My uphill battle with Portuguese

It suddenly dawned on me that today it has been ten months since I arrived in Brazil to live. I’m really not sure where the time has gone!

Before moving here, I had a vague plan. I would find an apartment to live in with my husband, do an intensive Portuguese course at UFMG, and start teaching English, all within the first 2-3 months. Admittedly, I have been thwarted by going back to the UK no less than four times, but ten months later I am ashamed to admit that I haven’t yet managed a single one of those things. The hardest thing to cope with by far has been the language barrier.

I have Rosetta Stone to thank for being able to understand anything at all in those first few months. I now take regular Portuguese lessons for three hours a week, I speak Portuguese (in the very loosest sense!) to communicate with my mother-in-law, and my husband is trying to remember to speak to me slowly in his native tongue too. But without a full-time Brazilian guinea pig to practice on, progress is very slow indeed.

At my current level, a typical ‘conversation’ goes something like this.

  1. Brazilian person speaks.
  2. I stare open-mouthed while my brain frantically tries to decipher the words I just heard.
  3. When I have most of the words, my brain tries to translate them into English.
  4. If by some miracle I have understood the phrase, I will then think, in English, of a reply.
  5. Cue more open-mouthed staring whilst I try to translate that English reply into Portuguese.
  6. By this time it has been about 5 mins since the Brazilian person spoke…
  7. Often I don’t know the words to translate my English reply into Portuguese, so I am forced to think of the Portuguese I know and how I could say the same thing.
  8. Eight very awkward minutes later, I make my reply in Portuguese.
  9. Cue completely blank look from the Brazilian person.
  10. I blush, and maybe try to run away…

To avoid these frequent awkward occurrences (I am shy at the best of times), I have even got into the terrible habit of sometimes, just sometimes, smiling and nodding even though I have no idea what was said! Afterall, you can tell by a person’s body language whether you have been asked a question or not, even if you have no idea what they said 😉

One of the things that I am finding it hard to get used to is replying to a question with the verb, instead of a simple yes or no. In English, someone might ask you “do you want a cup of tea?” and a perfectly normal, acceptable answer would be “Yes, please.” In Brazil, I am still answering most questions with a yes or no, because it is far quicker than trying to work out the correct verb form for a reply. The reply in Portuguese for this same question would normally be something like “quero”, which means “I want”.

I have been told many times that eventually my brain will be able to think in Portuguese, and I will lose the need for translating everything back and forth in my head and over-thinking things. Right now though, it seems like a very distant dream to be able to speak Portuguese. I am a perfectionist by nature and I get very frustrated if I can’t say something properly; which, incidentally, isn’t how the average mineiro speaks, making it doubly hard for me to understand. As with most languages, I have to learn both the correct way, and the local mineiro way. I am willing to accept that I will never understand a Portuguese person!

At this ten month mark, I am really missing my independence. It is a struggle to find things to do and people who I can speak to without feeling embarrassed. However, I know full well that I am the only person who can improve the situation. So I keep on trying 🙂

For the time being though, my dictionary will remain my best friend in Brazil!

I’d like to ask any of my readers: what are your best tips for learning a new language??


21 responses to “My uphill battle with Portuguese

  1. I like to use music to practice (mostly for listening comprehension)! I actually decided to learn Portuguese partly because I liked Brazilian music, so now, when listening to music in Portuguese or any other language I’m learning, I try to decipher the words and understand the lyrics, and maybe learn some of them. 🙂

  2. Hi there…Found your blog through Twitter. I know exactly what you are going through as I, myself, went through the same phase about 4 years ago. It does get better. Even now I am far from fluent but I have started answering questions with the verb as opposed to a ‘sim’ or ‘não’ 😉 (although ‘Pode ser’ can be very useful in answering to anything!!)

    I had 2 hours worth of portuguese lessons a week for the first 2 years but in all honesty I found conversing with other Brazilians the most useful. Portuguses lessons can teach you correct grammar and formal language however very few people speak like this. I found learning slang (‘giria’) and informal ways much more helpful.

    One thing that does stop is that quizical look on someones face when you speak….you may know that you are correct but the ‘sotaque’ has thrown them….’como?’ , ‘oi?’ in response always annoyed me. And also knocked my confidence. However confidence is the key …just try to speak as much as you can.
    Anyway…Im rambling.
    Good luck.

    • Thanks Iain, it’s good to know I’m not alone in finding it hard. You’re right, confidence and practice is the way forward, and brazilians do seem truly flattered when we try to speak their language, which helps!

  3. Oh man, this really struck a chord with me. I remember that phase very well (hmmm, I say “phase” like it is all in the past – after 2.5 years I still feel I have a long way to go on my learning Portuguese journey).

    I agree with Iain – lessons are great for picking up the basics, but I found having extended conversations really helped me to become conversational (I know that sounds stupid, but you know what I’m saying right?). The thing that knocks the wind out of me most is when I’m trying to speak Portuguese and the other person stops me and says “Just say it in English” – urgh! For this reason I far prefer speaking Portuguese with non-English speakers. Good luck – it gets easier!

    • Oh that is the worst feeling when the person you’re talking to replies in English. It doesn’t happen often in Belo Horizonte, I think there are far far fewer english speakers here than in Rio, but when I’m offered the English menu at a restaurant now, I always refuse, even if I do have to ask my husband to translate some things. Thanks for the encouragement!

  4. Hiya – I have found the Michel Thomas CDs to be great, although they are in Portuguese of Portugal. There is a new course called Muito Prazer and this is brilliant. The book is only written in Portuguese, but it is really really practical.
    I got het up on the fact that the subject of a sentence could be anywhere, maybe even on a plane and bound for Rio, so far away from the verb they can be placed. But I am getting there a little bit. The other book and CD combination I used was Colloquial Portuguese of Brazil by Routeledge. This has the advantage of also having a more advanced course which helps. Hang on in there.
    I am struggling with the language too, especially as I work at home. I use Twitter and Facebook to learn from sites which teach English to Brazilian students as there is little in the way of teaching Brazilian Portuguese on the web.
    There will be a lot of people who will want to learn from you. Try and find good intermediate students who want to improve in the first instance.

    • It definitely makes it harder to grasp the language when you’re not constantly surrounded by portuguese speakers. Until I start teaching, I am also at home a lot. I haven’t heard of those CDs/books but I will look them up, thanks for the suggestions. Good luck with your portuguese learning too!

      • No probs. When I first tried speaking after just using the Michel Thomas CDs, I sounded like an Oxford Don as Portugal’s Portuguese is way more formal! But as you are here you will be able to add in things like “a gente” and “você” easily. Good luck : )

  5. Hiya. I agree with Iain and I’m now going to ramble (but it may be worth reading on…

    First, don’t be afraid of making mistakes. As adults we’re prone to feeling embarrassment when we make a mistake but when we speak in a language that is not our native tongue, we WILL make mistakes. Lack of confidence is the barrier – remember that you’re not doing an exam – nobody’s marking you out of 100% – you’re simply trying to communicate. And Brazilians are very forgiving – nay, impressed – when we gringos speak to them in their language. They always say ‘Portuguese is a very difficult language (although I feel sorry for my students having to learn a language that is based on vowel sounds and stress, rather than syllabic. We don’t even give them accent symbols to help them know where to place the stress on a word.

    When I came to Brazil I knew ‘por favor’, ‘cerveja’, and ‘obrigado’ – the Portuguese survival kit. My now ex-wife was extremely fluent in English and, although I took lessons twice a week to learn the grammar, I had no opportunity to practice – at home we spoke English. Since splitting up, I have had several girlfriends who didn’t speak a word of English – in fact my current (and hopefully last) girlfriend speaks no English. This really is the best way to improve…practise, practise, PRACTISE!

    Take advantage of the fact that your mother-in-law doesn’t speak English. Get your husband to converse in Portuguese with you as often as possible. Try to communicate with other non-English speakers whenever you get the chance. Allow yourself to be put in positions (for example, shopping) when you can’t use the linguistic safety-net that your husband provides. Sure, you’ll make mistakes…but that’s how we learn.

    When I began trying to speak Portuguese my conversations were EXACTLY as you described, but now I think in Portuguese, my speech flows reasonably well, but I still find I’m stumped for a word sometimes and have to describe the meaning of the word I’m looking for. But – and this is important – I don’t let it worry me. Once upon a time I’d only speak in Portuguese with people I know…now I chat with anybody. Taxi-drivers, shopkeepers, people at the bus-stop (this is important because the bus service in Salvador is so difficult to untangle that I always have to ask fellow passengers for help in identifying the bus that I need).

    The only opportunity I get to speak English is with my students. I don’t really mix with ex-pats. I live in a Portuguese-speaking world. If you don’t understand what someone says to you, ask them to speak more slowly and clearly. Unless they have a poor education, they will understand why you’re asking and will do so. But also be prepared to be misunderstood too – only today I wanted to know the price of a car battery and the girl behind the counter had no idea what I wanted to know the price of. I repeated my request to the manager EXACTLY as I’d said it to the shop assistant but the manager understood. If people have had a poor education they often will not be able to connect the dots and work out what you’re saying. This is not their fault but the fault of a very divisive education system. Unless you say a word EXACTLY as they are accustomed to hearing it in their daily lives, they are unable to deduce what you are trying to say.

    Finally, don’t get too hung up on the Brazilian question/response thing. I’ve been here 6 years and still often find myself saying ‘sim’, instead of repeating the verb. But…do you know what? Nobody cares! I can communicate and that’s all I and they care about.

    Good luck and keep at it. One day the switch in your brain will click over and you’ll suddenly realise you’r thinking in Portuguese and not in English.


    • Thanks Greg. You are completely right of course, I do have to stop worrying about speaking correctly and pluck up the confidence to speak to more people. And I have been lazy talking in english with my husband, because speaking in portuguese feels like such hard work. It is good to hear from people like yourself who can empathise, and the fact that you’ve managed to improve gives me hope. I will await that brain-switching moment! 😉 PS Love the name of your blog lol. I will check that out later.

      • Glad you like the name of my blog 🙂 I thought it was too good a bandwagon not to jump upon (considering I only had to change one letter!) hahaha (or should I say rsrsrsrs or kkkkk.

        I’ve based my latest post on my reply to your post. Lazy I know, but life is getting in the way of my blogging at the moment.

  6. Let me tell you one thing: Brazilians really don’t care whether you make mistakes speaking Portuguese, given that most of our people don’t even know our own formal language. Go ahead and speak! Don’t be shy around us!

  7. Pingback: Is Portuguese ready to steal the limelight? | My Five Romances·

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