Learning the lingo

There is a theory among some language specialists that “total immersion” is often the most effective way to learn a new language. This may be so, but by virtue of the fact that I worked in an almost exclusively English-speaking environment at the language school and had quickly, and conveniently, bagged a bilingual boyfriend (Portuguese parents, born and raised in London), I really had very little motivation or necessity to become fluent in Portuguese in the beginning. So long as I could order a coffee and point at the cake I wanted at a café, I reasoned I could get by. And besides, I was not a natural linguist. My father, a languages graduate, was astounded that I managed to get a grade B at GCSE French. And frankly, so was I.

To learn a language, you have to find your motivation. I have cited my own experience to dozens of students over the years. In my case, I found myself 3 years into my foreign adventure and pregnant. Even this game-changer was not quite enough to spur me on. I dragged my long-suffering but willing partner to every antenatal appointment to act as interpreter. And ultimately, although the circumstances of our son’s birth were not ideal, at least having an emergency caesarean meant that I was spared the embarrassment of giving birth incorrectly because I’d misunderstood the instructions. In the event, all I had to do was literally lie back (in a heavily sedated state) and think of England.

Finally the time came to return to my teaching job. The light of my life, a bouncing 6 month old boy was about to be entrusted to a gaggle of garrulous, matronly ladies at the local crèche, most of whom I could barely understand, let alone converse with. Here, at last, was my motivation to at least make an attempt to master Portuguese. My journey had begun.

After 14 years, I would by no means classify myself as proficient in Portuguese. But I get by, and oftentimes, I’m not required to make much of a contribution to the conversation anyway. This is especially the case with my upstairs neighbour, a woman who seems to be perennially 70 (I have no idea how old she is, she’s looked exactly the same for 13 years), with a whole host of real and/or imagined ailments. My role in these exchanges is simply to cluck sympathetically and agree with everything she says. On the flip side, it has meant that I’ve been able to develop meaningful relationships with the non English speaking members of my husband’s family.

Of course, the road has not always run smoothly. I still cringe at the time in the early days I trotted to the little shop on our street that sells everything and breezily attempted to procure “quatro pilas (four willies), instead of the four batteries (quatro pilhas) that I really wanted. As a result of this faux pas, another pearl of wisdom I’ve been able to pass onto students over the years is that it’s natural and normal to make mistakes – although ones of this ilk are perhaps less than desirable if you want to be taken seriously by the locals.

Perhaps the only measure of how far my Portuguese has evolved is that although the people I encounter in my daily life obviously realise I’m foreign, they don’t automatically assume I’m English. Interesting guesses as to my heritage have included German (probably due to my fairish hair and blue eyes), Dutch (hilarious as I’m probably at least a foot shorter than the average Dutch woman), and most randomly, Romanian. I have no idea how my accent sounds in Portuguese, but suspect that it’s possibly a Lisboan version of Cockney with a bit of fish wife thrown in for good measure.

However, I am still perplexed about how at times I must simply exude Englishness, despite my best efforts to assimilate. As I was walking silently down the street one day, wearing sunglasses (hiding my blue eyes) and with the vestiges of a summer glow (no deathly pallor) a random workman shouted “good morning” in English at me. As it was 3.30pm, I did the only thing I felt I could do under the circumstances and wished him a good afternoon instead.


  1. Motivation is definitely everything! It’s a bit weird to be spotted as an English person from afar, but tbh in London I like guessing which tourists are from where before they speak – I don’t know what it is exactly but there are some definite fashion-choice giveaways….


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