Oct 16

How I learned to speak like a Brazilian

In a previous post I tell how I almost didn't get into Brazil in part at least for sounding too Brazilian.  So .. here I talk a little about how I went about learning the Portuguese language.

I got off to a bad start.  The only Portuguese I knew when I arrived in Brazi in 1985 was  'thank you'.  But I'd learned the feminine version obrigada rather than the correct (for me) masculine version obrigado.    That raised some local eyebrows!

The first thing I did was a lot of listening -  and watching.   There are some fascinating novelas (soap operas) on Brazilian TV every weekday evening.   They obviously tell a developing story with a range of different characters - goodies, baddies and the rest!  I started to watch and listen paying attention to what was happening- the context helped often in getting the semantic gist.  It all sounded like proverbial gobbledegook of course.  But gradually I started noticing repeated lexical chunks.   I was living with a community of Brazilians so I could ask them what a particular lexical chunk meant.   I had trained as an English as a Foreign Language teacher and as part of that course I'd learned phonetic script.  So I started writing down interesting lexical chunks phonetically.   It was particularly useful when I heard the same, or apparently similar, lexical chunks around me at meal times.  That's how my language learning began.

And then I went on a 48 hour bus trip up to the North East of Brazil with a Brazilian colleague who spoke no English.  He wanted to take me for Christmas and New Year to see his (big) extended family.   I learned a fair bit on the trip itself.   I had to eat and ask for food and drink whenever we stopped for a break.  And in between we did our best to communicate with a mix of words and gestures.  I learned the all-important word for 'cockroach' - barata as there were many flying baratas which would land on us during the long nights on the road.  I was awoken one night with one crawling down my face.   Not the best of memories but at least I learned their name!   I also learned functional stuff like uma Coca por favor (A Coke please) or Um Guaraná por favor (a Guarana please - Guarana being my all-time favourite Brazilian soft drink, particularly Guarana Antarctica.   And how to ask if there was something in particular like Tem pão de queijo?. Or Tem misto quente?  (Do you have any cheese bread? And Do you have any cheese and ham toasties? respectively).

And then .. we arrived at my friend's family home.  It was quite a small house but was filled with children.  There were nieces, cousins, nephews and lots of them!  And they became my teachers.   Teaching the weird and unusual foreigner became quite literally their favourite game.

They'd wake me up at the crack of dawn, or before it, and off we would go.   They learned my gestures - pointing backwards for past tense; gesticulating forwards for the future; role playing actions for verbs; pointing at objects for nouns.  And they'd supply me with the Portuguese.  If I grew tired (which I most certainly did repeatedly!) I'd get a chorus of Mais, mais, mais ..More, more, more!   It was exhausting as it went on from dawn till bedtime every day.  But I learned so very much.  And, for better or worse, I think I entertained the kids well for the adults who had lots of relative peace at my expense!  It was tiring but I loved it.  I was beginning to learn past tenses even for the irregular verbs like fazer (to do) or ir (to go).  So I learned to say I went - eu fui; he went - ele foi.   That's a very useful verb to know.   With lots and lots of gestures, which of course the kids loved, I told them stories, answered their questions as best I could.  One answer might take 5 -10 minutes but they got me there in the end. For them, it was intriguingly amusing.   And they were certainly among the best teachers I've ever had!

And, for now, that's enough.  Next time I'll tell you a bit about the next stage - lessons with my Portuguese teacher Marlene   She was passionate about Portuguese and held the firm belief that Brazilians were intent on destroying the language.  But, that as they say, is another story!

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