Before I moved to Brazil, I taught ESL to a group of refugee students from all over the world. I taught at an intermediate level, and I remember being surprised by my students’ insistence that they didn’t feel fluent, that their English was inadequate. Of course, I recognized that they had a lot to learn, but in all of our conversations, we were able to convey essential information–so I was both inspired and puzzled by their dedication to learning more English.
Living in Brazil (with only a low-intermediate understanding of Portuguese), has given me a new perspective on the importance of inessential communication. I’ve come to realize that, in many cases, it’s the detail and tone which makes a conversation lively, not the essential information that’s being conveyed. For example, I went to an herbal shop yesterday looking for a few ingredients for tea. I knew how to ask the shop keeper, “Do you have this? How much does this cost? Can I use this to make tea? Is this locally grown?” But I didn’t know how to interpret the stream of small-talk she gave me while climbing up her shelves looking for jars or measuring out scoops of aromatic powder. Even though I did manage to communicate and accomplish my main goal (buying the ingredients I wanted), who knows what funny or insightful information I missed along the way?
So, in the spirit of conquering all the nuance of language, I thought I would share some of the small, quirky differences I’ve noticed between English and Portuguese:
#1 Proper Nouns
I’ve always thought it was kind of strange that countries have different names all over the world. In the United States, for instance, we recognize a country called “Germany,” while here in Brazil, “Germany” is “Alemania,” and in Germany itself, “Germany” is “Deutschland.”
In Portuguese, the word “peru” means “turkey.” It’s also the name of the country Peru, and guess what? Brazilians make the same jokes about Peruvians that Americans make about Turkish people!
As if name-changing countries aren’t weird enough, people can change names too! For me, the strangest change in Portuguese is James–> Tiago. I was in a book store the other day, leafing through a Brazilian edition of Harry Potter, when I came across the name “Tiago Potter” (Harry’s dad). I laughed out loud!
In English, we have contractions for verbs followed by “not” (won’t, can’t, don’t, hasn’t) and for nouns followed by “is/are” (she’s, he’s, they’re, we’re). None of these contractions exist in Portuguese. Instead, Brazilian people have a boatload of contractions for prepositions followed by articles (do, da, dos, das, no, na, nos, nas, pelo, pela, pelos, pelas…)
It’s funny to me that both languages have their streak of laziness (with contractions), but it shows up in different places. Interestingly, contractions seem to be a force of habit, which means that they are very difficult for non-native speakers to pick up on. My students always preferred to say “will not,” “she is,” etc. and similarly, I usually slip up with Portuguese contractions and say “em as” or “por a.”
#3 False cognates
The English language has over 170,000 words, while Portuguese has around 390,000. Naturally, some of those words are going to collide in unintended ways, thus giving us false cognates, words that sound alike but have completely different meanings.
In Portuguese, the word for lawyer is “advogado.” It sounds so much like avocado to me that, several times, I have accidentally asked someone in a grocery store where the lawyers are.
Some of my favorite false cognates are:
- Puxar: sounds like “push,” actually means “pull”
- Pular: sounds like “pull,” actually means “jump”
- Pretender: sounds like “pretend,” actually means “intend”
Luckily, there are plenty of true cognates between English and Portuguese as well. Yesterday, I got away with saying the word “hostile” in a weird accent, and I sounded like a smart person!
Recently, I bought a copy of O Grande Gatsby (The Great Gatsby)! The bookseller looked at me like I was crazy, but the truth is, I can understand the language in Gatsby better than I can understand the language in some Portuguese children’s books. Why? It’s because of those cognates I just mentioned. In my experience, the more high-brow your language is, the more cognates you will use. For example, there are Portuguese cognates for the words marvelous, excellent, magnificent, splendid, but the most basic word, good, sounds completely different.
Slang, then, is a huge stumbling block for me. Slang is confoundingly simple. It sounds completely foreign to me, and even if I do manage to translate the words, they are often used out of context to give a different meaning (I guess that’s the definition of slang).
Here are a few of the slang phrases that mess with my head:
- Legal: This is like the English version of “cool.” Technically, it means “lawful,” but people here use it all the time to say that they like something.
- Boneca/garota/galinha/gatinha/piranha: These are all words for an attractive girl (with varying levels of politeness, I think). In reality, they mean everything from cat to chicken to piranha. I can’t keep them straight.
- Cara: Technically, it means “face,” but people here use it to mean “buddy” or “dude.” I think it’s specific to men. (And the language here is much friendlier, so if you’re a man, you are going to be called “cara” A LOT).
- A gente: Technically, this means “the people,” but people here use it to mean “we.” I first noticed my mother-in-law using this phrase, and I thought she was possibly a crazy person who always referred to herself in third person…
#5 Animal noises
My husband and I live in a fairly rural area, so, naturally, I like to “talk” to all the farm animals as I walk down the street. Doing this, I’ve discovered that American and Brazilians have pretty different ideas of standard animal noises…
My favorite song in Portuguese is about a duck who says “quem, quem, quem quem…”
Conducting a quick interview with Felipe here:
- What does a cat say? Miau. (Okay that’s pretty close).
- What does a dog say? Au au.
- What does a pig say? Oinc.
- What does a horse say? Hihihihihihi!
- What does a rooster say? Cocorococo!
- What does a baby bird say? Piu piu.
- What does a frog say? Frog says nothing.
That was fun.
Have you ever learned a new language? What was the hardest part for you?