Crossword puzzle

Why I Learned Portuguese

It’s not uncommon for Gustavo and I to have the following conversation when I speak Portuguese in the wild.

“Okay, I definitely said that right. Why did s/he talk to you after I obviously indicated that I understand Portuguese? We even had a full conversation in Portuguese before I said I was American!”

After a heavy sigh from Gustavo, he usually explains something along the lines of, “I know, but people just aren’t used to foreigners speaking Portuguese.”

As frustrating as it can be for me, it’s true. It is rare for foreigners (okay, fine, gringos) to speak Portuguese – even more so without an extremely heavy accent. Particularly unlike my accent, which mostly sounds like I’m from some obscure region of Portugal.

When my English-speaking friends ask me if I speak Portuguese, I explain that I do, but I hate speaking it. While Brazilians are friendly people, they’re also extremely self-critical and blunt. So when I speak Portuguese, they go into their auto-Brazilian mode of correct all the things. Albeit academically helpful, it’s not the most welcoming way to communicate with a non-native speaker.

So while Portuguese may not be my favorite language, I still wouldn’t change taking the time to learn it. Why?

Couple talking in Crossfit box
Communication is everything.

Somos um multi-cultural couple

While Gustavo’s level of English is almost the same as that of a native speaker, the vast majority of his life has been lived in Portuguese. His memories, cultural references, jokes, family history, recipes, and so on are all “stored” in Portuguese. Because of that, I see the language as a part of who he is.

Even when we’re in Rio, we generally live together in English. Our conversations at home about errands, budgets, plans, and vacations all take place in English. It’s easier. For me, it’s a lifesaver when I’m homesick. When everything feels uncomfortable, I want my home to at least feel familiar in one of the most fundamental aspects: language.

Yet there are times when Portuguese slips into our English reality. Sometimes I’ll wake Gustavo up before his internal translator has turned on. In these moments, instead of a “good morning,” he’ll quietly mumble “que horas são?” Other times, there are words neither of us has ever had to translate. Then we have to play a game, throwing out various words in English and in Portuguese until we figure out a shared definition. And, of course, there are the moments when I spend time with Gustavo’s family. Not being able to connect with his mom and dad due to a language barrier means I would miss out the most important people in Gustavo’s life.

Erica at the Brazilian Festival in Newark, NJ
One half of our Brazilian-American couple.

Nosso future

No matter where in the world we live, I will always be American (a Jersey girl, really) and Gustavo will always be Brazilian. Our lives will always be a mixture of English and Portuguese, America and Brazil. Whether it’s food or family, our history is our history.

Like any American, I’m a big ol’ fan of dashes. Our relationship, as it were, is Brazilian-American. If we have children, they will be Brazilian-American, too. Our home will always be a mixture of Portuguese and English.

In the same way that I would miss out on so many connections in Gustavo’s life if I didn’t speak Portuguese, there are so many parts of me he wouldn’t understand if the tables were reversed. So much of my life and experience can’t be translated. I mean, how do I say “Jersey girls pump their fists, not their gas” in Portuguese? How can I still convey the full combination of sarcasm, cheesiness, pride, and many, many miles of driving down to the Shore where someone else did, indeed, pump my gas? I’m joking, but only partially.

The reason we love all those posts about words that cannot be translated is because they’re a glimpse into other people’s lives. At the end of the day, people are people, but it is the lens of our cultures through which we view the world. Those cultures are what inspire us to notice some things, and not others; feel some things, and not others.

Those words and feelings that cannot be translated allow us, for a moment, to put a finger on the subtle differences between us. It reminds us just how beautiful that difference can be.

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