Tag Archives: Portuguese

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.”

Continue reading Everybody speaks wrong!

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!

Continue reading Mama said there’d be days like this


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.”

Continue reading Portunhol