I’ve been adopted by a group of PhD and post-docs in education at the University of Porto. They invite me to lunch because they find my habit of working and eating lunch alone vaguely troubling, and help me when I lose my keys or can’t manage doors. They also tell me about cultural events such as the film festival this weekend on racism and advise me about food and shopping. They correct my Portuguese and answer my questions about the academy in Portugal. As a stranger in their country, I’m grateful for their help and guidance in my daily life in the University. It has greatly eased my adjustment to a new University life.
I’ve been thinking about language this week, and they are what started me on this thinking path—so bear with me. The name of this blog is “portolistening” not “portotalking” because I knew that my “talking” was going to be limited. This week I did notice that something happened in my aural comprehension in that I was no longer just hearing “nasal incomprehensible sound, word, word, WORD THAT I RECOGNIZE, nasal vowel that I can’t recognize, word and nasal sound.” I started to hear and string sentences in my brain, so that while there were still incomprehensible words and sounds I understood sentences rather than individual words. That is not to imply that I can sit through an entire TV show or movie and understand, but I did notice a difference. It felt like a breakthrough after more than a month of nodding and staring at people’s mouths. I do find Brazilian Portuguese easier to comprehend because it is what I am used to hearing, and it is slower and less “closed”. In the North, there is also a difference in diction that makes it harder—more closed vowels and a slurring of words and fast tempo. Sometimes I wonder if they ever take breaths when talking!
I’ve experienced a tiny break-through, but speaking is still challenging for me due to my innate reluctance to show my limitations. I’ve been speaking English fluently all my life—it is the outward manifestation of who I am. Words are how I make my living, how I show how funny I am, it is how people know me, and here to not to be able to express in words fluently what is in my head has been challenging. I don’t feel really “known” here. Which leads to a book that I’m reading….
Trevor Noah’s book “Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood” is a great book on several levels—I highly recommend it. Because he is “colored” or what we consider mixed race, he lived in an “in-between space”—not black, not white but colored, which is a category in South Africa but under Apartheid, illegal. One way he turned this in-between space to his advantage was to learn all the languages that he could including Xhosa, Zulu, Afrikaans, German, English. He was a linguist chameleon and could move from group to group and no one could figure out what he way really, and he made that work to his advantage. Unfortunately, I don’t have a natural talent for languages so I remain “English”.
So back to the students who adopted me and how language can be transcended to some degree. This week one of the students talked about how he took his English committee member to a restaurant and had a great meal in a place where the food is often indifferent. One of the other students commented that “they were putting on the English” which made me laugh out loud—and got us talking about these phrases which indicate something other than what direct translation would imply. This URL gives you some idea of them but we discussed our common sayings which are often descriptive of a state of mind or a future activity or a warning.
There are lots of commonalities although Portuguese to English translation would probably not make sense. For example “swallow frogs” in Portuguese is the same as “take your lumps” in English—both mean accepting something unpleasant but direct translations make no sense to a non-English or a non-Portuguese speaker. But perhaps these visual metaphors help us to get beyond “words” to feelings. We spent a lunch hour laughing about this in English, Portuguese and Romanian.
So, here is hoping that my language continues to improve. I certainly hope so because for some reason everyone asks me for directions!