Living & Learning (Portuguese)


(some of the books I went through)

I read technology news every morning and this morning I read about why Google wanted to buy local coupon site GroupOn. The woman interviewed said, for Google, it’s much easier to buy into a market than to build up from nothing because with the former, you get a team of people who know what they’re doing and they already understand the market. In effect, paying for something saves time. It got me thinking about some of the things I wish I had not done alone and it turns out that learning Portuguese is one of those things. Sure, some people are impressed when they hear that I learned it on my own but I wonder if that is worth the fact that I probably added on a few years to my goal of reaching fluency by doing it the way I did.

I’m not a believer in the notion that one language can be easy to learn while another can be hard. Some folks even say one romance language can be learned more quickly than another. I beg to differ. All major languages require learning vocabulary and grammar rules, sounds and accents as well as formal and informal speech. On top of that, one needs to have determination, an ability to memorize and the will to be consitent. For these reasons, most of us know how hard it can be to learn Portuguese but also how satisfying every small victory feels, whether it is achieved alone or through someone who is able to give you a well-rounded learning experience.

The road I chose was lop-sided and lengthy since my teacher was myself, nudged along by a stubbornness to really be able to understand Brazil, its people and its culture. Several years ago, I didn’t want to just be a linguistic tourist in the land of the Portuguese language, I wanted to live there. Despite the fact that my first two attempts to actually reside (and more importantly, remain) in Brazil were not successful, I still will myself to live in a world of cedilhas and diphthongs, of half-eaten words and tricky verbs. Even when there’s no one to share a spare interjection with, I end up thinking it anyways.

While I fear I cannot come close to the charm of Olavo Bilac’s poetic description of Portuguese (a última flor do Lácio, inculta e bela: the last flower of Latium, wild and beautiful), I do have my own take on its allure. To me, Portuguese has always been a language of rounded words, the kind that should feel at home in the mouth of the one who speaks it. Being as sonorous and full-bodied as it is, I find myself wanting to always know more and be better.

Seven years passed before I considered myself to be fluent and for at least half of the time, I was hitting the books daily, even when I felt like I couldn’t do it anymore. Part of me would think, “I’ll do it tomorrow” but the other part replied, “No, you do it now!” Needless to say, the latter part won out and I soon found myself able to read magazines, newspapers and novels with an ever-higher degree of difficulty.

The price of admission for finally learning written Portuguese was that I had let my spoken Portuguese remain pretty much non-existent on account of not having a real teacher. I would listen in on conversations while I hung out with Brazilian expats but their unforced Portuguese sounded to me like one long word. Not being confident enough in my ability to carry on a conversation, even though the foundation was there in my head, I resigned myself to trying to pick out individual words. As the months continued, I started to be able to catch on to the moment when one word would end and another would begin, but by that time, the current conversation I was listening to was either over or on another subject.

There were times when I’d join in, ready to take a linguistic beating if need be. The results were limited but necessary. Pushing boundaries in language-learning is an important part of the process, even if you sometimes push too far. Of course, no one will ever hear me confirm this, but there may have possibly been a few forced laughs and nods of the head when in fact I didn’t get the joke or the idea at hand. Yes, there may have been an “é, né“, an “ah, tá” or a “…tendi” when perhaps I should have said I didn’t understand. It’s hard to know which choice would have been best but I just chalked it up to growing pains.

One choice I’ve always been happy with is when, around 2002, I first picked up a Portuguese-language learning book. All the time in between didn’t turn me into Euclides da Cunha because I still make small intermediate-level mistakes. There’s also more to learn on the advanced side but I’m generally satisfied with how much I’ve learned and to what degree I can navigate a conversation. The one thing that hasn’t changed in all these years is the fact that I still have the same desire for the language. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t either listen to, read, write or speak Portuguese. If that’s not love, I don’t know what is.

Originally written for Street Smart Brazil.

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How I Think In Portuguese

I want to address how I think in Portuguese, which is to say, how I translate words I see and interpret words I hear. The initial misconception on how this works is that I see maçã (apple), for example, and then my brain searches for the word, then the translation, and then the word ‘apple’ appears in my mind. Well, that’s actually not how it works. Let me explain.

For me, and maybe this goes for everyone or most people or maybe no one else, but for me, English pretty much goes out the door when I’m thinking in Portuguese. It’s as if my left brain is Portuguese-speaking and my right brain is English-speaking and one side gets turned off while I process things in the language of the opposite side. Make sense?

I’m trying right now to think back on my learning process and if there was a point when I did translate word for word where the phrase ‘eu comi a maçã’ would become something like ‘eu/I…comi/ate…a/the…maçã/apple’. Perhaps in the very beginning, I’m not sure anymore.

When I have to interpret for someone or when subtitles on a movie are in the other language, it’s like my mind doesn’t naturally want to do that work, which tells me that either profession is about training your mind to automatically do the extra level of processing on top of the foreign language side of the brain processing. If you’ve ever spoken with either interpreters or translators, you’d know that they do not appreciate non-professionals even though practically-speaking, knowing another language means you can do either job (notice I didn’t say well). Technically-speaking, though, what they strongly dislike about someone not-highly trained doing such work is that they are taking away work from a professional while doing a worse job at it.

Going back to the main subject, I’d say that once you hit about 85% fluency, you can start to automatically think in that language but if you are finding it hard, try to force yourself to do it. All the things you say to yourself during the day, just think of those very things in Portuguese. Whether you ‘say’ it right is one thing, but there’s also the other side of the coin which is that you are still training your brain to think in that foreign language. 

Training your Ears with Film

The other day, I did a post on training your ears through news websites (specifically, their multimedia sections) and today on Eyes On Brazil, I did a post featuring the titles of the close to 100 Brazilian films that I’ve seen over the years. It’s not only a great way to train your ears but there’s a lot to gain culturally by watching them.

Feel free to check out my list (most of which I recommend) here.

Training your Ears with the News

While my main focus has always been Brazilian Portuguese, lately I have been getting into the European variety to the extent that I am going to stretch this blog’s focus to include it. A good way to start is by understanding some of the practical differences as well as that which is not always obvious. As an added bonus in this digital age we live in, there’s no need to go to Portugal or to seek out a Portuguese person if you wish to hear them speak.

Expresso is a Portuguese daily and it happens to have a good stream of video reports that anyone can listen to for free. Likewise, O Globo has a multimedia section where, on the righthand side, one can see their video selection. Preferably, I would like to find a variety of Brazilian news sites that offer actual reports in their video section like Diário do Pará’s Youtube channel. If you know of some, let me know!