Portunhol

When my Brazilian friend texted me “Oiii!” back in April, I thought he was angry with me. To be fair, I think that can be somewhat attributed to my family’s 7-month sojourn to England; there, “Oi!” really is at its best in expressions like, “Oi! Stop taking the mick!” Still, I might have known the word for “hi” in Portuguese.

Clearly when I decided in June that Brazil might be on the docket, there was a lot of work to be done. Thanks to the second-hand teachings of Carolina, the Brazilian exchange student my family hosted when I was studying abroad in Sevilla, I knew the words “feijoada” and “obrigada.” And my Brazilian friends at Duke informed me that the appropriate way to sign off any conversation, verbal or written is by giving “beijos.” Maybe that’s all I really needed to know, given that this extensive vocab would not only allow me to enjoy a tasty meal but also to show my appreciation for it, and all while making an affectionate exit. Heck, armed with “oi,” which by the way, Margaret, has been added to the scrabble dictionary, I could have even politely entered the conversation in order to request said feijoada.

Despite this near fluency, I responded, on a whim, to a craigslist post offering tutoring in Brazilian Portuguese.  Enter Stela, an energetic, Jill of all trades, who, immediately after I finished telling her I used to be pretty proficient in Spanish proclaimed, “Great! You know nothing! That will make you much easier to teach.” Initially affronted by this remark, I learned pretty quickly that Stela is not alone in her assertion that Spanish is of little use when learning Portuguese. At the risk of generalizing, Brazilians tend to be very proud of the difficulty and uniqueness of their language, even while telling you in the same breath that, “It’s a useless language.”

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Stela after Brazil eked it out against Chile in the World Cup

Stela and I only speak Portuguese together, which means I play a game whereby I Portugify any relevant Spanish vocabulary that comes to mind and watch Stela’s face to see how I’ve done. I always end up feeling slightly cheated by this one-sided game because if I’m correct, Stela doesn’t congratulate me on successfully guessing where to add the random i’s and to remove the u’s, or for pronouncing the “j/g” sound (and I can’t tell you how hard it is to start acknowledging the “j” in “jogo” when you’ve been ignoring it in “juego” for years). However, when I’m wrong, Stela reprimands me, looking slightly offended saying, “Portuguese is NOT Spanish. Forget about Spanish!”

Some days, and with mixed feelings, I really do feel like I’ve forgotten Spanish. I walked into the post office the other day, and a woman started speaking to me in Spanish, and I responded painstakingly, but somehow unintentionally, in my beginner Portuguese. Other days though, especially when I’m tired, I revert back to Spanish. It is so much my go-to foreign language that I would insert it into Chinese sentences when I was trying to learn a bit of Mandarin. Some of the basic vocabulary, especially numbers, has been there so long it really doesn’t want to budge. As a consolation, I thought I could at least set my sights on mastery of Portunhol, but apparently that’s the semi-official language spoken by people living at the boundary of Uruguay and Brazil.

Despite the challenge and, as my friend Irene pointed out, the irony that as usual, I had been learning the wrong language (After learning some basic Mandarin, my friend invited me to her wedding in Korea—although on the upside, I was able to really confuse some Chinese tourists), I have really enjoyed learning Portuguese. In part, that’s certainly because of how fascinating Portuguese is, especially as a language that sounds, to my totally untrained, non-linguistic ear, like the intersection of Spanish and French. Another thing I really love about Portuguese though, is the fact that it is not Spanish, the language that I have studied for years. Portuguese presents a chance to learn something new and to make thousands of mistakes while recognizing that the world didn’t end as a result, and that, what’s more, gringa accent and all, I may have even successfully communicated something in the process.

As my Brazilian friend so unapologetically put it, “I try to speak good English, but what can I do? I’m stuck with this sexy Brazilian accent.”

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