Oi? Say What?

We’ve all heard a foreigner asking for directions or mispronouncing common words even though on paper they know exactly what they are saying. I come across this time and time again when I hear people speaking other languages and it has always made me curious as to why they don’t give enough importance to pronunciation. Perhaps if they knew that the people from the countries that speak those other languages often have an innocent laugh on their behalf, they might put more emphasis on such a skill. Fortunately, there are demanding teachers out there who realize this and don’t overlook this important tenet.

Since I began learning foreign languages, I’ve always put near equal effort into my pronunciation. My goal, though, may be different from most since I don’t just want to be understood, but rather I wish to reach close to native-level fluency. At the very least, having someone think I must be from a far-off region of the same country is considered a win in my book.

You see, my initial intention was actually to teach myself 5 languages by age 30 and by my own count, I reached 3.5 at the height of it. Right around that time, I realized my head was a vocabulary salad (“tudo junto e misturado“, as they say) and that my plan was lofty at best. The realization soon came that fluency in three languages (ie, two foreign languages) was adequate and that some basic math skills were required if I wanted to see it all through. Subtract one and a half from the current total and add what would have been my fifth language as the now-third and final one stick with what I know (Portuguese & Spanish). Start with baby steps, add immersion techniques and here I am, starting my last linguistic endeavor.

What I’m getting at is you shouldn’t overreach because, aside from grammar and all that good stuff, learning to pronounce things correctly is a battle in itself. Being technically correct isn’t all that important when it comes to language. This is obvious in the face of informal and/or regional speech and the same is true for sounds themselves.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been corrected in the last month and a half, despite thinking I was fluent. It turns out that fluency has 5 levels and the final one is a tough nut to crack. Some of my faux-pas include saying “nem eu” like “ne meu”, “sem ar” like “sem mar”, and “também” like…well, “também” (the ending is more like “bang” than “bame”). Luckily, I’ve been corrected enough that I’m now self-correcting a few seconds after I mispronounce.

In any event, and regardless of the fact that I’ve met a boatload of nice people here, if a linguistic kick in the rear-end is what you need, I’d say come to Braziu.

Originally written for Street Smart Brazil


4 thoughts on “Oi? Say What?

  1. I had a linguistics professor in college who was almost 60 and spoke 5 languages. So he gave himself about one a decade, and he had to keep studying them actively in order not to forget. Even then, he was realistic about how well he really knew all of them (except for English, of course). He lived in Vietnam for almost a decade, but it was in his 20s, so he’d forgotten some things. He started German in his 50s, so he was realistic about just how much he was going to remember.
    Don’t let yourself be fooled by people who claim that they’re polyglots. True fluency in a second language is already debated, especially if the language is learned after puberty. True fluency in a third or fourth language is a myth. (Even people who live in places like eastern Africa where they have trade languages that they speak as children still aren’t actually FLUENT in these other languages — their uses of them are limited to specific purposes.)

    • I´d agree with that. True fluency is debatable. I think what most people mean when they say fluent is having at least a S3 level on the link I provided in the article…S5 being truly fluent.

  2. Luckily I learned early on with pronunciations like também, sem, nem, etc.

    The one thing that was pointed out about my pronunciation or speech was not really the pronunciation but rather intonation. That in itself is something not easily mastered and one of the last things I guess that people pick up. My pronunciation seems to fluctuate from good to not bad really. hahaha I’m told that I never sound like an American, that I sound more brazilian but they still can tell that I’m a foreigner and now I know it’s the intonation which I’ve been trying to master.

    I read from a site dedicated to teaching English with foreigners having a problem with English’s intonations, that they tend to stress the wrong words in a phrase. I’m learning that with Brazilian Portuguese it too has its variations, certain inflections and tones.

    I guess no different than my native Hawaiian accent when speaking English, or the Californian accent that I acquired living in California for half of my life. It just takes time to master.

    • Yes, intonation is harder to pick up than pronunciation. I hear it everyday but it doesn´t completely sink in. I´ll give myself a few years more to see what happens.

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