How Teaching English Helped Me Learn Portuguese

“The only thing to do with good advice is to pass it on. It is never of any use to oneself.” ~Oscar Wilde

My journey as an English teacher is closely connected to my journey to Portuguese fluency. It all started when I made the decision to come to Brazil for the first time as an exchange student.

In my first month in Brazil, I realized how bad my Portuguese was. Even after taking an intensive Portuguese class in a local university in Rio, I still struggled to communicate with Cariocas, the name given to Brazilians from Rio.

I couldn’t understand the Carioca accent and slang. It was completely different than what I had studied in Portuguese class back in the US and traditional courses.

Everything changed when I decided to do something out of the ordinary. I was scrolling through1 my Facebook feed one day, and I saw a post looking for volunteer English teachers in a favela in Rio.

For those of you that don’t know, the favelas have been labeled by the media as dangerous “slums” that you shouldn’t visit when you spend time in Rio.

Everyone including the host family that I stayed with discouraged me from going there and exploring the culture and environment for myself.

I chose not to follow the traditional route of staying away from the favelas, and instead made the bold2 decision to respond to the post and express my interest to teach and share my knowledge in a local favela near the apartment I was living at.

It turned out to be one of my best decisions to this day. Fast forward3 to the present, teaching English in a favela helped me discover a passion for teaching and learning languages as I also began to face one of my biggest fears, public speaking.

I learned a lot about myself by stepping outside of my comfort zone. I realized in the favelas how much I really valued human connection, authenticity, and exploring different ideas.

Teaching in a favela was definitely a perspective-opening experience that grounded me4 to reality, made me appreciate everything that I had a little more, and made me question my own prejudices5.

In 2015, I started my journey teaching English, and over the past few years have been able to improve my Portuguese significantly through the lessons that I’ve learned teaching English both in Brazil and in the United States, and in general being open to sharing the knowledge I’ve gathered to the people I encounter along the way.

Today, I’m grateful to be on this journey with you as your personal RealLife English coach, and to share with you how teaching English has actually helped me learn Portuguese in the process.

1. I learned how to learn languages.

While teaching English I realized that there are many different ways to learn. I learned this by observing my students.

I realized my younger students loved to learn English by playing games, dancing, singing music, and through activities, such as art and cooking.

My adult students usually enjoyed discussing books, listening to podcasts, watching TED Talks, and writing.

The big takeaway6 is that there isn’t one way or method that is perfect for every language learner. It’s up to7 each student to experiment and discover what works best for them.

Some people learn best by doing, others learn by reading, listening, watching videos, or writing. For this reason, self-awareness is an essential skill to have if you are learning a new language.

If you understand yourself, then you will know which ways you learn English the most effectively. You can also find ways to learn English naturally through exploring your interests and finding new activities to practice your English skills.

Through teaching English, I found out that I learned Portuguese effectively by using the language in practical situations on a daily basis.

I’ve improved my Portuguese significantly by getting over8my fear of speaking and creating habits such as sending voice messages to my Brazilian friends, learning new, interesting subjects by reading, keeping a personal gratitude journal in Portuguese, listening to Brazilian music, and traveling to different places in Brazil.

After teaching English, I learned how to truly live my Portuguese. I made learning Portuguese fun, natural, and convenient.

Once you understand how you learn best, it becomes much easier along your journey to create a plan for yourself to improve your English skills.

2. I met Brazilians and other people that speak Portuguese.

When I first arrived in Rio, I spent a lot of time around other college students that were in my study abroad9program. We did everything in the city together. This made it almost impossible to learn Portuguese.

It was really frustrating because deep down inside me I had a strong desire to improve my Portuguese and connect with as many Brazilians as I could during my time as an exchange student in Rio.

When I finally made the decision to start teaching English, I started to become friends with Brazilians for the first time.

By stepping outside of my comfort zone and teaching English in Brazil, I was forced to meet people that spoke Portuguese. Naturally, I started to surround myself with Brazilians, both in my classes, and on the street, specifically the ones that wanted to learn English, and along the way teach me Portuguese.

The best teachers I ever had while learning Portuguese were the Brazilians I met on the street while drinking a beer at the local corner bar, at the beach selling handmade goods, and at language exchange events in the city.

They taught me important lessons about the rich culture and history of Brazil. I learned everything that the Portuguese books never explained to me.

If you want to improve your English, you can easily meet English speakers in your city by offering to teach your native language to them. A lot of times they have the same desire as you to improve their language skills while traveling. If you don’t live in a bigger city, you can do the same thing online.

As you start to teach your own language, not only will you start to learn more about different methods of learning languages, but you will also start to attract more English speakers into your life.

3. I learned new vocabulary, slang expressions, and connected speech.

As I began to make more Brazilian friends in Rio by teaching English, I realized how the local Carioca accent was full of slang expressions that I was never taught in any of my traditional Portuguese classes.

Every class I would teach my students new vocabulary, slang expressions, and examples of connected speech from the United States. In return, they would surprise me by attempting to translate and teach me the same phrases and idioms I was trying to explain to them.

I realized how similar American English and Brazilian Portuguese are. They are both considered to be more informal compared to British English and European Portuguese.

We both love to cut and connect our words, use slang and phrasal verbs that don’t make any sense on their own, and create jokes based on trends in music, media, and TV series.

I always came out of my English lessons feeling like I learned something new. I felt like the student even though technically I was the teacher leading the class.

This made me realize that the best teachers are really just passionate students. After realizing teaching is actually a great opportunity to learn, I carried this mindset into everything I do in my life.

Today, I see myself as a student of life. Every moment is an opportunity for me to learn something new.

You’ll be surprised by how many opportunities there actually are to improve your English if you have this mindset. When you start to not just learn English, but live it on a daily basis you will realize that every situation is an opportunity to improve your language skills.

4. It gave me the opportunity to return to Brazil.

English has become the universal language of business across the world. I’m extremely thankful to have English as my first language because it has given me a chance to travel and share valuable knowledge in the form of language with those around me.

I feel so fulfilled to have the opportunity to live in Brazil and make a positive impact around the world by helping dedicated English learners such as yourself along your journey.

When I’m not teaching English, I have the flexibility to spend time diving deep into Brazilian culture and traditions. I’m constantly finding new ways to improve my Portuguese by creating a lifestyle around my learning process.

None of these opportunities to learn Portuguese would have been possible if I didn’t have the desire to share what I’ve learned and to serve others. Though I admit there are days that I would love to only speak Portuguese, I find it so satisfying to help you all grow and provide you the same opportunities that I’ve had to travel the world and explore different cultures.

This may be one of the biggest reasons to make the lifelong commitment to learning English. It’s become a universal language that connects the entire world through music, books, social media, and movies.

Learning English opens your life to a world of opportunities to connect with people across the world from different cultures and helps you live a life beyond borders. It becomes a superpower that you can choose to keep to yourself, or you can be generous and share your abilities with the world.

Share Your Lessons

No matter where you are at on your journey to English fluency, you can start to improve your English by teaching.

You don’t have to literally teach in a classroom. Start by sharing your knowledge and the lessons you’ve learned on your journey with the people around you and that you meet.

We are all students and teachers. We all have something to learn or share, so don’t be afraid to listen to and serve the people around you. Make a positive impact in your sphere of influence, the people that you spend the most time with on a daily basis.

You don’t have to be an expert to start. Just have faith and take that first big step outside of your comfort zone.

You could improve your English skills by teaching your native language to English speaking travelers in your city. If there aren’t many English speakers in your city, learn as much English as you can on your own and start teaching lower level learners the lessons that you already learned along your journey.

Today is the day for you to stop being ordinary and to start becoming extraordinary.

So, what are you waiting for?

Become the hero of your own journey and life by giving back to the world and sharing your skills.

As you continue along your journey to RealLife English fluency, “be the change you wish to see in the world” by empowering and inspiring people with your story and lessons.

Are you ready to accept your Call to Adventure and take your English skills to the next level?

Download a FREE copy of the RealLife English Manifesto and get started on your journey to English fluency!

Vocabulary from this article

  1. scrolling through: looking at
  2. bold: courageous
  3. fast forward: moving forward in time
  4. grounded me: made me feel balanced
  5. prejudices: opinions or judgments without any prior experience or knowledge
  6. takeaway: lesson
  7. up to: indicates it’s a personal responsibility for someone
  8. getting over: to overcome something and continue with your life
  9. study abroad: what US college students commonly call international exchange programs
  • Marco says:

    Thanks for sharing Zach, this is damn inspiring and this is also a fantastic example on how not only learning a language but living it !

    • Zach Barney says:

      Thanks Marco! I really appreciate your comment. It hasn’t always been an easy journey, but I’ve learned to appreciate the process.

  • Elucified says:

    Learning other languages can also help us learn English. Sometimes , my knowledge of Spanish vocabulary helps me guess the meaning of an English word.

    • Zach Barney says:

      That is a very good point. The process of learning process of learning Portuguese has actually helped me improve my Spanish and learn more about English also. Thanks for sharing your insight!