Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Language Lessons

Although locals generally find my accent ceaselessly entertaining, I can quickly gauge my linguistic prowess from a taxi ride. I submit to you the following real-life example.

Driver: blá blá blá (in question form)

Me: Não. No.

Driver: Donde tu és? Where are you from?

No, I’m not exaggerating. It happened. And another time...

Me: Boa tarde! Queria ir a Santo Inácio, por favor. É perto de Doutor Vale e Hilário Ribeiro. Good afternoon! I’d like to go to (insert address).

Driver: Tá. És do Uruguai? Ok. Are you from Uruguay?

Me: (smile) Não. Sou dos Estados Unidos, de Chicago.

Driver: Aí? Fala bem em português! Really? You speak Portuguese very well!

This is entertaining to me because Brazilians are chronically polite, at least in the presence of strangers. And I understand, between the lines, that my Portuguese would be considered merely adequate if I was from neighboring Uruguay. However, being from the USA I reap the reward of shock value.

Clearly I make lots of mistakes, though fortunately they tend to be pretty funny. I don’t know why I confuse folga (slack) and pulga (flea). A couple weeks ago I announced that I was heading to a shop on Rua Senhor dos Passaros (rather than Passos), which meant I was heading to the harder-to-find “Birdman Street” rather than the more commonly known “Man of the Stairs Street.”

It works both ways though. Because the “i” is pronounced “ee” in Portuguese, I was forced to explain to a student why special care should be taken when pronouncing “wine”—as “Do you like weenie” innocently floated from her mouth. Likewise, “orange” should not be confused with “orgy.”

Lately (finally), I got serious about making progress with my stagnant communication skills. I re-started my Portuguese lessons, since I tend to perform better when some element of accountability is present. I have also responded to an advertisement for volunteers to see if I can ingratiate myself with another band of locals whilst contributing to society (as it was part of the original vision). I am reading books, albeit slowly, and watching some horrific television programs—understanding more each day. Too, it gives me pleasure to announce that I only know my cell phone number in Portuguese.

Before I get too functional in the language, though, I’ve been trying to savor those lucky moments that only a foreigner enjoys. Those moments when I’m walking down the street with the priceless ability to turn vendors, music, and traffic into white noise; when the loud talker on the cell phone on the bus doesn’t irritate me quite as badly as it used to when I regrettably understood the story of last night’s escapade; or when I’m excused from engaging in, or even listening to, some debate for lack of linguistic proficiency. So as I muddle through—even progress on—my goal to become multi-lingual, it’s lovely to live in a language-less world, sometimes.

Boa noite queridos,