Hello World! (Tea with Me was born!)

This post was actually written on the 3rd January, 2021.

Well, hello and good day to you! My name is Emily (obviously) and I’ve just spent the morning googling “how to write your first blog post”. Time to put all that reading into practice!

Welcome to the launch of Tea With Me, everyone! I am so excited to start sharing all these ideas which are swirling around my head right now. I wanted to start by telling you why I started this blog, and how Tea With Me was born out of the pandemic.

In March of 2020, it felt like my life had totally crumbled. I was out of work, hundreds of applications down, and I was finally getting somewhere. Following a combined 6 interviews and two exams, I was on the brink of two very exciting-looking job offers, when the UK (and the rest of the world) went into quarantine, and the two positions were both withdrawn. For the first time in my life, I was alone. I was isolated. It felt like complete free fall.

I was already an active member of Tandem, a language exchange app, where I’d been practising French, Spanish and Korean for four years. So originally, I decided that I was going to commit to Tandem as a way of making sure that students and other people that were quarantining weren’t too lonely! I didn’t have a role, this gave me a role, it suited me. But then I had an idea.

Portuguese had been swishing around in my head for a while already (a blog post about this will follow soon!) and I started to think… could I learn Portuguese during the pandemic? Even better, how little could I spend in the process? I decided to find out.

I started my first language exchange a week after commencing study. Every day, I spoke to new people, going over the same greetings, asking the same questions, answering the same questions.

How are you? How old are you? What is your job? How is the situation in your country? Are you in quarantine? Why are you learning English?

It wasn’t elegant, but it was something. And speaking to lots of different people gave me the freedom to make the same answers a little bit better every time… get the conjugations right, join my ideas, add a few words here and there, borrow from answers other people had given me. By the end of March, I’d got a few regulars, too, that I had committed to speak to at least once a week.

Within three months of talking for 4-6 hours every single day, I was able to have conversations without too much difficulty. I still had vast gaps in my vocabulary, somewhat dubious grammar, and an accent that someone eloquently described as “a mix of Portugal and country bumpkin”, but I was making myself understood. And I was starting to notice something about language exchanges… a lot of them fizzled out. A lot of them weren’t working, and people were frustrated. They wanted language exchanges to work, but there was something stopping them. That thing was often:

“I can’t find native speakers to talk to”

There was a huge imbalance between the number of Brazilians wanting to learn English and the number of native English speakers wanting to learn Portuguese.

“I never know what to say. It’s hard for me”

People just didn’t know how to steer a conversation in their non-native language. Once the awkward silence crept in, it never really left… the conversation never really got further than “hi, how are you?” “I’m fine thank you, and you?”

“My English isn’t good enough. Can we just write?”

There was often this pervasive idea that if you didn’t already have an advanced speaking level, then you shouldn’t be speaking at all. Who wants to listen to broken English? What if you make a mistake on EVERY SINGLE WORD? What if nobody understands anything you say? What if it’s horrible to listen to you?

“I’m in quarantine. My life is boring. I’m boring. I have nothing to say.”

Yep, we were all in the same boat. There’s only so many updates someone can give you on whether the pigeon came to visit their balcony today yet or not.

Oh, somewhere in this narrative came the bright idea that I wanted to talk to someone in every city of Brazil. I got a map. I started colouring in the cities where I’d spoken to someone. I didn’t manage it, not even close, because I started to gather a community of more and more regulars. On the plus side though, I did acquire a good knowledge of where all the cities are, which I’m sure will make me a fun guest at dinner parties (*dreams of meeting people again*).

So came the first spark of inspiration. I started to structure our language exchanges, by choosing a topic in advance with my partner, finding questions we could ask each other. Then, we could study the topic in advance, get some vocab together, cobble together some ideas and thoughts we wanted to share, so we sounded all knowledgeable by the time we next spoke. I then bought the one thing that I have bought throughout this whole process. A bilingual book of dialogues.

The Portuguese in this book was great. It was so valuable for my learning, and we would practise a dialogue that best matched our topic almost every session. But the problem was the English. They’d opted to make this book a resource for English learners of Portuguese, and as such, the translations were literal, word-for-word translations so that English speakers could see exactly how the sentences were formed. It couldn’t be used for Portuguese learners of English. So, every day, I set about correcting the English translations of the dialogues so they were useable for my language partner. I contacted the company itself to see if they wanted my English translations, to make the book a bilingual resource. They politely declined.

So, the book was born. The very next day, I set about writing my own resource collating a lot of the topics we’d covered so far, and writing dialogues that felt like real snapshots of native conversations, in 2020. I wanted it to be as far away from textbook learning as was humanly possible. And, I was going to write the Portuguese copy myself. It was the ultimate challenge.

I started that book in July. I finished the final draft on New Years Day, 2021, and it’s currently in the editing process. I’ll be posting regular updates! 

To follow my own language learning progress, follow me on Instagram (@teawithemily)!

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