You can be physically present in a new country, yet find yourself completely cut-off from anything real by several invisible barriers. Language is always the first hurdle…years of studying Spanish didn’t help me in Brazil, where too many words are dissimilar, and the few that are similar are often pronounced differently, mean something else, or are conjugated differently. It soon became clear that we were going to have to learn Portuguese.
After a week in Jacaré I was feeling very depressed: there was no one to talk to but Kris, and I was too nervous to venture into the town on my own. I was too vain to use the few words I’d learned at home in actual encounters with locals…self-conscious of the way I was sure to mutilate and mispronounce their musical, sibilant language…terrified that no one would understand a word I was saying.
Then something broke inside me…I was miserable inside this cage of my own fear, and I simply had to make contact with another human being. So I set off on my own for a day, to buy some clothes better suited to the tropics, and I armed myself with a dozen words for things I needed, and the life-saving sentence “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Portuguese.”
I imposed one rule on myself: I was not allowed to ask the question “Do you speak English?” Even though it’s possible that some people do, there’s no reason why they should. I am the one who has presumed to visit their country, after all, and it is for me to speak their language (or make a fool of myself, trying).
I had a fantastic time. People were so patient with me, and corrected my pronunciation, or taught me how to say things better. They encouraged me, and tried different ways of saying something when I didn’t, at first, get their meaning. I accepted that I would sound like an idiot, banished my fear of blurting things out, and gave myself up to learning from others, instead of trying to come across as someone who knew what she was doing. I tried on and bought clothes, found some wonderful art books, a couple of drawing pens and ink, a map of the city. I got a crash course on local music from a taxi driver. I felt a little more like a normal human being (then I went to Olinda the next weekend, got happily drunk, and couldn’t be made to shut up!)
The experience filled me with hope, and I have thrown myself into studying the language with renewed enthusiasm. Most days in Jacaré are uneventful…we don’t run around doing tours or ticking all the tourist must-see-spots off a guidebook list. We do the groceries, the laundry, check the internet, cook our meals on the boat, write a few letters, and then hunker down for 2 hours of language study every day.
I split my study time between studying grammar (regular verb conjugations), vocabulary (memorizing 10 words for everyday things like the names of vegetables), and pronunciation (one Pimsleur Brazilian Portuguese audio lesson per day…mainly because Portuguese has many nasal and throaty sounds that are unfamiliar to me)