No English Spoken Here

30 agosto, 2008 às 11:30 pm | Publicado em Uncategorized | Deixe um comentário

I’ve only had one dream in Portuguese that I can recall. It was during a Portuguese immersion program last summer; we had signed pledges not to speak/read/write/listen to a word of English for seven weeks (except for the interaction required to maintain relationships and purchase groceries). Of course what went on inside our heads was our own business; in the dream I clearly recall speaking in English to a Brazilian classmate, who promptly shook her finger at me in the chastising Latin way and said, não pode, não – no you can’t. At which point I switched into Portuguese.


Here in Brazil I am continually switching between the two, but the guidelines of when each is appropriate are much fuzzier. As rationale for the no-English pledge, the language school director cited evidence that even one hour a day of English substantially slowed foreign language acquisition, so that a Portuguese-only program in the US would be much more effective than studying abroad and likely socializing with other English speakers. Having done exactly that in language programs in Mexico and Ecuador, I tend to agree that if learning a language is ones top priority, it is best to try to stay in foreign language mode.
However, I realized soon after arriving that during this year in Brazil, learning Portuguese is no longer my top priority – it’s establishing a normal healthy life here, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Essential parts of that are building meaningful friendships and contributing to a scientific research project. Of course, speaking Portuguese is a useful tool towards both these ends, but there’s a place for English as well. I have been incredibly fortunate to get to know São Paulo and other parts of Brazil alongside the other Fulbrights, an amazingly talented and diverse group of people (in our Sao Paulo group alone we have people studying galaxy evolution, democracy and architecture in favelas, visual literacy, and ethanol marketing)! We speak in English, which probably slows down our language acquisition to some extent, but there’s nothing as supportive and energizing as hashing out new country frustrations (and girl talk :) in ones native language.  My mother is an English teacher for immigrant high-schoolers in Portland, and in the face of English-only campaigns she’d always impressed upon me the importance of newcomers retaining their support structure in a native language. Now I think I finally understand.
I still wish my Portuguese were better. I don’t know enough idioms or slang to really consider myself fluent, and when I’m really tired, or in a group situation with lots of people talking at once with music or a telenovela blaring in the background, my comprehension drops into the single digits. Since arriving in Brazil, I haven’t been able to motivate myself to do a single grammar exercise, and sent my 101 Portuguese Verbs home with my mother (that stuff is all online anyway – if I bothered to look it up). I do look use a dictionary occasionally, but I don’t take it to work or traveling. Instead I’m relying on the lazy immersion approach – I talk to people, read novels (ok, so far just Harry Potter) and the newspaper and lots of street advertising, and decipher as much as I can from context. (I’ve never been very good at intentionally memorizing things anyway (this is why my classical piano career failed, and why I am an engineer, not a doctor), but if someone introduces a new phrase in some funny context (eg capitão do bundão), it sticks.)
Despite my deficiencies, I do use mainly Portuguese with Brazilians, both socially and at work. While a lot of the work itself is in English or nonverbal (reading or writing articles, data analysis and programming), my day-to-day interaction with researchers and students is all in Portuguese – I consider it a sign of respect as a guest to do what is easiest for the group overall. Still, I’ve repeatedly witnessed Brazilian researchers, conscious of their status as a “developing” country, repeatedly impressing the importance of publishing, presenting, and otherwise participating in the global scientific community – in English. The researchers I am working with are collaborating with researchers at NOAA, Max Planck and Harvard, contributing developments to American weather models and refining a weather/climate/air quality model that is tailored to South America. (Perhaps not so surprisingly, weather models produced in the US and Europe don’t necessarily work so well in the tropics). While I found it frustrating after investing so much energy in studying engineering and languages, during internships in Quito and Brasilia I found that my fluency in English was my most useful skill, and I am wondering whether I should use it more in São Paulo. I have worked a bit with grad students, rehearsing presentations, editing papers, and prepping for exams in English, but could definitely do more to help. While for me foreign languages are a (fun, life-enriching) hobby, for Brazilian scientists English is a necessity.

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