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How I Learned Portuguese – a testimony

19 Jul

Let me tell you a little about how I learned Portuguese, which has taken a lot of hard work and persistence.

It started after the Atlanta Olympic Games. The organizers had Delta flight vouchers remaining. I was able to buy a voucher to fly anywhere in the world on Delta for just $200 round trip. The farthest Delta destinations at that time were Bombay India and Rio de Janeiro… easy choice.  Before the flight, I used an audiotape for travelers (‘O senhor sabe onde fica o Hotel Rio Grande?’ ‘Tem banheiro aqui?’  ‘Pode me ajudar?’) and did my best to know some basic phrases.

When I arrived in Rio… the most beautiful city I had ever seen… I opened my heart to Brazil.

And then I heard the people talking… on the streets, in restaurants, everywhere I turned… and I LOVED it.

I returned determined to learn much more Portuguese. But how? No courses were offered in the Atlanta at the time. So I set up my own course… with computer programs, a grammar book, and lots of music (beginning with Chico Buarque and Caetano Veloso). I had two dictionaries and challenged myself to find words using the Portuguese-Portuguese dictionary first. I only turned to a Portuguese-English dictionary as a last resort.

I desperately needed to hear the language spoken… so I turned to TV Globo, watching the news, trying to understand the comedy shows (‘Zorra Total,’ ‘Os Normais’) and faithfully following telenovelas.  My friends say I have a great collection of Brazilian films on DVD.  I used them, turning the subtitles on and off, to check my understanding.  I played individual scenes over and over, recording my voice as I imitated the actors… to the point that I realized that I was beginning to sound a lot like Regina Casé.

On Saturdays, I declared Portuguese-only day… no English was read or heard in my house and if I left the house I wore headphones so I wouldn’t hear other people talking.

Luckily, a course was offered at the university where I was working. In it I learned more grammar. But the teacher was from Lisbon and faked a Carioca accent in the classroom. All the Portuguese language students at the university met once per week for Bate-Papo, everyone trying hard to carry on conversations in Portuguese.

I’ve made several trips to Brazil… visiting friends and exploring the history and culture in Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte, São Paulo and Brasilia.  My friends have taken me to Ouro Preto and Tiradentes…Santos, Guarajá and Campinas…Pirenópolis… Campos de Jordão and Paraty.  I’ve traveled on my own to Salvador and Curitiba.

A few years ago, I met a young Brazilian woman who needed to practice speaking English. We decided to make an exchange. For two years, we met twice weekly for 1-1/2 hours each time.   During each session, we spoke half the time in English and half in Portuguese. Each of us brought something (news article, driver’s manual, blog post) for the other to read aloud and discuss. We’d talk about idioms, cultural matters, misunderstandings, and questions: Were all those phrases I learned from novelas okay to use in polite society?  What does ‘okeydokey’ mean?  How does ‘inveja’ differ from ‘ciumes?’ We worked on pronunciation and sentence rhythms.  Then we just talked… about anything and everything – films, family matters, travels, plans, whatever…

By the time she returned to Brasília, her English was much better and I was a much more confident Portuguese speaker.

I’ve since met a wider network Brazilians in Atlanta. I’ve asked everyone to help me by correcting errors I make in Portuguese.

Here’s what I’ve discovered along the way: learning a new language as an adult isn’t easy. It takes hard work, persistence, luck, and other people. It’s a lifelong process that can be at times super frustrating but eventually can be super rewarding.