Learning Portuguese (Not)

My travails learning Portuguese continue.  My beloved teacher, Joana Paiva, moved to Lisbon, where she has established her own school, Learn Portuguese in Lisbon which is wonderful news – but I miss her and our weekly sessions!  Also, since leaving Symington last summer, I am no longer spending a day or two every month in the Douro with the viticulturists speaking and listening to Portuguese all day long.  On the upside, I have a friend who very patiently helps me, reviewing and correcting with me my Portuguese articles for this blog, and being free lance I am now working with a few Portuguese clients, so our meetings and much of the text I am working with is in Portuguese.

But… for anyone learning Portuguese:  do not be lulled by the fact the sentence structure and many words are familiar!  The devil is certainly in the details, and Portuguese is proving particularly devilish.

Every time I have asked someone to review my writing in Portuguese, they read it through and their first reaction is along the lines of, “ok… grammatically this is correct, but… it’s not how we would actually express it”  or “ok… I understand what you are saying, but…” (that friend doesn’t even finish the thought, I think words fail her to convey how much is wrong!).

Of course every language has idiomatic expressions which don’t really mean what the words individually mean – for instance, saying someone é uma pessoa especial is actually politely saying they are really rather a pain in the neck.  The other day I was describing all the electrical problems in my house, and how two faulty outlets have been repaired and failed several times over.  My friend summed it up by calling the electrician uma artista.  Another example of a very polite expression to convey rather the opposite – in this case utter incompetence.

Then there are the problems with word choice, which seems to vary from one person to the next, each one gently correcting me away from the prior correction.  One day I went to a traditional haberdashery shop to buy some knitting needles.  The lady asked me if I wanted them com ou sem bicos?  I know the word bico as meaning the beak of a bird, or the spout of a fountain, but could not imagine what it meant in relation to knitting needles.  I asked her to explain, and she showed me – some knitting needles have tips which end in small hook, like a crochet hook.  Oh.  Ok.  Sem bicos, por favor.

So, when I saw a friend at the local yarn shop‘s All Knit Long using that type of needle, I commented on her using agulhas com bicos.  She corrected me to say they were ganchos – a word which my dictionary does confirm as meaning hooks or hairpins.  Ok, that makes sense.

Portuguese DictionariesSo the next time I saw another knitter using them I commented on the agulhas com ganchos.  She corrected me to say they were barbelasBarbelas?  I consult my dictionary:  in reference to bovines and dogs, it means dewlap, in reference to persons it means a double chin.  How this relates to a small hook at the tip of a knitting needle is beyond me.  On the other hand, so far I have heard barbela twice, versus only once so far for each bico and gancho.  But you see the challenge?  This is only one example of this kind of everyone-has-a-different-correct-word-choice problem.

Then there are the regional word preferences.  Mind you, in this particular case the confusion was compounded as a result of my own faulty memory.  I have a dictionary which is pictorial, with chapters on various basic subjects which pull together related vocabulary and show a series of pictures with simple, single-word Portuguese captions.  One day, before going to the butcher’s I looked up and it appeared to me the word for lamb was anho.  I committed it to memory and went to visit my wonderful neighbourhood butcher.

When I arrived, I had my usual moment of panic and confusion before beginning to speak Portuguese, and asked for uma perna da aranha.

Bless him, instead of doubling up in laughter at my request for a leg of spider, the butcher very soberly just said, No, I don’t think so.


No… can you describe what you want?

The leg of a baby sheep?

Borrego!  A senhora queria borrego!  And he sold me possibly the best leg of lamb I have ever had, it was excellent.  But a few days later when it was quiet I went back to him and asked about my mistake, and showed him the book and the word anho.  He looked and very dismissively said, oh that’s what they call it in Lisboa – it’s borrego.

You see what I am up against?