Potato potahto

A lesson that I learnt in the nick of time is that a sense of humour and a willingness to shed any self-consciousness or embarrassment are key to attaining confidence and fluency in a second language. The catalyst for this realisation was my brazen request for “four willies” at our local shop (see Learning the Lingo). Hot on the heels of this humiliation was an earnest conversation with my family doctor about the Pill. My off-the-mark pronunciation of pilula led first to hysterics from my other half, followed by him regaling me with “My name is Pilloolah” à la Jodie Foster in Bugsy Malone. I had to laugh, even if it was at my own expense.

I hold the conviction that Portuguese just has too many vowel sounds in one word for the native English speaker to get their mouth round in the first instance. Getting directions to a friend’s house in the early days, the friend enquired if we knew a place called Sassoeiros. I bluntly replied that I couldn’t even say it, let alone have a clue as to its whereabouts. The Lisbon neighbourhood Areeiro posed similar problems and it took me the best part of a decade to be able to tell someone not to worry as I found não-te preocupes virtually impossible to say.

In truth, it’s not only when I’m speaking Portuguese that this problem presents itself. I still struggle not to make the exotic fruit physalis not sound like a nasty infectious disease. So for all these reasons, I sympathise with my students when confronted with words like cathedral, through, though or thought. The “th” sound is completely non-existent in Portuguese and consequently hard to master. As I struggled with too many vowels in Portuguese, English sometimes has too many consonants, meaning that “suck-sexful” (or successful) pronunciation first time round is rare.

Although both languages share some commonality via Latin, there are also a great number of linguistic false friends. I was rather taken aback during my first few months of teaching by the number of students who were over-sharing regarding their constipation, until I realised that in fact it was their noses that were blocked and not elsewhere.

Attempting to turn a Portuguese word into an English one has its pitfalls. One student recently informed me that she was going to swim in a “condom” that weekend and only questioned her choice of vocabulary when she noticed my look of surprise. Clearly, a pool in a condominio (condo) is a completely different kettle of fish. After we’d recomposed ourselves, she went on to recount how a friend of hers had intended to ask if something was handmade while at a craft market in the UK. Unfortunately her ill-advised translation of trabalho manual resulted in a very unfortunate compound noun involving a job done by hand that left everyone red-faced.

The other fly in the ointment is the confusion between British and American English. Oddly, potatoes are one of the most confounding topics; when are chips crisps or fries? And don’t get me started on trousers versus pants, although I’ve made it abundantly clear on several occasions that any casual enquires regarding someone’s nice pants will raise an eyebrow if the other person isn’t American.

Apparently one alleged benefit of having more than one language swirling around your grey matter is that it increases your chances of staving off dementia. Given that I’m unable to manage coherent communication in either language at times, I find this surprising. In conversation about Gwynneth Paltrow and Chris Martin’s split a while back, I mistakenly referred to their modern “conscious uncoupling” as “unconscious coupling”, which sounds altogether much less savoury, possibly involving Rohypnol. The scientists must have evidence to support their findings, but based on personal experience I’m not entirely convinced – and I’m quite sure my topsy-turvy interpretation of events is not what Gwynny had in mind at all.

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