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Portuguese: my brain is seizing up

As my work self-improvement project for the year, I'm learning Brazilian Portuguese via Rosetta Stone. I had read that there are some linguists that argue that Portuguese could actually be considered a dialect of Spanish rather than its own language. I can't actually weigh in on that, but I CAN say that the similarity between Brazilian Portuguese and Spanish is giving me PROBLEMS.

I know a bit of Spanish, from junior high and high school Spanish as well as from living in SoCal. (You just sort of pick some up via osmosis, or at least I do.) About 60% of the Portuguese I'm learning right now is spelled the same but pronounced entirely differently. It's like Spanish with a really strange accent. Another 20% is pronounced as it is in Spanish but spelled entirely differently. And then you've got that last 20%, which is where it gets weird.

When I tried to learn functional Italian for my trip to Italy (you know, "may I have a cappuccino?" "where's the bathroom?" "more gelato, please," "don't touch me there!" "I'm positive that one-block taxi trip was not 50 euros," etcetera), the language was similar enough to Spanish that I could get the gist and figure out what direction I was supposed to head in, but sufficiently different that I didn't get too confused. This is more like...trying to re-learn Spanish, with an extremely thick Southern accent, while replacing every fifth word with one that has been handed down from Mars. And I do mean Mars, because you're happily traveling along with all Latin cognates and then you come right up against something that is all full of consonants and phlegm as if you were speaking Welsh.

I am NEVER going to get the hang of this. At least, that's how it feels right now, like I'm just going to fumble around with badly accented Spanish and be mocked if I ever go to Brazil. However, having worked at learning languages in the past I know this is just one stage of the process.

But! I did discover something very cool about the language today. If I say to a group, "Do you have money?" there's no word that distinguishes between, "Yes, as a group we have money," and "yes, each individual in this group has money." Portuguese has two different words for that, vocês and eles/elas. Although I'm still working on figuring out which applies to which situation. It's a point of distinction I wish the English language had.


( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 8th, 2013 09:17 am (UTC)
Speaking from my own experience, you probably won't have as much trouble as you think using your Portuguese in Brazil. My Portuguese is noticably worse than my Spanish but both of them worked mostly well enough on my month-long trip through South America last year. There were some memorable glitches, but overall I got by okay.

Two points, however.

First is that, personally, I did not approach Brazilian Portuguese as a variant of Spanish, Latin American or otherwise. I think if you do you run into the problems you're having. Better to just learn Portuguese as Portuguese, if you can.

(Part of it for me is that the only Romance language I can use with any fluency is French. French is far enough from either Portuguese or Spanish that all I get is some vague congruence of some vocabulary and an equally vague similarity in some grammar. But what that means is I don't have anything fighting my learning Portuguese *as* Portuguese.)

The second thing is that Brazilians will cut you enormous amounts of slack when you use their language. They're pretty much the anti-French in this regard. They will not correct you if you make a mistake, but will try and figure out what you are saying. This can be good and bad. It's good because they'll prioritize communicating. It's bad because you won't get feedback if you get something wrong.

Anyway, my experiences in Brazil went something like this: a decade or so ago I went to Brazil for a week. At the beginning, I would attempt Portuguese and get puzzled looks. By the end of the week, I would say things and get fast Portuguese in reply that I couldn't understand. While this didn't help me that much, it was progress.

Last year I spent about half my month-long trip to South America in Brazil. I had managed to retain enough Portuguese that I was intelligible right from the start. At least, everyone replied to what I was saying and I didn't get any blank looks. By the time I left for Uruguay I could figure out what people were saying to me if the context was sufficiently constrained. This was also progress!

I also have to say I don't know crap about grammar. (My general approach to languages does not normally include formal study of grammar.) But that doesn't seem to matter too much to Brazilians, at least when using the language on a day-to-day basis. In general, people are friendly and want to be helpful, particularly outside Rio. Rio is fine but overrun with tourists and this has affected how helpful residents are willing to be. By contrast, if you go to Belo Horizonte or some other similarly large city that's off-the-beaten-track, people will be curious why you came and happy to see you.

I really like Brazil and can go on and on about the place given very little provocation. :) When are you going?
Oct. 9th, 2013 02:00 am (UTC)
I have enough Spanish that it is totally fighting a war with the Portuguese for dominance in my head.

I don't know if I'm ever going to Brazil but it's one of the regions that my office handles so I thought that it would behoove me to know it. And yeah, work is paying for me to do the Rosetta Stone thing!
Oct. 8th, 2013 09:19 am (UTC)
Also, is work is paying you to learn the language? If so, that's awesome!
Oct. 8th, 2013 12:03 pm (UTC)
in english, you might say "we do" for the inclusive, and the "we all do" for the each-one version.
Oct. 8th, 2013 06:55 pm (UTC)
Or in Southern, "Do y'all have money?" means the group. "Do all y'all have money?" means all individuals. ;-)
Oct. 9th, 2013 02:01 am (UTC)
Of course! I forgot about Southern.
Oct. 9th, 2013 02:01 am (UTC)
Yeah, that is a point. "We each have a pizza" versus "we all have one pizza." Although I'm still not sure the latter makes it clear that all parties are sharing one pizza.
Oct. 9th, 2013 03:34 am (UTC)
i agree, i think you'd state the latter as "we are all sharing one pizza".
Oct. 9th, 2013 06:50 am (UTC)
Language interference is a helluva thing. One thing that you'll have working for you even if you do mess something up is that Portuguese and Spanish are a language pair in which Portuguese-speakers have a very easy time understanding Spanish. It unfortunately doesn't work the other way round. But at least you'll be understood!
Oct. 10th, 2013 06:27 am (UTC)
Thank you! That's good to know! Interesting that it works one way and not the other. I wonder if there's other language pairs like that?
Oct. 10th, 2013 06:25 pm (UTC)
The technical term for it is asymmetric intelligibility. That's as contrasted with symmetric intelligibility, wherein each side can equally well understand the other. There are a couple of sets that work that way.

Swedes can better understand Danish and Norwegian than the other way round. Ukrainians do better with Russian than the other way round.

One way it typically happens when you have a language pair that is strongly similar, but one language gained prominence over the other. But that's not *always* the case. Dutch can understand Afrikaans better than the other way round, it's thought, because the grammar is trickier in Dutch.
Oct. 11th, 2013 05:38 am (UTC)
Thank you! That's all super-interesting and really handy to know. And it also explains why my Ukranian-speaking grandfather could understand a fair bit of Russian.
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )