25 March 2010
I have written several posts about how difficult it was for me to learn Portuguese and some of the humorous mistakes Americans have made when trying to speak the language in Brazil.
In Peace Corps Training, language learning was concentrated only on conversation. When we arrived in Brazil, we hadn't been taught to read or write the language. Although we were all college graduates, we were Portuguese illiterates.
Despite my many Portuguese language mistakes, Brazilians sometimes make mistakes, too.
One year before Christmas, the young adults who lived at the pensão plus a few others who were not from Glória, but who worked there, decided to add a little interest for the holiday by creating a Secret Friend activity. Each person pulled a name from a hat. We were supposed to write notes to our Secret Friend for about a week. Then before Christmas, we were to give a small gift and reveal our identities.
There were lots of interesting people at the pensão, mostly government workers and bankers, and most of the young adults there were gregarious and full of fun. But I had picked the name of the only guy who was introverted and rarely said a word.
What could I write to him? And, of course, even though my Portuguese was improving, if I wrote in my less-than perfect Portuguese, he would know immediately the notes were from me. So I asked my friend Nancides to help me write notes to my Secret Friend. In fact, I asked him to help me compose them and also to actually write them, because my American penmanship was so distinctive.
I didn’t know at the time, but coincidentally, that guy chose my name, so we were writing notes to each other.
The idea was to write something short, funny, and clever. However, my Secret Friend was writing pages and pages of flowery prose, praising my beauty, my charming accent, my fair complexion, my long legs, my light hair. I had no idea who was sending me these letters, but it seemed the guy had a crush on me and was sending me inappropriately passionate messages, as if this game gave him permission to woo me.
At lunch time, everyone would bring their notes to lunch to read out loud and every one would speculate on who had written them. I didn’t want to read the letter I had received ---it was embarassing. But I asked Nancides to read a small portion, claiming it would take too much time to read it all. At random, he chose a paragraph. Suddenly everyone was laughing. I didn’t understand why, but then Nancides explained.
I can’t remember the exact mistake in Portuguese, but the writer had done the equivalent of leaving out an important comma, which made a sentence that was obviously meant to say, “I dream of you, Virgin....” In other words, he meant to call me Virgin, as someone might refer to a person as Honey, or Sweetheart. But by leaving the comma out before the word Virgin, he actually had written, “I dream of you as a virgin...” In other words, I was obviously not a virgin, but he dreamed of me as if I were.
Of course, this had completely gone over my head. But when it was explained, I ---not normally one to be embarassed ---blushed. And the guy who wrote it, although we hadn’t known who my Secret Friend was, turned bright red, too. Thus he had inadvertently revealed his identity.
Poor guy. He probably never dared write a passionate love note to anyone ever again.
21 March 2010
SOME HUMOROUS MISTAKES MADE IN PORTUGUESE
Everyone makes mistakes with a foreign language, and of course, I was no different.
The first morning I was in Rio, I requested two fried uvas (grapes) instead of ovos (eggs) for breakfast. The waiter heard the ‘uvas’ but politely said, “Two fried eggs for the senhorita.” He’d probably heard it before.
In training, we had been told of the Brazilian soft drink Guarana. The flavor of Guarana might be described as a cross between ginger ale and apple juice. It is supposed to be a high-energy drink, which probably means it is loaded with sugar. When we stopped at a restaurant for a snack on one of our first days in the country, one of the other trainees ordered a Guanabara, which is the state in which Rio is located. That would be like visiting Denver and ordering a Colorado instead of a Coca Cola.
When I was in Brazil, the three favorite flavors of ice cream in the area where I lived were avocado, prune, and coconut. The first two didn’t sound all that tasty to me, so I always chose coconut ice cream. The problem is that the Portuguese word for coconut is ‘coco’ which is quite similar to another Portuguese word which resulted in many a foreigner ordering shit ice cream.
Americans have the habit of, when not understanding someone, saying “Huh?” In Brazil, an R at the beginning of a word is pronounced like an H and an Ã is pronounced sort of like a nasal ‘uh.’ Thus, when an American says “Huh?” in Brazil, it sounds like the Portuguese word ‘rã’ ---and the Brazilians wonder why americanos go around saying ‘frog?’ all the time.
One Volunteer decribed an embarrassing language faux pas on the Peace Corps Brazil website. After a full dinner with a Brazilian family, the male volunteer exclaimed, “Estou cheio.” Literally that means “I am full” but in reality the phrase is commonly used to say, “I am pregnant."
The Brazilian hostess explained that it is more correct to say, "Estou satisfeito" or “I am satisfied.”
The next evening after arriving home late the volunteer explained, "O omnibus estava satisfeito." (The bus was satisfied.)
My fellow PC Volunteer Gary, who served in Espirito Santo, sent me this story:
“During my first three months in PC in Brazil, I was invited to dinner at a home of a large Brazilian family on the street where I lived. There were mom/dad, grandparents, seven children, aunts and uncles, etc. all at the house. My Portuguese was halting at best, but I wanted to be socialable and try to blend in to this lively family gathering. After finishing dinner and before leaving the table, I thanked my hosts and ---trying out a new Portuguese slang I had learned that week ---attempted to say that I would always look forward to 'shooting the breeze' with them (bater o papo) but instead I said "bater o papa". I could not understand the shocked stares and open mouths of the group after I had proudly tried my Portuguese-best. It was later explained to me that I had not said 'shoot the breeze/bate o papo' [literally ‘beat the talk’] but had actually told everyone how enjoyable it would be to 'bate o Papa'....or "beat the Pope" with them.”
Que vergonha, nao e!!!
Gary also tells stories of learning Portuguese during Peace Corps Training. Unless you know both Portuguese and English, you might not understand these.
One of the Brazilian language teachers told my PCV group that we could order orange juice anywhere in Brazil by just quickly saying "Lone Ranger...Lone Ranger....Lone Ranger!"
Likewise, we were told that a toasted cheese sandwich was just minutes away after requesting a "Miss You Ken Gee!"
This same instructor from Rio Grande do Sul convinced us that getting an apple would be no problem if we said "My son" with a US southern accent.
Those mischevious Brazilian language instructors are probably still laughing at the crazy and naive norteamericanos. Pois e gente!
(©2010, C.J. Peiffer)