Interview of the Week: Nuria Villalobos

What was the first word you learned in a foreign language and how did you pick it up?
I learned English as a foreign language in school here in Costa Rica, so of course the first words I could say were hello, good-bye and other greeting forms. However, the first time I was in a country where I didn’t speak the language was five years ago, in Germany. I remember I kept hearing a word over and over again (wasser), and then I learned it meant “water”. I haven’t forgotten it since then, and it made me realize how important it is to acquire a second language, not only to learn it.

What are your personal top three tricks and tips when learning languages?
As a language student and teacher, and the experience I’ve had so far learning English and Portuguese as foreign languages, I must say that writing the pronunciation of words helps a lot. During my first English classes, I used to pay attention to the way teachers pronounced the words, and I wrote it down. Once I learned the phonetic symbols, I started using them and it became easier. Because doing this was very helpful to me as a learner, I always recommend this to my students and I encourage them to identify the phonetic symbols in the dictionary so they have a good pronunciation.

Another tip when learning another language is listening to music. Who doesn’t enjoy music? Everybody does, right? Songs offer great practice on vocabulary, spelling, grammar, pronunciation and listening comprehension, of course. They can also teach a lot about the informal language like the use of slang, idioms and fixed expressions as well as different kinds of accents. In addition, lyrics can be the starting point for extra practice such as discussing or writing about the meaning of the song. All this can also be applied when watching movies, sitcoms, videos, news, documentaries, cartoons, talk shows, soap operas and other TV programs.

Last but not least, reading is an effective tool when learning a second or foreign language. When we read a book we learn many new words, review spelling and grammatical structures and if reading aloud, we can even practice pronunciation. But it’s not only books what we can read! The Internet is nowadays a great source of information, and having access to a variety of authentic materials like magazines, newspapers, brochures, menus, greeting cards and others is very useful, too.

What is your favorite word of all times and why?
My favorite word of all times is the Brazilian Portuguese word saudade. The first time I heard it was during a Portuguese class at the university, and I can still remember how long it took for our professor to explain its meaning. I thought: “How can it be so difficult?” After giving some examples and saying possible translations in Spanish (nostalgia, homesickness and longing), there was still not a single word that could enclose all its meaning.

As I continued learning Portuguese and got more in contact with the language, I understood the concept better. According to Caetano Penna in his blog ‘The Northern Face’, saudades is not a negative feeling for him, as ‘missing’ seems to be. “When you feel saudades, you feel the person’s (object’s) energy in you – and this is a positive, warm feeling of virtual presence. This feeling is a happy, positive remembrance that comforts your sad, negative missing, counterbalancing it” (Penna, 2007). He also mentions some curiosities about the word saudade: It was voted the most beautiful word of the Portuguese/Brazilian language, in a poll carried out by a bookshop in Rio de Janeiro; and it was selected by the British company Today Translations as the seventh most difficult word to be translated.

What was the funniest situation with a linguistic misunderstanding you ever encountered?
While taking English classes as undergraduate students, one day my friends and I made a terrible pronunciation mistake during a presentation. The four of us had to say the word “focus” many times, but we didn’t make sure of the correct way to say it. So, instead of saying /foʊkəs/, we kept saying /fɑkjus/ and you know what that sounds like! After we finished the presentation, the professor explained to us the difference in the pronunciation. We felt so embarrassed! At that moment, I understood why it seemed to me that our professor wanted to laugh while we were presenting. It was a good lesson because I learned not to make this mistake again, and also it made me realize how important pronunciation is, especially when talking in front of an audience.

Which language teaching product / service / method / gadget … has impressed you the most and why?
I’ve always liked to make friends from several places, and when I studied abroad in the United States, I met many people from different countries. Trying to communicate in English was a lot of fun, especially when we didn’t know a word or two. In addition, learning words and phrases in each other’s languages was a very enriching opportunity. Because of my personal experience, I find really useful to learn and practice languages with people. The Internet offers a great variety of websites where you can do this; it’s just amazing how communication among people in different countries, and even continents, is possible thanks to technology.

“My Language Exchange”, for instance, is an online community with over 1 million members from over 133 countries who practice 115 languages. Being able to practice your second language with a native speaker, and teach him your native language at the same time is a priceless experience. You not only learn the language but the culture as well, plus meeting people who can become friends for life. Another similar website is “Polyglot Club”, which has around 243.402 members.

The advantage of these websites is that you’ll always meet people who are interested in practicing languages; that’s everybody’s main objective. If your goal is to improve either your English or Spanish, “Lenguajero” is a language learning community where people meet to practice and share their knowledge with other learners around the world, even through a writing club. All these websites offer free registration and translation, chat using voice, video and text, among others. So, if you feel this is what you’ve been looking for, don’t hesitate and join these communities!

The author:
Nuria Villalobos (29) is a professor of English as a Foreign Language at Universidad Nacional, Costa Rica. She holds a Master’s degree in Linguistics/TESL from Indiana State University, speaks Portuguese and is currently studying the teaching of Spanish as a Second Language. She has participated and presented in different national and international conferences about the English language. She’s also a contributor of PocketCultures, where she publishes posts about the Costa Rican culture. Her blog called “World Experience” can be found at

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1 thought on “Interview of the Week: Nuria Villalobos”

  1. Immersion is the single most effective way to learn a language. Its important to have a foundation otherwise being around people that speak the language all the time could get really frustrating. But you could study a language your whole life and not really learn anything unless you are around people who speak it.

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