The Language Barrier

I love languages, my main skill in life is speaking foreign languages (namely German and Spanish, with a bit of French to go with it, and the most basic Italian). I’ve even won awards for my linguistic talents. I knew, when I came to South America, that Brazil is the only country on the continent whose language is not Spanish, it’s Portuguese. This is why I bought a Brazilian Portuguese phrasebook before I came here (I mentioned this in my post ‘The Packing Process’, and there is an accompanying photo). I knew Portuguese wasn’t the same as Spanish, but I made the mistake of thinking that they’re similar and that I should be able to understand the basics, because when I went on holiday to Italy both times I managed to grasp a basic understanding, and the second time I even managed to learn a little bit of the language (I mastered the phrase ‘Cinque francobolli per favore’). That was a five day holiday. The only other time I was in a country where I didn’t speak the language was the Czech Republic, and I was in Prague, which is obviously a big tourist destiantion, and a lot of Czechs speak German, so I managed.

Being in Brazil, I have discovered that Portuguese and Spanish, while they have some similarities, are two totally different languages. Despite both being latin languages, they are completely different. Seeing Portuguese written down, I’ve found I’m able to grasp the basic gist, some of the time, but hearing it being spoken, with all the vowel sounds and just general sounds that I’m not used to, I am clueless. I’ve found that whenever I walk into a shop or somewhere, and the staff come over to speak to me, the only response that I’m able to give is a blank look and ‘No fallo Portuges’- I don’t speak Portuguese. I really dislike this, I’m not used to being in countries where I don’t understand the language. I also feel ashamed that I can’t speak the language. I went on a jeep tour in Paraty, and I was the only English speaker there, everyone else was Brazilian, but the guide still had to translate everything he said into English for me. Of course, I can’t learn every language for every country I go to, but there is still part of me that feels ashamed for not having been properly equipped to communicate with the Brazilians.

Being in Brazil, where I don’t have a clue what is going on in terms of language, I feel totally out of my comfort zone. This is obviously what travelling is about- the new experiences and the feeling of fear that go with them. I found myself trying to use Spanish to communicate with people, but what would you think if a Brazilian came to England and tried to speak French to you?

I do have to wonder though, how on earth do people actually get through life without ever learning another language? How can you comfortably enjoy a holiday abroad if you don’t know what is going on around you? If you can’t understand the menu in a restaurant and there is no English alternative? Or if you can’t understand how much something is in a supermarket because you don’t know numbers in that language? I can’t do that in Portuguese, and I now know what it’s like to be totally clueless, helpless even, trying to communicate in a language that isn’t my own, and in a country that isn’t my own. I’ve also witnessed many people, of various non-English-speaking nationalities, converse with each other in one common language- English.
Yes, English is one of the leading world languages, but then so is Chinese and so is Spanish. I’m pretty certain they’re the top three.

After spending two and a half weeks in Brazil, my Portuguese now consists of- ‘No fallo Portuges’- ‘I don’t speak Portuguese’, ‘Hola’- ‘Hello’, ‘Ciao’- ‘Bye’ (universal), ‘Obrigada’- ‘Thank you’ (which I found myself saying in a Spanish accent), ‘Pao de queijo’- cheesey bread’ (not pronounced at the way it is written- I did mention the sounds I’m not used to hearing). My proudest moment though was being able to order ‘Um café com leite’ then later asking ‘açucar?’- ‘coffee with milk (‘leite’ again not pronounced at all the way it is written), follwed by ‘sugar?’. I think my main problem was trying to get my head around the different sounds, that I’m not accustomed to, which I still haven’t managed.

I have to say, although I enjoyed being in Brazil, the language barrier was a big issue for me, and I am very glad to be back in a Spanish-speaking country.
I would love to hear other peoples thoughts and experiences on this- please feel free to comment below.


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