Trying My Hand at Portuguese in Brazil

“Who are you?” – one of the many existential children’s books I found in Brazil.

My whole life, it has bugged me when I don’t know what something means. This has lead me to study many languages at some level or another. I stumbled my way into Portuguese because I read about a band called Bonde do Rolê in Rolling Stone in high school. Apparently, their brand of “baile funk” featured particularly insane lyrics. For whatever reason, it became my mission to sit at Borders bookstore (RIP) at night with my parents, trying to translate their lyrics.

(Randomly, I couldn’t figure out one word in particular: “vitiligo.” Later, the band themselves told me it was “Michael Jackson disease” when I got the chance to interview them at The Triple Rock in college. This is funny to me now.)

I developed a love of Portuguese, mostly from listening to a lot of baile funk, and because I was already somewhat “into” Brazil. I had taken Spanish for a few years in high school, and I was excited to find out the U of M had a “Brazilian Portuguese for Spanish Speakers” class. By the end, I had learned a fair amount of Portuguese, but also left with the notion that Portuguese was almost just like Spanish, except pronounced differently.

This was tested when Neil and I went to Lisbon, Portugal for a few days a couple years ago. I had passed every level in Duolingo, so I rolled in thinking I was somewhat proficient in Portuguese. Nope. Most people we met in Portugal spoke English, and didn’t understand what I was saying at all when I tried speaking Portuguese. I finally asked a nice restaurant owner lady to let me practice Portuguese with her, and while she was kind and helpful, she pointed out how frequently I was using Spanish words that were incorrect. (Didn’t help that I was practicing Spanish and Portuguese on Duolingo at the same time …) I left very humbled (in the “I need to try harder” sense, not in the “something flattering happened to me” sense).

Before our (second) attempt to go to Brazil, I knew I had to work a lot harder to actually practice and learn Portuguese itself, as its own language, rather than as a close sister to Spanish. Then I discovered Pimsleur audiobooks, which make you speak to them primarily with your voice instead of just play matching games with words. These books gave me the courage to actually get used to using my mouth to make Portuguese words.

Once we got there, I was surprised to learn it was nothing like the situation in Portugual. Almost no one spoke English, other than hotel receptionists. When people did speak English with us, it was usually a few careful words, delivered shyly, and sometimes with an apology for the quality of their English (even though it was very proficient).

The main people we interacted with – cab drivers and waiters – rarely spoke any. I was thrown in quickly way over my head, but I was excited to have a chance to actually use something I’d learned. (How much of higher education is spending a lot of effort learning something you’re only going to use to correct people at parties?)

My half-proficient Portuguese was completely necessary to do things like schedule and plan a tattoo, tell cab drivers where we were going and order food. At a certain point, I had a weird realization. Someone could roll into Brazil, not understanding the grammar/syntax/whatever of Portuguese, but having a perfect grasp on pronunciation/ how to read something out loud, and do a phenomenal job at ordering food and getting places. Meanwhile, someone else could roll in with a perfect grasp of Portuguese grammar and a shit handle on pronunciation, and do nothing but baffle everyone by mispronouncing a common word like “rua” (street – pronounced “Hoo-a”). Lesson: Pronunciation and confidence to say things not like an American “gringo” abroad is just as importance as book smarts.

I was impressed by how much Portuguese Neil picked up on our trip, coming to Brazil with no experience with the language at all. By the end he knew a bunch of numbers, how to negotiate how change is made, how to order the check, and most importantly the word for “thank you” (“obrigado”). I was shocked he did not use any Portuguse with the lady we bought yogurt from at the Washington airport on our way home, because it had become such a habit for us.

If I could have known how important knowing some Portuguse is to visiting Brazil, I would have studied it a lot more. Particularly, I would have studied food vocabulary, because I still didn’t know what most of the things on the menus were. Pimsleur taught me words like “cafezinho” (small coffee), but it didn’t teach me how to understand the descriptions of uniquely Brazilian dishes (or how to order at a restaurant where you pay by the kilo).

I came back having learned a fair amount of vocabulary, but not nearly enough. I imagine I’d have to live there for at least six months to be able to understand say, iCarly in Portuguese (a lot of American shows are dubbed over there). I also felt tired of translating and speaking another language, which takes honesty for me to admit because learning/speaking other languages has always been something I WISHED I had the chance to do. Being outside your own language culture for a few days is a great way to see how hard it has to be to live in America trying to learn weird-ass English when no one here bothers to learn your language.

That’s almost as good to learn as how to order cerveja na praia, não é*?

Next time I go to Brazil, I will study even more beforehand (and also watch a lot of Nickelodeon shows dubbed in Portuguese). There’s a lot more to learn.

*beer on the beach, right?