Lost in Translation

I don’t think I am particularly bad at languages….I speak German & English fluently (although my German friends will surely remind me that I now have an American accent in my once native language and that I sometimes use funny and odd-sounding sentence constructions…) and at one point I used to be pretty proficient in French (oh, old college days). I’ve always enjoyed learning languages, perhaps not as much as my dear husband who once studied Arabic and Mandarin for several months just for fun and relaxation (the words “study” and “relaxation” seldom go into the same sentence in my view of the world – in either English or German). And, when John spent some time in South America for work before the FS, I took the opportunity to take Spanish classes and had lots of fun learning although I was pretty far from conversing beyond ordering at a restaurant (I started with the important, food related vocabulary).

I even took a continuing education course in Portuguese before we decided to vacation in Brazil years ago (this was long before we learned that we would eventually be posted here). So, when we learned we would be returning to Brazil – this time to live – I was excited to have the opportunity to brush up on that very rustic part of my brain that at one point knew how to conjugate a Portuguese verb. In preparation in DC, I took an online course and a 2-month in-person class at FSI once we were able to secure daycare for Luca. When we headed to post, I felt confident that I could at least get around on a day-to-day basis, go grocery shopping, get a hair cut, schedule appointments….you know…all that important stay-at-home-mommy kind of stuff….

So, how am I doing? Honestly, it depends on the day….I manage to get by every day (going grocery shopping and bargaining at the weekly markets), schedule doctor appointments (some, definitely not all of them….mostly the ones that involve my long name seem to cause many problems), and I was able to get my hair cut last week without a word of English and without leaving in tears (it actually looks pretty good!)… but other days, like today – my Portuguese-speaking brain seems to fall apart (several failed conversations over the phone that left me wondering if I was actually speaking the same language as the other person)… I know – speaking on the phone is always much more difficult that in-person interactions but it’s still frustrating (in some ways, I feel like Luca who can understand what people are saying to him but is not yet able to respond so we can understand him)…

Why do I seem to be having a harder time with Portuguese than when I learned English the first time I lived abroad? Well, obviously I am a “few” years older now (than the tender age of 11 when I first moved to the US) and my brain might just be a little slower these days.

Another major difference though (and one that will continue to haunt me in the FS life), is that I don’t need to speak Portuguese on a day-to-day basis. Yes, I live in Brazil and not many Brazilians I interact with daily speak English (or German for that matter) – but I really don’t need to speak Portuguese every day if I choose not to. I don’t need to rely on Portuguese-speaking media as I can watch TV and read the news online in English, German, or any other language. My friends here are all English or German (yes, German!) speaking and I can go grocery shopping without speaking to anyone (nodding and smiling can go a long way!) and all of my household and medical issues can be taken care of at the consulate where I can speak with someone in English about my needs (e.g., schedule a doctor appointment, place a work order for a broken light etc) and they will magically take care of these issues for me… Since I don’t like living in a bubble and want to maintain some independence (and keep that rustic brain moving) and of course engage in the local culture, I often opt to be on the adventurous side and pick up the phone to sort these issues out on my own (I do, after all, in my head at least, seem to speak Portuguese!)…some days – it works (and I feel invincible), others – like today … well, not so much (and I feel like giving up) … so, how does one pick herself up from a frustrating language-related day? Planning a date-night with the husband and having him call to arrange for babysitting and dinner reservations, of course!

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