Today I signed up for a Portuguese language class in Portimao, about 40 minutes southeast of Aljezur. I took one Brazilian Portuguese course in New York earlier this year, and it really helped me a lot with the basics of the language. However, in just the short time I’ve been back, I realize just how much I don’t know — including the subtle yet important differences between Brazilian Portuguese and the way they speak the language here in Portugal — so I am determined to learn more.
When I was in Morocco hanging out with a surfer and young entrepreneur for a couple of days, it amazed me to watch his command of languages. He runs a surfing/tour company, so his cell phone was constantly ringing. I would watch him pick it up, say hello and then launch into whatever one of the seven languages in which he is fluent that was appropriate for the person calling — whether it was Moroccan Arabic, French, English, Spanish etc.
He seemed surprised at my awe at his language skills, since it was second nature to him to communicate this way. But my lack of fluency in a second language around him was, frankly, embarrassing, and I felt quite unintelligent by comparison — or at least less able to convey my intelligence in anything but English, his third or fourth language as opposed to my first and only.
Watching my friend Sharon speak Egyptian Arabic and her friend Brooke speak fluent Moroccan Arabic also humbled me while I was traveling. Both of them, of course, had the benefit of living in a foreign country to learn their language skills (both lived in Egypt, where they met, and Brooke has been living in Morocco for the past two years), but I still felt inadequate in my ability to communicate with the local people when I was with them.
Ask around and it’s unlikely the average American is fluent in another language besides English; sure many of us know at least some Spanish, and the more educated Americans who travel can probably get by in a second or third language. But because it’s not really necessary to speak more than English in the U.S. (although one can argue it’s becoming increasingly important to speak Spanish), many of us — even if we’ve studied another language — don’t speak it often enough to be fluent.
But watching not only my friends in Morocco but also my European friends here in Portugual — Portuguese David, who speaks four languages (Portuguese, French, Spanish and English) and German Irma, who speaks five (German, French, English, Italian and Portuguese) — switch back and forth so effortlessly between languages has me determined to at least become conversational in Portuguese by the time I leave her at the end of December.
I guess Portuguese is an odd choice for a second language, considering I already know basic French (which served me well in Morocco, though not nearly well enough). I studied it for four years in high school and then took a refresher class in San Francisco a few years ago, and could probably pick that language up more easily. And since Spanish is more commonly used in the U.S. and so many other countries, it’s probably the most practical of second languages for anyone to learn.
Portuguese, however, is arguably the most difficult of the Romance languages to learn to speak well — I know a woman who speaks Italian, French and Spanish, but said she is loathe to learn Portuguese because of its difficult pronunciations. I reckon if I can get by in Portuguese, the other Romance languages will be easier to pick up — plus those who speak Portuguese tell me they can understand Spanish (though Spanish speakers can’t understand them!). That will at least give me a head start in learning Spanish someday.
Portuguese is also an obvious choice for me because, well, I’m here in Portugal, and I hear this language and have the opportunity to use it every day. Already I am getting much better at basic transactions, and even the teacher who interviewed me tonight to assess my class level told me I communicate far better than someone who’s only taken about 20 hours of Portuguese classes. (I realized later that I lied; my class time in total was probably only about 10 hours.)
In my last few interactions with David and Irma, I’ve tried to have them speak to me primarily in Portuguese so I am forced to understand and even speak a little back. Comprehension comes first with a new language, and I’m beginning to catch on. It’s speaking back to people that’s proving difficult, but I hope that will come in time.
I also think taking a class will be a good use of my time while I’m still trying to establish myself as a freelance writer and plot my next move (another job in New York? more travel?), and perhaps I can also make some new friends here. Life in the Portuguese countryside is pretty quiet, especially in the off-season as it is now — the most exciting thing I did today besides signing up for class was lighting a fire in my wood stove to warm my house. While I am enjoying the simple country life and think knowing how to light a fire is a useful skill, so it would be nice to meet some new people with whom to interact socially.