As a learner of Portuguese in the school of full immersion and cross-your-fingers-and-hope-for-the-best, I’ve not only learnt some verbs and useful vocabulary, but a whole new mode of communicating. Until I landed in Lisbon, my basic understanding of what a conversation was revolved around people sharing news and views, or asking for and giving information in as straightforward a manner as possible. It seems that I’d been getting it completely wrong for nearly thirty-two years.
My early induction into extreme Portuguese conversational skills took place upon meeting a large proportion of the extended family that would later become my dearly-cherished in-laws, over lunch. A heated, and, to my unattuned ears, unintelligible discussion unfolded. I remember feeling distinctly uncomfortable, my still-timid English soul quivered, convinced that the argument would escalate catastrophically. It didn’t; without warning, everyone was laughing, eating and drinking again and familial merriment was restored. I was relieved but perplexed, although obviously I didn’t have the words in Portuguese to articulate this.
As the years have rolled on, I’ve ascertained that one conversational gambit is to disagree completely with everything the person you’re speaking to says. Indeed, it’s often not enough to simply say “no” when responding in the negative. Apparently it’s more effective to disaffirm with a stern “não, não”, ideally while waggling your right index finger. In our house, this has become known as the Portuguese finger, which is obviously much less offensive than another single-digit gesture – that would just be rude. Conversely, a positive affirmation is often given with one abrupt “sim!”, or repeated ad infinitum, possibly sounding a little on the impatient side in the process.
Although I no longer teach junior classes, the scars on my eardrums, caused by their incessant clamour, remain. I can only conclude that sixteen 10 year-olds, kettled within a hot, malodorous classroom on a Friday between 5 and 7 p.m.felt that talking very loudly was the only way in which they could vent their frustrations. That, and a fear that if they didn’t shout, they wouldn’t be heard. I used to dread returning from the 10-minute break mid-lesson. By this point they’d have ramped up the volume a few more notches, fuelled either by a sugar-encrusted palmier or “blue”-flavoured bubble gum, which a parent, in their wisdom, had supplied as a snack. Even my half-bife* offspring have developed the habit of speaking very loudly and I am constantly reminding them that there’s no need to shout “because I’m right in front of you darling” – usually uttered through gritted teeth.
In fairness, ignoring sixteen diminutive individuals en masse is far easier than ignoring a lone adult student who sees fit to hold forth, at great length and without drawing breath – the dialogical equivalent of being pinned up against a wall and being given a proper (ear) beating. In these situations, I have wondered whether lessons in social skills, as opposed to English classes, would have been the wiser choice.
Truthfully, these are petty grievances, but most frustrating of all is the circuitous nature of many of my daily exchanges, often involving officialdom, usually my children’s schools. A typical example is the occasion I proffered my €45 to pay for after-school activities for the month to the school secretary. Her response? “Não, não mãe” (plus obligatory waggly finger). After much paper-shuffling and referring to records, it transpired that that I should in fact be paying…..€45. So even when you’re right, you’re wrong. And most days this is alright, even if it is a little confounding.
Mostly though, I slip on my Tuga** mantle and engage in repartee with the best of them. If wishing to interject during an exchange, I am able to channel my inner-fishwife and intone a very convincing “ollllha, é assim!” (look, it’s like this!). It takes me an inordinate amount of time to end a phone call conducted in Portuguese: “…ciao, beijinhos, com licença, adeus, beijinhos, repeat to fade…” (…bye, kisses, excuse me, bye again, kisses etc etc..). It’s almost enough to drive one to take a vow of silence, although those that know me best, know this will never happen. If asked how I am, I know better than to reply with a gushing “fine, thanks!” and so I’ve taken to squeaking an unenthusiastic “meh” instead. I can participate in a conversation with another individual who’s actually having a different conversation about an entirely separate matter and it doesn’t bother me. After fourteen years, why would it?
As for intonation, I suspect that my attempts to replicate Portuguese speech rhythms usually result in a clumsy Borat meets the Neighbours on Ramsay Street mess. The older gentleman I encountered recently, who ostensibly had nothing to do with the council, but felt it reasonable to comment on my ability to recycle correctly while at the communal bins, wouldn’t have been at all shocked by the irritated short shrift I gave him. He no doubt wondered where on earth someone with such incisive and well-adapted communication skills emanated from – but with an accent like mine, clearly not from these parts.
*Portuguese slang name for a British person
**Portuguese slang name for a Portuguese person – a Portuguese equivalent to “Brit”