I am standing at the till. I feel a bit like Eminem. My palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy (but don’t worry, on my sweater there’s no spaghetti). I have one shot, one opportunity to exchange a few words in Portuguese with a real life lisboeta:
“No, sorry, I don’t have any change”, “yes please, a bag would be great”. I open my mouth, but the words won’t come out. I’m choking, how!? Everybody, in the queue behind me, is joking now (while also getting very impatient). I stutter. But the clock’s run out, times up, over. The words that every language-learner abroad hates come tumbling out of the cashier’s mouth. “Don’t worry, I speak English”. Snap back to reality.
I have recently started watching a soap called Bem-vindo a Beirais to keep up my Portuguese. It’s about a man from Lisbon who moves to a village in the country to look after some greenhouses. As enthralling as that sounds, the main reason I watch it is so that I can pause and rewind the characters when I want, increase and decrease the volume when I want and, most importantly, the characters don’t stop and start speaking English when they discover how poor my Portuguese is. If only I could say the same for the locals I came across in Lisbon this summer. Practising your language abroad is a bit of a catch-22. You’re trying to improve by speaking with the locals but the locals, either to spare you the effort/embarrassment or because they can’t be bothered to deal with your feeble attempts at sounding authentic, find it easier to just launch into English. As I had daily classes at a language school during my week in Portugal, you might wonder why I didn’t practice with the other students. To get a general idea about the level of Portuguese amongst most of them, all you need to do is think back to GCSEs. Let’s just say that the only subjects we were able to approach comfortably were the weather and climate change. Not much of an Eco-warrior, I had little to say about both.
Returning home from my trip was bitter sweet as it made me wonder how helpful travelling really is for a language learner. But maybe that’s missing the point of the trip altogether. I came back with about the same level of Portuguese as I had when I left (although I had somehow mastered a fusion of Portuguese and Spanish known as portunhol, which was spoken by most of the students at the school). I did, however, manage to catch glimpse of how true lisboetas speak. I can pore over lists of vocabulary and verb conjugations to my heart’s content at home, but if I hadn’t gone to Lisbon, would I have known that “muito giro” is no longer the cool way of saying “cool” in Portugal? Or that in Brazil, these words would be met with utter incomprehension and condescension as they are simply not “legal”? You can imagine my confusion when my surfing instructor nicknamed me “bifana”, pork sandwich, before I knew that in Lisbon, it is slang for “fresh meat”. It’s much harder to lose yourself in a foreign culture than it might seem. So, if you get the rare chance to speak Portuguese in Portugal, you better never let it go.