When I lived in Rio de Janeiro last year I didn’t have much Portuguese. Here are some accounts of how that impacted my daily life there.Living in a foreign country where you don’t know the language is a challenge. It can be very rewarding, though.
It is very labor intensive and takes a lot of preparation to complete even the most menial tasks of daily life that we normally take for granted. You can’t be spontaneous, like you are in your own culture because you have to plan out what you will say. You have to take into consideration all the contingencies of what will happen in a transaction.
Staying in a country where you don’t speak the dominant language is like existing in a living language laboratory. Every utterance is communicative, real world oriented, hands-on, authentic, and goal-oriented because you want something. You are saying something to an actual person for a real reason.
It is so different from the sterile and hypothetical book learning exercises and drills that have little relevance to real world experiences. You always have something at stake, and a positive or negative outcome depends on your ability to establish successful communications.
My language lab was the beautiful, vibrant, dynamic, marvelous citey of Brazil: Rio de Janeiro. My teachers were everyone. From a professor to private tutors to volunteer literacy teachers to shop clerks to beach vendors and my online friends in msn, paltalk, and skype.
Since I lived there a whole year, I made a lot of acquaintances. I became a known entity on the beach and the vendors did not treat me like a tourist anymore after a while. The vendors were kind. They remembered my name and told me their names. They read sentences from my grammar to me so I could hear the pronunciation, and they sometimes even tried to explain to me the correct way to say what I had tried to say. Even sentences like, “If I had any money I would like this one the best.” Se eu tivesse dinheiro, eu gostaria este mais, ou eu achei este o melhor.”
I took my dictionary everywhere with me, and usually my verb conjugation book, too, 500 verbs in Portuguese. Upon returning home to the US, it felt strange to hear English on the streets. It was strange to be able to understand conversations I overheard. It was strange not to have to mentally prepare before every transaction (taking a bus, buying food, ordering from a menu, requesting information). It felt unnatural to not have to go through the mental gymnastics that were necessary for everyday life in a foreign land. My mind was still attuned, for several days after we returned home, to trying to formulate phrases in Portuguese that I would require in order to express my needs when I left my home to shop or do errands.
Some of you who frequent the blog chat may have already heard the story I am about to tell. It is illustrative of how helpful having online friends in msn can be. They can be life saving. One day my husband and his friends had planned to go to Búzios for the weekend. I was supposed to go too, but on the day of our departure, I was too sick to go with them. since we had not planned on being home that weekend, we had not bought any food. I was too ill to go shopping, and my husband couldn’t because he would miss his bus if he shopped for me. I decided to order a pizza by phone to be delivered to the apartment. But I didn’t know how to order. Luckily Alessandro was online and he told me what to say. He practiced the sentence with me until it sounded understandable. Then I called the pizza place and was able to place my order. They understood me well enough. Success! It was the best tasting pizza I had ever eaten because it was flavored with success.
That’s how it is when you live in a foreign country. Feed back is imediate. If you can make yourself understood, you win a pizza. But if not—no donut for you, as they say in Orkut.