“Tô tão sozinho,
Meu único amigo,
É um cachorro de pelucia
Moro em Lisboa,
Mas não gosto de Lisboa,
Quero uma nova vida
No Peru, na Indonésia ou na Grécia
– ‘Um Fado’ de Ian R Close
Above is a fado I created to describe loneliness and dreams of where I would like to live next. I shan’t pretend it’s good – I mostly thought it up using the limited Portuguese I’ve learned whilst having a joke with my boyfriend about the music style. It’s not a happy style, and it’s certainly not a good style to try to learn the language from because all of the singers sound like they are crying the words out. Would I recommend it? Perhaps, if you’re morbid and want to cry over your pasteis de bacalhau and vinho.
My relationship with language acquisition isn’t exactly great. I had the great fortune of being brought up in an English speaking country, so it was never an urgent part of my education although I did want to learn another language from a young age. When I was around seven or eight I spent my pocket money on a Spanish learning book and CD. I was determined to learn Spanish, but the system designed for adults was not exactly exciting for such a young mind.
Then around the age of ten we were told we would get the opportunity to learn languages at school. “Great”, I emphatically wailed, “teach me Spanish!” Sadly they only taught French and German, so I had resigned myself to settling on German. Sadly I did not get a choice, so I spent the next seven years being force fed French grammar.
In the UK, and probably across the rest of the anglosphere, language tuition is terrible. They have this weird belief that kids are not capable of learning a language until at least ten years old – something which goes completely against all research and common sense. If you are lucky enough to get it in primary school, as I was, then the system isn’t bad and will teach you the basics well. Sadly, after that point, it’s just grammar. Grammar without words to apply it to is useless. I went to Paris a year after leaving school (and getting a great grade in French) and could barely ask where the toilet was.
I have a theory it’s all a conspiracy to make kids hate the French language. Kids that learned German seemed to do a lot better, and kids that despite it all felt compelled to go on and study French at the tertiary level do excellently. Maybe this is why Brits have such a subconsciously bizarre relationship with the French. Maybe this is why Brexit happened. Peut-être que c’était prévu depuis le début. Je voudrais une cigarette, s’il vous plait.
As a teenager my family visited Madeira, a Portuguese island off the coast of Morocco, quite a lot and my desired language switched from French to Portuguese. I bought another book. I ignored the book. I took some free online lessons in New Zealand. I got distracted by other pursuits. Come 2018 I find myself with a Brazilian lover and a one way ticket to Lisboa. This is my chance. Finally I will be able to falar português.
Sadly, it isn’t so simple. Most people in European countries that do not speak English as a first language know this, as do many others across the world. There’s a lot of merda online about learning languages, and moving to a country that speaks your target language is the king of outrageous claims. It helps, of course – but you’re in your twenties or thirties now and you can’t just absorb a foreign language.
My online teacher abandoned me for a job in China, my new face-to-face teacher just started ignoring me, and I am far too good at making excuses about why I do not have time to study Portuguese. I have the time – I spend an hour every morning having my café da manhã and pretending I’m southern European, taking my notebooks along and a printout from Globo or Estadão is hardly any extra effort. I have access to soap operas on the TV which also has a handy Portuguese subtitles function. I bought into the lie that I could just gain a new language through osmosis, and it’s hard to shake off.
Here’s what you will learn in a new country with minimal effort. You will learn your tax number. You will learn prices and how to order food and how to exchange pleasantries with the cashier. You will learn how to tell people that you speak English and only a little bit of their language. In short – you learn how to survive. Survival Portuguese is a good start, but locals will grow tired of speaking to you in a language they learned for convenience and they have every right to do so.
I’m hardly one to give advice, but from what I know so far here’s some basic tips. You don’t need grammar straight away, you need the words – learn grammar as you go, and keep the focus on knowing how to say what you want to say. Consume as much media as possible – don’t use English subtitles and if you are watching videos try to find ones that have a lot of action and symbolism to help you along the way. Every time you want to say something but can’t, keep a note of it and memorise it. Enjoy the food, play with the language and learn it like a baby learns their native tongue. Replace Duolingo and Memrise with Netflix, Spotify and people watching.
But most importantly? Get through all of the basics before you book your flight. Not just survival level, but learn how to express basic emotions, opinions and needs. I didn’t, and now I find myself able to ask for a Guaraná without being able to dispute the fact they overcharged me for it. I love guaraná, but 1,50€ for a can is a joke and you’re damn right I want you to know about it.
Do you have any tips for learning a new language? Comment below! Want to read my other culture related content? Check out this link here. Know a cheap Portuguese teacher that works either online or in Lisbon? Contact me directly here. Please. Por favor. Preciso um professor. Rapido.