Sorry, could you repeat that again, por favor?

My teacher says learning a foreign language is a piece of cake...and I LOVE cake!

My teacher says learning a foreign language is a piece of cake…and I LOVE cake!

If you’ve been following me recently, you’ve probably digested my instructions on how to become a fully-fledged traveller. Now I want to focus on the next stage: the day when you decide to settle somewhere for a year or two. This is the time when you reach another plateau, when you become that curious species known as the ‘expat’. This odd term conjures up images of lobster-skinned young males in rope-soled sandals and Hawaiian shirts guffawing together in a beach bar erected between two coconut trees. Sounds like fun? Well, I’m still looking for that bar, though I lost the fag packet with the address scribbled on the back years ago. 

Once you are firmly established as an expat, you have a big decision to make, especially if you are a native English speaker. How much of the lingo do you bother to learn? After all, you can get by in most countries with English and a smattering of the local language. So much so, that English speakers have become hopelessly lazy at learning other langauges. Many expats I have met socialize mostly with fellow English speakers and refrain from making inroads into their adopted culture and its native language. Why should they? These types exist in a kind of bubble, craning their necks to hear the Hartlepool football result every Saturday whilst crying over their cackhanded attempts to make toad-in-the-hole.

Don't be a naff tourist - learn the local lingo!

Don’t be a naff tourist – learn the local lingo!

But some of us like a challenge, and there is something magical about submerging yourself in another language and losing your clumsily conventional Britishness. So we try our damnedest to learn the native tongue, patting ourselves on the back every time we buy a pair of flip-flops without hitting a brick wall of incomprehension. Then comes the dreadfully painful day when we realise our so-called ‘fluency’ is mangled by a heavy accent you could cut with cheese wire. Curses! Why do I have to sound so foreign? Why can everybody tell a mile away that I’m from Doncaster?  What do I have to do to sound like Rafael? Eat more garlic or put a snail under my tongue?

Spot on, Haruki, whoever you are...

You took the words right out of my mouth…

No, but you have to face the fact that every language learning attempt reaches a glass ceiling beyond which you may only venture if you are prepared to split your personality. To take that final leap into the unknown means leaving your former self behind. To crack the native accent, you have to reinvent yourself, to adopt a new persona. To copy all those tricky sounds you have to become a mimic, a barefaced ventriloquist who can fool a native for at least a couple of minutes. Believe me, this is so difficult it makes nuclear physics look like Candy Crush.

As an illustration, I will compare two Brazilian speakers of English I met a few years back in Rio. One was a young woman who had just returned to Brazil after spending 5 years in England. She came to me for lessons, but only 2 minutes into the first lesson I stopped her short and said: “Your English is so good you sound like a native. You don’t need me.” But as the lesson continued I began to notice how many little errors she was making – I had been fooled completely by the accent. She was the exception that proves the rule. The other case was a Brazilian teacher of English who, in a higher teaching diploma exam, gained the highest score for that year in the whole of South America. Her English was exceptional, virtually error-free, except for one thing: her accent was as heavy as a wheelbarrow full of church lead. You always knew when she was coming down the corridor of the school because the cockroaches jumped out of the window en-masse.

I clicked and clicked and clicked until I cried

I clicked and clicked and clicked until I cried…

So, unfortunately, unless you have an ear for mimicry and are prepared to contort your precious voice into myriad new-fangled sounds, forget mastering the accent. As if that wasn’t bad enough, there is another intimidating barrier you come up against as a language learner. Teaching yourself to say a few things and be understood is all well and good. But how the hell are you supposed to catch the flow when people are rabbiting nineteen to the dozen? In other words, understanding is always more difficult than being understood: you can speak the new language at your nice, slow pace, but native speakers expect you to follow their rapid delivery, with different accents, registers and slang thrown in. Often you feel like shouting SLOW DOWN!, but that would only expose your incompetence. So instead you stand there grinning from ear to ear praying that the speaker hasn’t asked you a question and you’ve missed it.

I once had an extraordinary phone conversation with a tele-sales girl in São Paulo (phone calls are mostly nightmare in another language). She called me to discuss a new phone plan and before I could stop her, she had launched into a quick-fire spiel about the new services I should expect to receive . When she stopped there was a crackly pause and she asked if I was still there. I said yes (sim), and then tried ineptly to produce a summary of what she had just told me, missing out loads. This gave her a fit of the giggles. When I did get something right she said (I’m translating): “Yes, that’s it, Mr Martin!”, obviously trying not to laugh. Then the inevitable happened and she asked me where I was from (a sure sign you don’t fool anybody). I nearly said Bradford but thought better of it.

Sorry, can't help you with that rubbish accent!

Sorry, can’t help you with that rubbish accent!

Based on the above, it always makes me cringe when somebody says they have a friend whose cousin speaks 5 languages fluently. “Really!”, I say, burning inside. “How nice for them!” Except I don’t believe it. Why? The key word here is “fluently”. Mastering a language is not like riding a bike or memorising the chapter of a book. To speak a language fluently you need constant, daily interaction with native speakers, reaching into all those distant idiomatic and colloquial spaces that all languages contain. Doing this in one other language would take up all your time, so how could you possibly do it with 5? Being able to get by in 5 languages is something completely different, though even that is commendable in my book.

I've never played Candy Crush, but I can say 'cobbles' in Portuguese

I’ve never played Candy Crush, but I can say ‘cobbles’ in Portuguese!

So, if you just can’t be bothered with all this language learning malarkey, I have the perfect solution: get yourself a ‘sleeping dictionary’ – a boyfriend (or girlfriend) who is a native speaker of the language you want to learn. Geddit? A word of warning, however. Make sure your new, exotic love doesn’t speak a word of English or you could end up with a freeloading student on your hands. As usual, I speak from experience.

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Categories: Blighty, Brazil, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

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7 thoughts on “Sorry, could you repeat that again, por favor?

  1. Andrew

    paralelipido (sp)!

    Do you remember an early venture into Portuguese idiom with Fernanda all those years ago – “pode quebrar uma galinha para mim?” – I still think it’s better than the original.

  2. Oh no! Do I have to be patronising and correct you? I’m sure you would hate me if I didn’t (ha ha!). So, here goes – it’s PARALELEPÍPEDO. Fernanda was great. I have quebrared many galinhas, over the years, as you can imagine. How can I take myself seriously when I daren’t answer the telephone in Brazil? Como? Quem? Alô!

  3. Andrew

    Anyway, never mind cobbles. The real question is whether your students know how to use “cobblers” correctly!

  4. Just had an argument with the Burra…she says I keep spelling cobblers wrong. We had a dictionary fight. So I’ve changed it 4 times already (don’t know if you noticed)…then again, what do I know?

  5. Andrew

    the Burra is all knowing, to be fair. As is WIKI, which says:

    paralelepípedo

  6. Hi Martin, your ‘clicked until I cried’ had me laughing out loud! This accent thing is something I’m always dealing with, either concerning me or my students. I’m absolutely 100% of the belief that HOW you speak doesn’t matter a jot just as long as you can be clearly understood – and, of course, that you can understand the person you’re speaking to. Can you imagine how dull Maurice Chevalier or Marlene Dietrich would have sounded with perfectly refined R.P? (me showing my age again) I remember once having a particularly aggravating experience when I was invited to represent Cidade Baixa at a meeting of the Institute of Architects of Porto Alegre. The meeting was hopelessly organized and we established absolutely nothing but what I remember most was an unpleasant big wig among the circle (female) who, after I had introduced myself, as we’d all been asked to do, and said who had invited me, she declared in tones most supercilious, “So you’ve been here almost twenty years (at that time) and you still have a very strong English accent”. Yes, like it was really relevant to the meeting. I quickly replied to her, “Why is it that the people of Porto Alegre think that the only way to speak Portuguese is Portoalagrense?” She quickly moved on to the next person – and that, I think, says it all!

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