One of the perks of living abroad is the opportunity to learn a new language straight off the local environment. I’ve always loved languages and communication is one of my majors so both emotionally and logically I consider it a courtesy and appropriate ‘thankyou for welcoming me to your country’ to try to get by in the local language.
And this time into a new language in a new country I had my near five year old daughter in tow. The outspoken expectation on her was to learn Portuguese and I wanted to act as a role model to her in my going about learning a new skill. From a practical aspect I had to. No one of the teachers in her Portuguese kindergarten spoke English.
So when we moved here I threw myself into Portuguese. Knowing a couple of Roman languages on beforehand, having done some on-line training before we left and knowing myself to not be afraid to just talk no matter the linguistic mistakes, I considered myself well prepared.
So I started interacting with people. Which went fine as long as I was the one doing the so-called talking. But then they took off with the talking. And all I heard was thick, guttural and fast and nothing they said resembled even closely to what I could read on signs or menus or books. When my daughter came to me to ask for the meaning of words I had absolutely no clue, I couldn’t even look the words up cause I had not the slightest idea as to which letter they started with! It was mind blowing. And very frustrating.
So I decided to go about it the classical way – to go to school. And I did, and it helped. It helped me understand where the language stems from, it helped me getting the pronunciation rules right and it made the whole difference to have a professional dedicated teacher eagerly standing by. Portuguese takes a lot of training and effort and is difficult to break into. So school really is a good idea.
I had a couple of tricks to survive outside of school too. I made friends with our pool guys and they really wanted to help me so they would reiterate what I’ve just tried to say but in the right way so I got to hear it the way it should be said. And they were real good at interpreting my facial expressions and body language. Communicating with locals has a lot of resemblance to a good game of charades I must say.
And I came up with a solution for how to handle the fact that I could not communicate properly with my daughters kindergarten teachers. Real difficult, real important stuff I wrote into my phones translation program. I then rephrased or reshoveled the content a bit (programs have brains not hearts) and handed the phone to the teacher. And it worked. Well, of course in response they immediately went into a super long and super fast explanation in Portuguese that I could hardly follow, but anyway…
And then of course, the obvious reference for pronunciation – I asked my daughter. Cause man, what she says and the way she says it – it’s so good! Her pronunciation is the real thing. I can actually hear it! She speaks Portuguese when she says something, whereas I am just using Portuguese words and trying to build them into sentences.
I guess the fact is that us adults try to learn a language whereas kids go on an and live it, eat it, acquire it. They let the new language become an integral part of themselves, not something they take on and off. And likely, it is difficult, if ever possible for us to do the same. But you know what, I’ll be damned if I let her see me role modelling anything else than willingness to learn Portuguese and an eagerness to test my skills out on the local Portuguese.