your Story?

Now you know how my adventure with Portuguese got started.

It had very humble beginnings. I was never the best language learner. I even quit learning Spanish early in the process.

I may be an English coach, but I’m far from perfect.The story of how I started on my Portuguese journey is likely similar to your English journey.

I “love the life I live” today because I know how it feels to struggle when you are first learning a language. I connect with that pain because I went through it multiple times. Today, I find so much pleasure in being able to help English learners such as yourself grow.

This is how my Portuguese journey started: with many mistakes, failures, and painful moments. Reflecting on all my experiences, I can now say I have a deep appreciation for everything. Each challenge was a lesson to be learnt, and today I feel like all the work I’ve put in to improve my Portuguese has been worth it.

Whether you are just embarking on your journey as a lifelong English learner or have been learning English for a while, there will be a number of challenges that you will encounter.

Zig Ziglar once said: “You don’t have to be great to start. But you have to start to be great.”

The key is to start, and to make a commitment to the journey. I promise it will be the best decision of your life.

If you have enjoyed hearing how my language learning journey started, follow along as I share my experiences learning Portuguese while teaching English in Brazil next week.

In the meantime, if this article has inspired you, I would love to know more about your journey to English fluency.

Now, it’s your turn to have some fun and share your story. Answer the following question, and tell me about your heroic journey to conquer English in the comments section below.

What is the most important lesson that you’ve learned so far on your English journey?

Today is the day to accept your call to adventure and start improving your English abilities.

Download a FREE copy of the RealLife English Manifesto and begin your journey to English fluency!

Vocabulary from this article

  1. lean: to move in the direction of something
  2. heartbreaks: difficult losses
  3. tough: difficult
  4. fast forward: an expression that means to go to an event or time period in the future
  5. clean slate: a new opportunity
  • Sodre says:

    Hello, Zach Barney!
    It is a great story about your life and journey! I live here in Brazil since I was born and I’m aware of how it could be hard in the beginning for you. I share the same experience as you. Most of the time, I feel like I’m not making any progress, and improving my English skills. However, I’m so grateful because I’m alive, I have friends, clean water, etc. I remember my first day in class at School (English Course), it was 4 years ago and before that, I didn’t have any contact with English during my High School. I confess that I was not afraid, but when the Teacher started to speak and said: We cannot speak Portuguese in class only English, in that time, I’ve become afraid of English because my own dragons woke up. But, I faced, slay them. Now I speak without worry about mistakes, grammar, and judgment from other people. We know that many people who succeed in life, business, sports and so on, failed one, two, three … many times before they got glorious.

    I’d like to congratulations you and the other guys members of this amazing team. You have great resources and nice article to share with us. Thanks a bunch!

    • Zach Barney says:

      I really appreciate your comment Sodre!! Your story is really inspiring as well. I’m glad that you feel motivated to continue along the journey to RealLife English fluency with me. WE are in this together!

  • Maks says:

    Hi, Zach!! thanks for sharing your personel story to fluency. Realy inspiring. I’m Maks.. from Kyrgyzstan one of the former soviet union republics. Probably I’m the only one from KG in fluency circle. First I got interested in learning eng and somehow become fluent when I was in 5th grade. At the time we happened to have one the first group of volunteers teaching eng abroad. I still remember that guy’s name and he looked like.. His name was Tim (native American ). Our first lesson was something that we’d never experienced. We laughed a lot and had really interesting lesson. I’d never thought that eng could be toughed this easy. So since that I wanted to understand and be able to speak . then after a while me and my family moved to another city.. where of course we had just ordinary boring and having no clue how to teach easy eng teacher. There is too much to say.. I don’t have enough vocabulary.
    But anyways. I agree with you that we have to be determinate and consistent on our journey.

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