When people realize I’m foreign, their first response is usually, “Portuguese is really hard to learn, isn’t it?”
I’ve been learning Portuguese for three years now and, if you ask me, it’s no more difficult than any other language. I speak French and Italian fluently, and Portuguese is basically a weird remix of the two. (Also, fun fact: once you learn Portuguese, you understand Spanish.)
Taking one-on-one Portuguese classes was one of the most helpful things I could have done for myself in Brazil. While being immersed in the culture helped me a lot with my comprehension, I learn languages best when I go through the rote memorization of grammar rules, conjugation, and tense upon tense upon tense.
After three years, I’m at the point now where I almost don’t need to translate anymore what people are saying unless there’s a lot of external noise going on. When it comes to speaking, there are times when my thoughts come out entirely in Portuguese and then there are times when what I want to express is more complex, so it requires a bit of thinking – something which can be difficult in a highly conversational culture where people interrupt each other when they want to be heard.
My biggest win, so far, is that many people don’t realize I’m not Brazilian until they have an extended conversation with me. Part of that, I believe, is because I started practicing the three tips below since they’ve been the most effective way to communicate with others in a non-American way (since it’s not just the language, but the style of speaking!):
1. Skip the “yes” or “no,” and just use the verb. Put simply, being too direct is a no-no and is generally considered kind of rude, or just weird. There’s typically a lot of circuitous conversation before actually giving any sort of answer that leans in the direction of either yes or no. For example: at the gym, someone asks Gustavo if he’s using the bench press. He is. So he says, “We can share, I have two more sets.” He never actually says “Yes, I’m using it” but answers in a way that implies he’s using it, but he wouldn’t prevent someone else from using it with him.
When I’m in the gym, someone might ask, “Are you using this? Can I hop on?” and the answer “Yes, but I’m almost done” escapes my mouth before I can think. I get a weird look a) because I told someone they couldn’t use something, which is very rare, and b) I already gave a yes or no answer, so people generally stop listening to anything that follows so there’s no inference that I’ll go fast so, in the end, I don’t hold the other person up.
The solution? Skip the yes or no. Just respond with the verb. If someone says, “Posso usar?” (Can I use this?) the best response is “Pode” or “Pode, só preciso de um minuto.” (You can, or You can, I just need a minute.) “Vai para o shopping?” (Are you going to the mall?) “Vou” (I’m going.) By using the verb, people tend to feel that the conversation is more open and that they can continue to chat, rather than feeling like you’ve already closed it down by directly answering their question.
2. Speak up. Speak loudly. Speak confidently. Culturally, Brazilians are shockingly good at reading body language. Because there’s not a lot of organization and order built into the culture, people tend to carry themselves with extra confidence and authority when they want to be listened to – because it works. It’s a technique that translates over into all areas of life.
I, by default, am very soft-spoken and quiet. With Portuguese not being my native language, I tend to listen more than I speak and, when I do speak, I start quietly, with less confidence, because I’m not sure I know how to get where I’m going, verbally.
Whenever I do that, I can guarantee that not a single person will understand me. If I carry myself like a foreigner who doesn’t speak the language, I am 100% received as a foreigner who doesn’t speak the language. Yet if I speak loudly, confidently, and without a care as to whether or not I make a mistake? “Ah, your Portuguese is so good!” Every time.
3. Swap “Okay” for Tá. The first time I came to Brazil, I remember listening to Gustavo talk and often heard him replying with “ta.” Before I could ask him what it meant, I thought maybe Brazil somehow adopted the British convention of using “ta” as thank you. But that seemed like an awful lot of gratitude for one conversation.
Finally, he told me, “Oh, it’s like está. Like ‘you are’ or ‘it is.'” Out of context, it made no sense. Why would you say “is” twenty times in conversation? After a few months of listening to other people say it repeatedly, constantly while chatting, it hit me. It’s the Portuguese version of “yeah” or “okay.” Technically, it’s like saying “Yes, it is” as in “It exists.” An example: “Vou para o supermercado hoje a noite. Tá?” “Tá.” (I’m going to the supermarket later. Okay? Okay.)
I have such a habit of saying “Yes,” “Mmhmm,” and “Okay” when someone is talking to me to validate and confirm that I’m listening. In Portuguese, people do say okay but it’s not that common. So when I say “okay” over and over when I’m listening to someone, it almost distracts them because it’s out of the ordinary. To pass for a native, though, I just start saying tá. It’s almost never the wrong scenario to use it and it lets me slip by without being noticed as a non-Brazilian.
One thing I’ve learned as a foreigner in Brazil: Brazilians are harder on each others’ language skills than they are everyone else. Yes, I’ve had people be rude and unnecessarily correct me or interrupt me to tell me “That’s Spanish,” even when it’s not. (I’ve never had to be so passionate about not speaking a language in my life.)
Mostly, though, people are just plain ol’ surprised that some woman from the US speaks their language since it is, indeed, pretty rare. Instead, they’re more worried that if I speak English to them, I’ll make fun because they have an accent or it’s incorrect – because that’s what Brazilians do to each other. Because that kind of joking is so common, people don’t know that most Americans are used to hearing English with so many different variations and accents that it’s almost impossible to stump us.
Learning to keep that in mind, while also carrying yourself with the self-appointed confidence of a pro-Brazilian, really offers huge strides in terms of helping others understand you. More than grammar, it’s about how you carry yourself.