Bom dia – boa tarde – Obrigado – Desculpe – De nada

I have lived in Lisbon for 4 months now, but no, my Portuguese vocabulary did not expand at all. Every time when I go to a store and trying to be polite, my Portuguese conversation already ends after the greeting and unfortunately, I need to switch to English. Do I feel guilty and ashamed about it? Of course! But why haven’t I made any change yet? Shouldn’t I have an intrinsic motivation to do so? Isn’t it the first step of getting in contact with a new culture by learning the specific language?

I believe it is due to the circumstances of the situation. I knew beforehand that Lisbon is quite international regarding the Erasmus student’s environment, as well as in the touristic context. Although it is highly regarded in Portuguese culture making an effort of speaking Portuguese, most locals will switch to English after the first sentences as they are too polite to watch someone making a fool of themselves. Additionally, the classes at my university are held in English which means I do not have the necessity to learn Portuguese.

Even though I do not need to speak Portuguese, I am still confronted with it in some situations. At the beginning I could only determine when a sentence starts and when it ends. In the meanwhile, after spending some days surrounded by locals, I would proudly claim that I am already able to guess the meaning of the sentences. At least when they are using some typical gesture as they express their emotions and when suddenly some similar words to German occur, like “saco”. However, it is more a self-illusion rather than an actual understanding. Nevertheless, there is unfortunately no way around studying vocabulary for learning a new language. I heard form Brazilians it is not only because of my lack of Portuguese speaking skills that I am not able to understand the Portuguese, because even the Brazilians do have their problems to cope with the local’s pronunciation. According to them the locals speak kind of inside their mouth, some would say mumbling. But it is still no excuse! So, how did I make it through the last four months instead? Well mostly with English and where I was lost with English with my hands and feet. And that’s where it gets funny. When creativity is required, and you need to start improvising. This sometimes leads to amusing but also funny contradictions.

Another interesting situation is to figure out what you would like to order in a restaurant because the menu is only in Portuguese. Of course, you could use your Smartphone in the 21st century but where would the appeal remain. Especially when you recognize some familiar words in the written language due to you excellent French skills and you are confident enough to order without asking but then surprisingly being astonished at what you get. That’s another way you can get deceived.

I know that I do not have a grasp of any languages, it does not matter if German, French, English or Portuguese. And I knew before coming here that I was afraid of making mistakes. Hence, at the beginning I was becoming aware that my lack of confidence in speaking fluently English inhibits me from contributing to discussions in the same way as I did before. However, I realised that it is more about the ability to express yourself in an understandable way, such as improvising and keep trying  until you can convey your initially message. Because the content matters often more than the way of performing. Being able to speak another language enables you to get insights from different cultures. I have to say I do regret that I didn’t take the chance to learn Portuguese. But even though, I was able to communicate through English with different people from different nationalities and I was able learn through this intercultural exchange in a positive way.

Paco Buxtorf

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