20 October 2011

Language Learning Late in Life

Mon père returns to his Paris birthplace
I began to be interested in France when I found out that my father had been born in Paris. I was probably not even ten years old at the time, but I knew instinctively that there was something about Paris, something romantic, something very ooh là là. So as I got older I set about learning French. I figured it was in my blood. I memorized and sang French songs, watched French films, read Simenon, fell in love with Yves Montand, made French one of my best subjects in school. And it was all so easy! I was young, my brain’s grammar mechanisms had me conjugating and modifying and translating faster than you could say "Vive la France!"

But contrary to expectations — family’s and friends’, that is — and contrary to my own ideas about my life, it’s not on the Left Bank that I wound up pitching my tent. No, somewhere along the way my eastward trajectory took a sharp turn south, and I ended up in Brazil. And if I was going to be able to discuss symptoms with a doctor or argue about the telephone company’s charges, if I were to communicate with anyone at all, I was going to have to fire up my neurons and start learning a "second" language all over again. I knew this was not going to be easy. I remembered from my college linguistics courses that it’s young people who enjoy the language-learning advantages, not older people. Mon Dieu!

I hardly spoke at all during my first two years in Brazil. I really can’t imagine what people thought. I must have given off quite an impression, a quiet, demure person with no ideas or opinions of her own. Mark, who had learned to speak Portuguese when he first started visiting Brazil long before we met, did all of the talking for us. But this was incredibly frustrating for me — probably for him as well — so I set about learning this new language. I watched closely as people talked, trying to pick up on body language, much as a child would. I also used my own tried-and-true method: I memorized and sang Brazilian songs, watched Brazilian films, read Jorge Amado, fell in love with — well, I stayed true to Yves Montand. I watched Brazilian news shows, trying to mimic the over-articulating news anchors. I also read lots of murder mysteries. It was a favorite genre of mine in the States, and I knew that the dialogue would be easy, along the lines of, "All right, punk, where were you on the night of the murder?"

A few of my language tutors: Inspector Espinosa, Detective Bellini , Investigator Augustão
I know a lot of people think of Portuguese as some poor cousin of Spanish. It’s not. There are more native speakers of Portuguese than there are of German, Japanese, Russian or even my beloved French. Portuguese has some amazingly complex and interesting tenses: the personal infinitive (all but unique among the world’s languages), the future subjunctive (a "conjugated" infinitive), a future perfect subjunctive, and two pluperfects. And there’s plenty more to shake the confidence of a neophyte: for one thing, the imperfect tense is frequently used idiomatically in Portuguese in place of the conditional tense. There is also one use of the future tense in Portuguese which has no equivalent in English, and that is the use of the future to express what is probable in the present; the same thing goes for the conditional tense, which is sometimes used to express probability in the past. (Don’t worry, this won’t be on the test!)

Given all these complexities, and given my late start, I was convinced that I would speak only in the present tense for the rest of my life. And I did exactly that for years. Thankfully, most people still caught the gist of what I was saying. But gradually, almost imperceptibly, I began using simple past tenses, then a future tense or two, until one day I made a wild leap into the subjunctive abyss. I found myself discussing politics over dinner, laughing at jokes, chatting away with people in supermarket lines, and railing at the telemarketers. All in all, I’m feeling pretty confident. Confident enough to take on Mandarin if I had to move to China? No, not that confident.


  1. I enjoyed this post thoroughly.

    In my trips to other countries, I often feel like explaining how Portuguese works. But grammar and language mechanisms are not wonderful icebreakers I came to learn.

    So I decided I would stop bringing that up. I would only talk about "futuro do pretério", or "the future of the past", and about the "pretérito mais que perfeito", or "more than perfect past", if and when someone asked me.

    Shockingly, no one ever asked me about that.

    But now that I saw that kind of content being discussed in this blog, I won´t miss my chance to make this comment: it is fascinating how differently languages can work, isn´t it? In English, you can use building blocks such as the words "will" and "would" to convey your ideas about what you expect from the future, whereas in Portuguese you might need a bigger variety of building blocks to mean the same thing.

    Although it is true that one can replace the "will" for "vou" and the "would" for "iria." Probably the easiest way out for a Portuguese as a second language.

    As I heard once, we feel a sense of victory when we travel abroad and we can make ourselves understood. This time I didn´t travel abroad. I just read your blog. But I feel so understood! Haha.


    It also makes me happy to hear that you´ve read Jorge Amado. He was such a good writer, and wrote so many classics. In a way I am frustrated that he is not omnipresent in bookstores all over the world. Well, maybe it is because he writes in this language with future of the past and more than perfect past.


    Back to languages: more than once I caught myself thinking about how I could explain the word "folclore" to an English speaker if I was asked to. "This is so unique to Brazil" I used to think. Until the day when I learned that "folclore" is nothing more than a folk lore...

    I wonder what your Portuguese skills are like by now.

    1. Renan, I'm so glad you enjoyed this post! As a former college Linguistics major, languages are fascinating to me. Not as much to others, as I, too, have come to learn. But my husband and I have put our hearts and minds into learning Portuguese, and I must say it sets us apart from many other foreigners here in Búzios. Our Portuguese abilities (and mine is "bem razoável" by now) have gone a long way to getting us accepted into the community.

  2. So interesting! Yeah, I'm sure the locals are partial to you and your husband. They probably took it as an honor that foreigners pushed to learn their language.

    And because we are on funny tenses, and because I read somewhere that you are into the politics of your home country, I thought you would appreciate this link that a friend of mine has just sent me after reading our conversation:


    1. Thanks, Renan, I loved the discussion about Trump's twisted grammar. I had read the full copy-edit done by Andrew Boynton, and it was hilarious! Every day there's a new series of gems from this man (Trump, I mean, not Boynton). Will he be stopped? Or will he be coronated? It's been hard to watch, even from this relatively safe distance!