Learning Portuguese

Mistakes and other moments along the way.

I have been speaking Brazilian Portuguese since a trip to the country in the beginning of 2020. I already had a lot of experience with Spanish for a few years before that point, but I like to point out that most people in other Latin American countries don't automatically speak or understand Portuguese—it's not as mutually intelligible as one would hope and needs work to acquire like any other language. In fact many people in Brazil need subtitles to understand the European dialect.

In the beginning, I only wanted to know survival concepts like buying food and asking for directions. I used Anki to make flashcards for some basic phrases and learned about ten to twenty cards fairly quickly. Eventually after starting to use what I learned, I wanted to see how far I could take it—I had a playful curiosity about it and wasn't being too serious about it, almost trying for kicks.

Over the course of a few weeks of conversing with people, translating lyrics of some songs, having friends correct my grammar, I made lots of progress as well as plenty of wonderful mistakes. My favourite was probably noticing the hot pink nail polish on the fingers of my friends mother, and, thinking with my English brain about how tasty the colour was, commented 'gostoso!', which in Brazil, like many seemingly innocuous words, has a sexual connotation and is not appropriate to say to an elder. Love that mistake. I tried reading Valter Hugo Mãe's O Filho de Mil Homens but I made it too complicated by writing down all the new words—it slowed down the reading momentum and I ended up giving up 6% of the way through; later on I learned that if my goal is primarily to converse, I don't need to weigh myself down with acquiring literary vocabulary as it rarely encountered in casual speech.

As of 2021, I consider myself fluent enough for my purposes. There's lots I don't know and I have to make an effort to pay attention and speak, but I don't stress about having conversations with people and that was my goal. I notice also that Brazilian Portuguese actually relaxes me—it's dislocating to speak with the kind of agitated meticulousness (a programmer's gift!) that usually accompanies my English, and so I must chill out before my mouth starts moving. I have not had such a demand from any other language I have learned.

It's interesting for me to observe how only a few years ago I actively disliked the sound of this language. On first contact, especially with the European dialect, the sensation I got was that the mouth needs to contort itself to make strenuous movements and physically rigid positions, like a kind of slavic language that menacingly breaks the teeth of new learners. I somehow also felt disconnected from the rhythmic phrasing in Brazil's dialect, finding it to be too loose. I think I ultimately just wanted it to be like any Spanish from Latin America that I was familiar with, because Brazil is like right there next to all those countries, but this is a terrible expectation to have of a language.

Brazilian is growing on me slowly. I'm still not fully in love with it. I call it a beautiful mess: "ela é linda, e uma bagunça". I never thought I would ever speak or understand it, or that I would even want to, but what a nice surprise it has been to create this new pathway in my life. It's been a part of my developing a [[relationship with Brazil]].

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