Ep. 28: Isabel Moura - The Traveling Polyglot

Isabel Moura

A Short Story…

It was a sunny day and I found myself in a quiet park in the middle of the Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte in the state of Minas Gerais.  I was just sitting minding my own business when a man approached me and started conversing.  With my limited Portuguese, I found out he was a doctor and he asked me why I was in Brazil to which I responded with: “para comer” or “to eat”.  He gave me this funny look and paused for a heartbeat, an odd reaction to such a mundane response.  Well, it turns out “para comer” has "other connotations" and the next thing you know, this "doctor" was offering to to connect me with some rather unsavory ladies of the night so to speak.  Needless to say awkward hilarity ensued and when he found out I really was in Brazil just for the food, he pointed me towards a hotel that sold "Feijoada", arguably the most famous of all Brazilian stews.

Now, this story has become just another travel memory among many but it does highlight something we often overlook when talking about trying new foods, especially abroad: Language.  We often rely on global “listicles”, word-of-mouth from fellow tourists, or perhaps the odd local blog when thinking about the foods we’d like to sample when traveling but too often, the foods that really define a country are hidden behind a language curtain.  For example, it wasn’t until I learned a few key Japanese phrases that I was able to taste dishes beyond the stereotypical ramen and sushi in Tokyo.  Or that the right Khmer words meant the difference between ho-hum toast and jam breakfasts at the hostel and the addicting pork over rice sold on the streets for the local workers.  Language plays a key role not just in unlocking the real flavors of a region but also in understanding a place’s culture itself!

Thus, we come to this episode that is a bit of a departure from our normal programming.  Today, I talk with Isabel Moura (full disclosure: she is also my Portuguese professor), who, during my visit to Brazil, introduced me to foods beyond the stereotypical açai bowl and grilled meats.  She's a popular teacher on the Language Learning Community Platform iTalki where I met her and has over ten years of experience teaching languages.  We:

  • Demystify some of the misconceptions around language-learning (no you don’t have to rely on memorization),

  • The systems one can use to make language learning not only efficient and effective but also personal,

  • How one can create environments to learn a language even if they don’t have the resources to travel often or take intensive courses, and

  • How they can apply their newfound skills abroad

Portuguese may have been the language I have dedicated the most time on but I cannot overstate just how much more delicious my experiences in food have been abroad just by learning some essential phrases.  That’s because the real food of a place is often in the homes and markets, hidden in plain sight in front of us tourists and so I’m really excited to be taking this rather different look at food in today’s episode.  Então, senhoras e senhores, por favor, aproveite minha conversação com Isabel. 


5:00 - Isabel's Love of Language // Songs in the Shower
9:45 - Misconceptions of Language Learning // "You can't buy a Language off the Shelf"
12:15 - Strategies that Work: Immersions
15:30 - The Role of the Internet on Practice
19:00 - Strategies that Work: for Absolute Beginners
    * Increasing "Input" (i.e. exposure to a language)
    * (Self)-study + Creating Connections between Words using Context
    * "Spaced Repetition System"
25:15 - Strategies that Work: for Intermediate Learners
    * Vocabulary + Practice
30:00 - Making Mistakes // Balancing Accuracy vs. Fluency
39:00 - Creating Learning Environments
    * With Others (Teachers)
    * By Self
47:00 - Exploring a Country
    * Joining (activity) Groups
    * Visiting Markets
    * Visiting Libraries + Attending Public Presentations
55:45 - What you miss out on when you don't learn a Language
    * “A Man Finds An Explosive Emotion Locked in a Word” by Invisibilia Podcast - NPR (Podcast link inside)
1:02:15 - On Enjoying the Process, Self-Discovery, and Tolerance

Rapid Fire with Isabel
Most Influential Person: her own self
Best Tool Ever Purchased: ReadLang Premium
3 Ingredients That Describe Isabel: Avocado, Condensed Milk, Raspberries
Resource(s) for the Common Person: "Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are" by Amy Cuddy (TEDGlobal 2012)
If Isabel's Life Story was Written in One Sentence: "Don't Believe How Others See the World, See it for Yourself"

Resources Referenced:
DuoLingo - Freemium Language Learning Platform utilizing a Spaced Repetition System
Lingvist - Freemium Adaptive Language Learning Platform utilizing Neural Networks and focusing on Vocabulary and Sentence Structures
Linguee - Web dictionary utilizing Search to find contextual, bilingual language pairs
The "Practice Makes Perfect" Book Series by Dorothy Richmond

Follow the Story...
Website (iTalki): Isabel Moura
E-mail: lingolust@gmail.com