It’s been a few days since I’ve been able to update this blog, but I’ve been making some progress with my Portuguese.
In my last post I tried to lay out my overall language goals. My next step, as a couple people advised me, will be to make smaller concrete weekly goals (focusing on communication) so I can chart my progress and make sure I’m staying up to speed.
In the meantime, I’ve had some victories. Right now, I’m doing an internship at a massive Brazilian media company. I’ve been visiting different departments and having regular meetings with directors to get a better understanding of the big picture. These meetings generally entail me showing up in someone’s office, introductions, 1 or 2 hours of discussing relevant work, often with either a brief powerpoint presentation or use of a notebook or whiteboard, a tour of the premesis, and goodbyes. At this point, there have been 10 of these (and I’m not done… GIGANTIC company!).
The first meeting was in English. After that I started asking for people to speak in Portuguese. The new game is: carry on in Portuguese for as long as possible until we have to switch to English. In my mind, I have a lifemeter above my head representing a certain amount of grammatical mistakes, “what’s ___ mean?” questions, or awkward confused pauses. I walk into the office (ready? START!). Then they speak and I listen as carefully as possible, nod often, and try to insert a relevant question or exclamation wherever I can to show that I’m understanding overall.
I’ve been getting better at this, and yesterday I had my first meeting, about an hour and a half, entirely in Portuguese except for a few clarifying sentences in English! (I’ve had a couple other meetings in almost entirely Portuguese, but those involved tour components, which are much easier. I would really kind of phase out during the monologue and rejoin the conversation to react when my guide pointed something out.)
So yesterday was a victory, even though 1) I definitely don’t understand everything yet and 2) I still need to learn more in order to respond in conversation. I would guess that when the accent is familiar and a person doesn’t speak too fast, I might understand 50-70% of the words, which, combined with context, leads to maybe 60-80% understanding of the big picture of what they’re trying to communicate. I think this environment of business and technical language is a little easier to navigate just because the words are complex enough that they’re mostly semi-cognates in English and Portuguese (eg. sustainable/sustentável, foundation/fundação, ethics/ética etc). But it’s a good place to start and it’s a good place to pick up some nice vocabulary words that are pretty easy to remember.
One thing that’s really helped me over the past few days and that I’ve tried to use in these meetings is a “keep calm, carry on” attitude suggested in Benny Lewis’ Language Hacking Guide. I used to feel frustrated or dejected when people would always switch a conversation back to English, often, I felt, prematurely. But then I realized that each time that’s happened, I’ve been clearly uncomfortable: responding awkwardly to silence, saying “umm… umm…”, laughing, or looking at the other person as if to ask for help. Benny made a really interesting point: if you are obviously uncomfortable, a nice person is going to try to make you less uncomfortable. It’s human nature. Rather than rejecting your language level, most people are probably just trying to avoid awkwardness for everyone.
This simple change in mindset affected a lot for me. Besides the fact that I no longer feel insulted or put off when people try to guide me towards English, it led me to trying to project an attitude of “not awkward… perfectly comfortable… perfectly calm…” in tone and body language.
So instead of: “What?? (uncomfortable awkward silence, terror terror deer in headlights look)”
I would try something like: “Oh sorry, I’m not quite sure if I understand. The question is what, again? (calm content buddha smile look)”
Amazingly, it worked! We were able to keep up a Portuguese environment for so much longer. This was so interesting to me, the idea of focusing on the actual “flow” of a conversation instead of saying the right things or knowing the right words. I think it was a big step forward. In a way, it’s kind of like a playing tennis or a similar game. No one wants to play with someone who keeps stalling the game, trying to perfect their stroke and obsessing over technique when their friend is waiting for the ball!
So in the future I think I’ll focus on just getting the ball back over there… and I can concentrate on conjugation details and adjective/noun agreement after we’re already having fun.