Thursday, February 28, 2008

A further entry in the open diary of how to (and how not to) get by in the Portuguese language. It's very late and I'm a bit tired and I'm supposed to be cooking pancakes for some pancake races tomorrow at the language school (yes, and I know it's one month after pancake day!) but here's another entry on Portuguese learning.

Without a doubt, one of the biggest factors that affects whether or not I can communicate in Portuguese is the context. When you communicate with someone, it is rarely with a stranger and it is rarely about something completely unrelated to your present situation. I mean, if in England, a person came up to me on the street and asked, "Did you eat kippers for breakfast?" I would be forgiven for saying "Say what now?" even though we speak the same language. Similarly, in Brazil, if I am talking to someone I know about a common problem or topic I am normally able to communicate with a measure of fluency. Likewise, some language in life follows set patterns - at the gas station, in a shop, with the bloke across the road there are a set of questions that are always asked which you learn to recognise.

It's when the random old lady at the supermarket throws me a googly that I'm really thrown. This happens from time to time: somebody speaks to me out of context, asks me a question or makes a comment about goodness knows resulting in my being totally stumped (to use the second cricket analogy in two sentences). Of course, being English, I assume that a random conversation with a stranger is likely to be about the weather, but this is rarely the case here. Natal's weather is one of the least interesting things to talk about. As a student told me today, "Natal has two seasons: hot and hell". So, when a stranger starts a conversation with me about any old thing I am often left slack-jawed and dumbfounded as they twitter away to the point of my, and eventually their, embarrassment.

This issue of context also applies to phone conversations, especially when a client calls me at Cultura. On the phone all non-verbal communication (which is pretty essential for my understanding of Portuguese) is missing. No hand gestures, no pointing at words, no facial expressions - just a monologue of information about something to do with something or somebody connected to learning English or something. With no more clues at my disposal I am often at a loss, although to be fair I do get by better now than I did six months ago.

What I am saying here is that I prefer it when I speak to somebody I know well (like my wife) about something we always talk about (what's for dinner) face to face with plenty of non-verbal communication (she is looking in the fridge pointing at the leftovers) and, if possible, this person throws in the occasional word or three of English ("Honey, o que a gente eat for dinner?"). Then, I'm fine and I think this Portuguese thing ain't so hard after all.

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