My Encounter with Brazilian Portuguese
(Paraty, RJ, Brazil)
* Studying Portuguese in Brazil.
My husband and I are ex-patriates from the U.S. My experience with the language of Brazilian Portuguese began almost two years ago. Perhaps it is a unique experience or others have also felt similarly when moving to a new country where the language spoken is not English as in my case, or it’s not your native language.
Upon arriving in February 2008 I knew perhaps a vocabulary of 100 words and had only the confidence to speak 10 of these words. Months later, with the help of my Portuguese tutor, Mr. Charlles Nunes, my vocabulary and ability to speak has improved and evolved tremendously.
My story though is not simply the discovery of a new language and culture, but also (I) the discovery of various aspects of myself and (II) other sub-languages that became apparent through observation and the fact that I was initially unable to communicate verbally in Portuguese.
When you’re completely immersed in a new country, and to make that even more challenging, a fairly remote area of a country where a mere handful speak your own language, it can actually be fairly frustrating. Perhaps not at first, but over time the frustrations can surface.
I thought myself to be fairly progressive with a passion for learning. I have two degrees – my bachelors in business with a chemistry minor and my MBA – Masters in Business Administration. Brazil is the third country that I have lived in.
I’m originally from Trinidad & Tobago (T&T), and then moved to the U.S. for my bachelor’s degree at the age of 19. My transition to the U.S., I thought was fairly simple, perhaps due to my age and my abounding energy. Or perhaps it was due to the fact that both countries i.e. the U.S. and T&T – shared the same language – English. In hindsight, the latter played a significant role. For a few months and to some extent it still happens but certainly not as extreme, entire conversations would simply pass me by.
My neighbors, son’s teachers, doctors, receptionists would talk to me, and without a doubt, most of the time I had a very glazed dumbfounded look. I thought, “Hey perhaps if I just responded with Sim! Or Tá!, they would think I knew what they were saying”. Maybe in some cases it worked, because some people just kept on talking and asking me more questions! Which only resulted in me seeming more confused. Some I think must have thought “Hmmm… she has no idea what I am saying…” and that was the end of the conversation.
Situations like that, when you’re trying to catch on to conversations with the hope of at least sounding a little bit intelligent can actually lead to some self-doubt. I don’t think I ever hit a wall, as the expression goes, and just closed myself off from the language.
I can understand, however, where some immigrants that I do know in the U.S., can shut themselves off from learning a new language even when completely immersed in the culture and lifestyle. I would have to admit I became more self-conscious of how I said things in Portuguese.
With time on my side, as I learned more of the language - through my Portuguese tutors, every day interactions from my extremely talkative neighbor, the television (thanks to my 3 year old’s intense interest in cartoons and programs on Discovery Kids), the radio, magazines, newspapers and Brazilian music cds, my fear of speaking incorrectly diminished.
As I fumbled and mumbled along in my newly adopted language, I also began to
notice various aspects of the culture of the people within the villa where I lived and to some extent beyond that, in the small town of Parque Mambucaba (Perequê).
The majority of the wives of the engineers seemed to spend some of their time on (I) cooking (ii) sewing, quilting, cross-stitching (iii) activities within their church and (iv) painting canvases.
In my former life in the U.S., I did either very little (i.e. cooking) or none of these activities. I was certainly much more interested in progressing in my career, obtaining my masters, attending workshops of the Institute of Supply Management and meetings with the Toastmasters. Even when we had our first son in the U.S., baby food was supplied by Gerber Foods or sometimes by my mother-in-law when she spent a few days with us during the week. I had to figure out another way to communicate at least with the ladies surrounding me.
While my Portuguese was progressing, I still felt very much on the outside, very much the foreigner. I could compare this experience even to my own places of work – every job has its own culture and language. Do you speak the same “language” as your co-worker? If all of your fellow executives are talking about football on Monday morning, are you joining in the conversation?
I had to go beyond myself, conquer this challenge, and while I still don’t have much hope for quilting or painting, I had to explore my cooking skills. Who would have known a Betty Crocker was inside of me?
With these skills and recipes in hand, I was able to interact on a different level with some of the wives and husbands around me and narrow the communication gap. We exchanged recipes and soon enough, I was reading Brazilian cookbooks. As they say, when in Rome, do as the Romans do.
In my observation of the culture around me (one definitely spends more time observing when one is unable to verbally communicate), I noticed too how similar we really are – as clichéd as that may sound.
We just need to understand what kind of language we need in order to speak to each other, which can be much easier said than done. For instance, Gary Chapman’s book on The Five Love Languages explores the different ways that people express their intimate feelings and how they in turn wish to receive this type of communication. We can extend this similar method to our friends, neighbors, professors, co-workers and other human interactions.
I have seen in my U.S. neighborhood where some households tend to have little interaction with other households if they do not have kids or pets. They believe that they don’t speak the same language, so how can they possibly have anything in common?
This is where we can move beyond these obstacles, provided we have the initiative, to explore each other interests. For instance, while we may not both speak English, Portuguese, have children, or dogs, or share the same nationality or ethnicity, perhaps our common ground is cooking? Or gardening? or extreme sports or travelling?
Brazilian Portuguese is a beautiful language. It certainly has a different feeling to it when compared to French or Spanish.
In my transition to Brazil, I am learning not only a new language and culture, but learning more about my strengths and my weaknesses. My capacity to take on new challenges has increased. My horizons have been expanded. I am appreciative for this experience in broadening my language capabilities, creating new friendships and nurturing a new love of Portuguese.