Category Archives: Language

Everybody speaks wrong!

Where the Portuguese speakers are

As our cab inched toward Sao Paulo on my first day in Brazil what now seems like
many years ago, my friend pointed out the city’s old train station and the neighboring Portuguese language museum. He enthusiastically recommended the museum but advised me to consider waiting to go since everything is written in Portuguese. Thus it wasn’t until almost exactly three months later that I finally found myself back again on a Monday morning, emerging from the complicated underground network of Luz station and arriving in front of what felt like my ultimate test and reward for learning a new language. I snapped pictures of street signs, the Jardim da Luz across the street, the small plaque in front of the museum, everything I could think of to commemorate this most momentous of occasions. As I approached the gate, the security guard informed me that the museum is closed on Mondays.

The museum being closed wasn’t all bad (Parque-Luz)…

IMG_3942With approximately 4,000 things to do and only two days left in the country, it felt like a significant setback. Still, I doggedly headed back the next day, determined to cash in on my Portuguese language-learning efforts. As some consolation, Tuesday is free admission day, and a quick elevator ride later, I was confronted with a large, dark room, with screens wrapping around each wall. These turned out to be audio-visual presentations on Brazilian cultural themes such as football and samba. As a non-native speaker, the music and the interviews seemed disjointed and were difficult to follow so I turned my attention to a large timeline. Here, starting in 4000 BC, Brazilian Portuguese’s roots are elucidated as three separate timelines of African, European and “Amerindian” languages, which begin to merge at the beginning of the 16th century upon the arrival of Portuguese explorers and the beginning of the slave trade.

The heart of the story begins, as all good ones do, in the 3rd century BC when the Roman Empire finally subjugated the Phoenician city-state of Carthage, in what is now the Iberian Peninsula. Common or “Vulgar” Latin quickly replaced any languages previously spoken in the region, and over the centuries that followed, efforts at linguistic fraternization, first by invading Germanic tribes and later by the Moors, were continuously rebuffed. Thus it was that a brief soaking in unique nasal Celtic vowels here, a sprinkling of Germanic fighting words and Arabic agricultural terms there, that Portuguese emerged, largely unscathed, some 15 centuries later.

Portugal’s history is, of course, an interesting one, particularly in the way it explains the diversion of Portuguese and Spanish—hint: Portugal ain’t got no answer to Spain’s alhambra. But the museum knows it’s not fooling anyone; no one’s here to learn about Portugal. We came for the Brazilian Portuguese! And as the 16th century panel proudly states: “from this point on, it is no longer possible to talk about the Portuguese language without talking about Brazil.”

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School’s out for summer

I’ve never been the most assertive person. I had a hard enough time maintaining some semblance of authority when I taught high school math, that had I really stopped to think about it first, the prospect of teaching English to adults would have been pretty daunting. Luckily, after a week of cliff-notes English grammar with Sam, I was thrown into it without any time for reflection. In fact, if memory serves, my deepest reflection at the time was probably the astounding realization that regardless of purported destination, all three 847P buses pass through Vila Madalena, and why the heck did I first need to walk the entire length of Faria Lima to find that out? But I digress…

Ok, so they’re not all perfect—one of my students sent me this picture, ten minutes after class (in Berrini, of course) should have started, saying he couldn’t make it because he had to hang out with his new dog

After I figured out how to get to my classes without first extensively researching and googlemapping each route the night before, I realized maybe the time had come to focus on the content of the classes themselves. Checking in with myself thus, I was disappointed to find I wasn’t doing a very good job. The two-hour long, back-to-back classes every day made it difficult to attain even the oft-cited first year teacher bare minimum of staying a week ahead of the students. Every day I found myself frantically skimming each class’s textbook in the hour ahead of time and mentally sketching out a lesson plan through the book’s various parts. And inevitably on the days I felt least prepared, I would hear a knock at the door 20 minutes before the start of class and in would breeze Rafael or Luciano, so enthusiastically escorting my similarly over-zealous student that it seemed he was instead bringing me the long-lost puppy I didn’t even know I had, never mind had lost. Didn’t my students know they were supposed to be late or not show up at all?! Seriously, why did I have to get the good ones?!

Gaining visitor access for an In Company class

Many seasoned expats caution against the mentality that just because you speak English you can teach it. While I never questioned them for a second—I have enough experience teaching to know that being an effective educator is challenging enough even without trying to teach material you yourself never actually learned—but I will admit to just a teensy bit of hubris. I’ve always liked writing and even presenting. I particularly enjoy the challenge of exploring different ways of framing or, in the case of editing, reframing an idea. Add to this a little bit of teaching experience, and I thought maybe, just maybe, I would have an easier go of it than those other hapless expats. And yet, there I was, on one of my last days of classes, facing my waterloo: an extremely confident middle-aged man questioning me publically on a grammar point about which I was not absolutely confident. I tried to answer him assertively, but my confidence began to waver as he tapped away, consulting his smartphone. “I mean. Maybe, it’s different in England?” I concluded, backpedaling.

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Brazilian “curiosities”

Parque Ibirapuera

Over a year ago, a French man who had been living in Brazil (Minas Gerais) for some time posted a list of 65 Brazilian “curiosities” or “peculiarities.” For whatever reason, the list has just recently gone viral (again?), and I learned about it yesterday from both Stela and my roommate Maisa. Olivier’s tongue-in-cheek, exaggerated tone makes it clear that, though grounded in reality, the list is meant in good fun, and as such, it has resonated with Brazilians and Gringos alike. I would love to translate the whole list, but I’m not sure that this is such good blogger etiquette so I will just discuss some of my favorites.

Just another day, waiting in line

Many of Olivier’s observations are not particularly shocking. For example, Brazilians will be the first to admit that culturally, they are obsessed with forming lines. If it is not possible to physically form a line, you will receive a number in order to create a digital line such that the process might waste still more time. In addition, as many foreigners are well aware, music is a part of life here. Everywhere you go there is live music, and many Brazilians know how to play guitar although, according to Olivier, if you ask them, they will tell you they don’t know how. There is so much musical talent here, and yet everyone is busy playing covers! And of course, as Stela warned me before I arrived, many people here place extreme importance on external signs of wealth in the form owning imported cars, going to expensive restaurants in fancy neighborhoods, etc.

I foolishly thought I could pick up some black flats on the way to work at Iguatemi shopping mall---it turns out they only sell Prada and Salvatore Ferragamo. Not quite up to my standards, you know.
I foolishly thought I could pick up some black flats at Iguatemi shopping mall—it turns out they only sell brands like Prada and Salvatore Ferragamo. Not quite up to my standards, you know.

Like me (or, really rather, “I, like him,” since he kinda got here first), Olivier comments on the rigid requirement of using a napkin when eating finger food, making the additional observation that these napkins are invariably made of plastic such that they are solely useful for blocking the hands from touching the food—actually Tammy also pointed this out to me on my first day here. If you want to wipe your mouth or hands, you’re out of luck. Brazil also produces the best coffee in the world, yet it’s prepared so poorly, often with the addition of kilograms of sugar, that you would never know. I know nothing about coffee, but I agree that it is very common to see people dumping massive amounts of artificial sweetener into their tiny cafezinhos.

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Mama said there’d be days like this

A few weeks ago, Stela made the apt observation that my blog doesn’t include much of “o ruim” with “o bom.” And it’s true that I have been focusing almost exclusively on the good parts of life here when of course I’ve certainly had my fair share of frustration and loneliness. I knew going into this experience, however, that I would have to keep a positive attitude, be open to new experiences and making lots of mistakes (apparently I just ordered hard-boiled eggs—the only kind of eggs I don’t like), and most of all, cede control over a number the things in my life. This last may have been the easiest, since, as my dad would put it, in my PhD program, there was a train going and, when I left, I hadn’t been conducting it for a long time. Overall, my frustrations here have not necessarily been specific to Brazil either but more to things that could happen anywhere or in any major city. Still, without further ado, in honor of my first month here, Stela, here are my personal ups and downs of life in Sao Paulo.

O Bom

The people here are the friendliest you’ll ever meet, especially in a city with 20 million busy, hardworking people. Every single person I have stopped in the street for directions has patiently tried to understand my Portuguese and to give me directions at a pace I can understand. Bus drivers are happy to tell me when we’re approaching my stop. In fact, any time I try to surreptitiously open a map on a bus, someone nearby will ask me if I need help. Whether I’m walking down the street or waiting for my pupils on the 20th floor of an office building, everyone who walks by will smile at me and the secretary and anyone else who happens to be in the vicinity, saying, “Bom dia! Tudo bem?” This is in stark contrast with most cities, where people think I’m strange for smiling, never mind saying “good morning” to people I don’t know.

Maisa and Tammy in Parque Villa-Lobos

That people in general are extremely friendly here does not take away from the fact that I am incredibly lucky to have the friends I have here. My roommates are always checking in on me to make sure things are ok and that I don’t need anything. When my credit card was cloned two weeks in (at this point I’m thinking Wellsfargo doesn’t know how to find Brazil…), they offered to chip in so that I wouldn’t have money problems. When my roommates went to their hometown to vote last weekend, they invited me to come along. I of course know many very kind and thoughtful Americans as well, but we, as a people, tend to be less immediately open and trusting and warm with new people. Heck, I still haven’t figured out a great way to pay Maisa and Bruna rent (I will!!!), but they were offering to lend me money!

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From 9 to 5 (and then some)

Living in Brazil on a tourist visa doesn’t leave many “viable” options for work, but of course with jeitinho, there’s always a way. Most Americans work under the table as either English teachers or nannies. Luckily for me, although less so for my younger brother, I’ve always been a teacher. In first grade William was forced to do third grade math. In second, he was learning NH history and state symbols in strict accord with the state 4th grade social studies learning standards. Actually, as my mom reminded me, if he hadn’t scheduled “recess” so often, he probably would have finished calculus by 10th grade instead of 11th (slacker)! Although English was probably my favorite subject in middle school, my high school teachers piqued my interest in math and science, and, aside from the occasional informal edit for a friend, my love of writing and English has, since then, been indefinitely set aside.

While teaching English as a foreign language is certainly different from my childhood goal of teaching middle school “Language Arts” (“Isn’t LA a city?” my dad would ask. “Why can’t the school in this town just call it English like everywhere else?”), it has been an interesting opportunity to revisit the idea, and I feel somewhat better-equipped than a lot of expats who move here and just need any job to survive in an extremely expensive city. Also, after working in the lab, mashing up and culturing mouse/bird spleens almost every day for the past 5 years, I’m realizing how much I miss working with students, trying to see the material through their eyes, sharing their excitement when something clicks, and helping them work through their frustration when it doesn’t.

About a month ago, I responded to a posting on an expat social network forum searching for native speakers to teach English. Based on the information I gleaned from my perusal of Brazil expat blogs, I didn’t really expect to receive a response to my e-mail inquiry since most schools apparently prefer to meet potential teachers in person. I was therefore IMG_1879surprised when Michele’s request for a skype interview showed up in my inbox the following day. Despite my distance from Sampa at the time and my lack of English teaching experience, Michele seemed excited both that I speak American English (yes, I do have mad skillz), and that I have some experience with and am passionate about teaching and therefore, unlike many expats, would not just be doing it to make money. She said it’s tough on both the school and the students when expats on tourist visas leave after working for three months, and maybe I could try to get married to a Brazilian so I might qualify for a permanent visa? Aside from making me feel uncomfortable for the obvious personal reasons, these words also made me feel guilty, because teaching English is not my dream, and I’m still hoping to slide over to teaching science or math at an international school.

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