Do you speak-a my language?

Whilst I’m not exactly an 80s relic – I ditched the perm and stone-washed jeans a long time ago – a lot of my musical references hark back to arguably one of the best decades in pop. One by-product of my enthusiasm for this musical era is an instant recall of lyrics from songs produced at the time, much in the style of an idiot savant 80s throwback. Men at Work’s best-known hit, ‘Down Under’, not only prompted me to ascertain at the time what Vegemite was exactly, but also left me with the propensity to ask “Do you speak my language?” in a slightly silly way, just as they did in the song.

This puts me in mind of the phrase I mastered most rapidly upon landing in Lisbon: fala inglês? (Do you speak English?). Fortunately, the majority of people I encountered around the city at the time did, or at least understood the gist of what I was saying. In the beginning my Portuguese didn’t really exist beyond being able to say hello, goodbye, please and thank you, aided by lots of gesticulating. I was barely able to pick out individual words when I heard spoken Portuguese either. To my unattuned ears, the language sounded more Eastern European than Latin and, if I’m completely honest, I couldn’t make head nor tail of it.

As time progressed, I accumulated some handy vocabulary, but still had great difficulty constructing complete sentences. Portuguese verbs especially pose problems for the English learner. This is probably because they not only change when used for different tenses (past, present, or future), but also depending on who it refers to (singular or plural, first, second or third person etc). There’s a lot to learn and memorise and initially I felt completely overwhelmed by it all. I regularly point out to my students the great fortune they have to be learning English, rather than Portuguese. In English, most verbs only have three forms (the infinitive, past simple and past participle). Compared to Portuguese, which conjugates at every opportunity, English looks pretty basic and uncomplicated. And don’t even get me started on the plethora of pasts, perfect, imperfect or otherwise in Portuguese, because I’m still confused. Suffice it to say, in my world, there are no excuses for my students to omit an “s” at the end of “like” when talking about a he or a she. Likewise, not remembering to put a verb into its past form is a cardinal sin, because it stays the same whether you’re talking about yourself, your friend individually or your friends as a group.

A few younger learners have claimed over the years that Portuguese is easier, completely unaware that their native language skills are inherent and therefore intuitive. Although geography and politics have undoubtedly influenced the ascension of English to the position of being the world’s most widely-spoken international language, objectively, English is undoubtedly one of the simpler languages to learn.

Over time and with practice, I gradually became more confident in Portuguese. Despite this, it’s fair to say that it’s only recently that my confidence when speaking on the phone has reached a level where I don’t break out into a cold sweat when not communicating face-to-face. The absence of facial expressions and gestures are not helpful to the non-proficient speaker of a foreign language.

One useful language-learning tool was habitually eavesdropping on older ladies‘ conversations on the bus when travelling to work. I eventually reached the conclusion that if all else failed, I could get by with a small collection of single words that conveyed the impression that I was paying attention and understood what was going on. To this day, pois! (exactly), claro (obviously) and ai-ai (a peculiarly Portuguese non-word used to express exasperation, disapproval and general world-weariness) underpin my Portuguese discourse. It was a classic case of faking-it-to-make-it and one I employ to this day during particularly florid, lengthy or boring conversations.

I like to think that one of my strengths as an English teacher is that I’m able to empathise with my students’ desire to communicate in English and their wish to improve. I’ve travelled down exactly the same path in Portuguese. I poke fun at my pronunciation and point out that I still struggle to enunciate a Portuguese rolling ‘R’. Ordering minced pork (carne de porco picada) at the butcher’s is still excruciating for me for precisely this reason. This usually makes students feel better about struggling to form the “th” sound or inadvertently talking about “suck-sex” when they really want to be exploring the meaning of success.

An account manager from my bank recently phoned me to organise a meeting to update my documentation on their records. I duly arrived at the right time and on the correct day, introducing myself in Portuguese. The rabbit-in-headlights look of horror on his face when he realised I was foreign was hilarious, but one I recognised, as I’m sure my face has also betrayed me similarly in situations when I realise I’m out of my depth linguistically. “I no speak English” gravelly-voiced Armando admitted. I replied that there was no need for him to, as I was speaking to him in Portuguese, a point that he’d failed to register in his panic. It’s interesting that some of those I encounter in my day-to-day dealings hear my accent first and the words I’m using second and jump immediately to the conclusion that they can’t understand me. Armando quickly recovered his composure and proceeded to bore the pants off me with details of insurance products I was never going to buy: cue extensive use of pois and claro on my part. Correspondingly, the son of a Portuguese friend remains convinced that I speak to him in English, which isn’t the case. I speak to him in Portuguese with my funny accent, but obviously his brain computes off-key modulation as a different language. He must be at a loss as to why he’s not completely fluent in English in other contexts by now.

This weekend I took the children out for lunch. One of the waitresses (of unknown origin) that dealt with us was obviously still in the early stages of learning Portuguese; she clearly didn’t have the foggiest what I was saying (forgivable) but also affected a look of blank incomprehension when taking drinks orders from the children, who, being bilingual have perfect Portuguese diction. Her strategy was an interesting one: either ignoring or guessing our requests. By the end of the meal, my son, who’s usually my harshest critic when it comes to Portuguese, proclaimed my skills to be superior to hers. It’s a modest achievement, given that the young woman was barely verbal, but some measure of how far I’ve come in being able to articulate myself in a second language. Conversations in Portuguese between myself and the Cantonese-speaking staff in the Chinese shops dotted around the city must sound hilarious to Portuguese natives – I imagine something akin to Inspector Clouseau communicating with Cato – but we muddle through.

In recounting the incident in the restaurant later on, I remarked to my friend that I’m lucky because if I cannot make myself understood in one language, I can usually switch to the other. In this instance, this luxury didn’t appear to be available and as I remarked, frustratingly I had nowhere else to go, other than the default response of most people when trying to make themselves understood in a language the other person doesn’t understand, namely speaking very loudly and very slowly.

The boot will be on other foot later this year, as we’re planning to spend a few days in France. The last time I was there, I was already learning Portuguese and it was if my “foreign language switch” had been flicked from GCSE-level French to beginners’s Portuguese. On this occasion, I greeted the chamber maid in the Parisian hotel we were staying in in faltering Portuguese. Fortunately for me she was Portuguese and didn’t bat an eyelid. Seemingly there’s little space in my head for more than two languages to co-exist peaceably. I think I can just about remember the basics in French, but suspect that come the summer, I’ll soon be back to my old tricks and using a phrase I’ve not forgotten since school days: parlezvous anglais?


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