Adjusting to Life In Portugal – Language

In the prior entry I wrote about some of the motivations and logistical challenges of moving and settling into Portugal, as well as some of the culture-shock reactions.  Probably the single biggest challenge, but fun anyway, is the language (well, fun for me, shame about my auditors).  That’s usually the next thing people ask after their initial reactions to the fact of my move.  Isn’t it an incredibly hard language?

Well… no and yes.  As an English speaker the grammar and structure of the language are very straightforward and make perfect sense.  Granted, I studied Latin for seven years, so one could argue I am trained and conscious of those formal aspects of a language, and yes, that probably helped.  But I think the patterns, the sentence strucures, the use of tenses is similar enough to English that grammar won’t be the challenge.

It’s the words.  Many of the words are similar enough to either English or French that in writing you can probably take a good guess: Silêncio, desistir, impossível, perfeição, all mean what you would guess – silence, to desist or stop, impossible, perfection.  There are relatively few faux amis (can’t help observing that phrase is appropriately French) – words that are similar to English, but mean something wildly different.  The only one that comes to mind, and is the standard joke, is constipação, which is not nearly as bad as it sounds, it’s only a bad cold.  What you thought it meant is called prisão de ventre – which literally is something like arrest or prison of the belly!

The Portuguese section of my dictionary is only slightly more than half the size of the English section.  So… there must be fewer words, that makes it easier, right?  Wrong.  Much tougher.  A single Portuguese word can be equivalent to a dozen different English words, covering so many shades of meaning, that you can feel a little lost how to construe it.  In despair one day, I wailed, how can you tell…?  My teacher said, context.  Yes but… when in any given sentence there are a couple words you don’t yet know, you haven’t got enough context to make sense of the few remaining words you thought you did know, and all of a sudden comprehension starts slipping away like the edge of a sand dune under your feet.

As for pronunciation, again, in theory it’s not that tough, the only sound truly alien and difficult for me as an English speaker is the rough “r”.  Initial R or a doubled rr is pronounced, as my beloved teacher Joana explained,  “like that sound old men make when they are getting ready to spit.”  Oooh, thanks for that explanation, Joana, now I get it… And she gave us a tongue twister to practice:  O rato roeu a rolha da garrafa do Rei da Rússia.  The mouse nibbled the cork of the bottle of the King of Russia.  Try it.  The best thing about it is, your throat is so sore afterwards it’s justification for an ice cream.

Listening comprehension on the other hand… most vowel sounds disappear and what remains in the ear is a very wide range of s, sh, z, and zh sounds and those rrrr’s.  I really like the sound of the language, and especially some of the men sound incredibly sexy, but I often don’t comprehend things on the first pass.  Or maybe I’m just distracted.

After I had completed the five weeks of lessons which were all I could afford, I was cut loose to sink or swim.  After a few weeks I visited the school to ask Joana, what’s wrong with me, why can’t I understand anything I’m hearing on the metro or in the streets?  She said we are taught “proper” Portuguese, with a Lisboa and Coimbra accent, but locally I am hearing a northern accent.  She then demonstrated how she was teaching us to speak, versus how she would say it herself amongst her friends… huge difference.  Rougher sounding, some V sounds turn into B’s, totally different on the ear.  Since then I have noticed I do find it easier to understand people from the south than the north, though I think I’m getting better (slightly).  On the other hand I have occasionally been accused of having a northern accent myself on some words.  I can’t help remembering a Japanese friend who learned her English from a Texan – you can imagine.  I’m afraid I may go the same way, we’ll see.

All of that said, my biggest impediment with the language is myself.  I’m shy of speaking to strangers anyway, and it seems like a lot to ask of people to be patient with my clumsy language skills whilst I’m learning.  On the other hand, I have never, ever, been snubbed for my attempts as I have been in other countries that will remain nameless.  If someone has responded to me in English, it has been very clearly as an act of mercy and kindness, a genuine desire to help me, never as a demonstration of their linguistic superiority in my native tongue and a tacit put down of my efforts at theirs.  And when I’ve persevered in Portuguese, or said, mas, queria praticar (but, I’d like to practice), they have always very cheerfully co-operated and been incredibly patient and encouraging with me.  If you’re going to struggle with a foreign language, this is one of the kindest countries in which to do it.

My other handicap is not having someone native to be speaking to day in, day out, every day, so I can hear and become accustomed to “real life” expressions and local pronunciation.  I’m painfully aware that my language is textbook, not colloquial.  I do my best to eavesdrop on the Metro or in shops, and being connected on Facebook with many Portuguese people and sites has been a big help, I’m starting to catch on to some expressions, but… I’ve got a long way to go.  I’ve been lucky with some of my wine contacts being willing to help me with my language skills when we meet up or correspond (se estão a ler isto, obrigada mais uma vez, Mateus, David, Gonçalo, Oscar, João TdeP… beijinhos).

I said this is one of the kindest countries in which to struggle with a foreign language.  Frankly, the people here are generally the kindest to strangers I’ve ever encountered.  Whilst not as outgoing as some other cultures, when approached, the Portuguese have been very helpful, kind and encouraging, I’ve never been snubbed or brushed off.

On the contrary, occasionally anyone within hearing will join in the efforts to help.  In July I visited Viseu to attend the Dão wine tasting and lunch I’ve described already.  I walked from the bus station to what felt like the town centre – park, pedestrianised shopping street – and asked a policeman for directions to the Solar do Vinho, where the morning tasting was held.  A couple standing nearby overheard, and felt he wasn’t giving the best possible advice, so they explained in more detail, and then someone else passing by joined in the discussion … in the end, I got directions from a committee of about 6 people gathered together, and found my way to the Solar, a mile, two roundabouts and a football pitch away, just fine.

So, when I get discouraged, as I still sometimes do, I remember occasions like that one, when I asked for help and took advice in Portuguese, and it worked.   So… I’m getting there.

Being in the Douro for three weeks of harvest will help, I think, though local accents up there are even more challenging than Porto.  Wish me luck!

Home sweet home – Porto on the left, Gaia on the right, viewed from the Graham’s lodge early one morning

7 thoughts on “Adjusting to Life In Portugal – Language

  1. I have been reading your blog for the last 3 days and find so much interesting topics here. I’ve bookmarked your site hoping that I can take much more benefits from you. Thank you.

  2. You said to wish you luck – and sincerly I do…!! Enjoy the harvest. I’m really enjoying the “what’s it really like” posts – and if you ever were at a loose end I expect a weekend newspaper might take you on for them.

    • David, thank you for stopping by, lovely to hear your voice! I’m having too much fun here and with Graham’s to have loose ends, but I’ll bear it in mind. Take care!

  3. Yes, yes, yes!! You have put everything I am feeling into the most eloquent of words!
    “…comprehension starts slipping away like the edge of a sand dune under your feet.”
    I have been living in Portugal for just over a year now and as soon as I feel like i’m getting the hang of the language and might be able to get over my fear of making mistakes I catch one of those “multi-contextual” words, misinterpret an entire sentence and inevitably make a fool of myself… *sigh.
    But it is true that the Portuguese truly appreciate the efforts of “estrangeiras” to speak their language and they always tell me I speak incredibly well, which is a lie but I love them for it…

    I am glad to have found your blog, im off to read a bit more…

    • Kerry, so nice to know there’s company out there experiencing the same thing. Like you, I love the Portuguese for being so incredibly kind, no matter what a hash I make of their language… Obrigada, e boa sorte!

  4. Cynthia, am enjoying reading through your blog. The thought of moving to a country where I initially don’t have much of a grip on the language is, for me, a terrifying one. Very impressed.

    • Thank you for your kind words. In the previous post I wrote about the gut instinct that brought me here – when the instinct is that strong, it makes all things possible. The only thing that truly terrifies me is uncertainty. Take care.

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