I have only had one Portuguese class. For the past four days I have been living with a family that only speaks Portuguese.
Rule #1: Verbal Charades
The past few days have been a big game of verbal charades. I have my list of words I’m not allowed to say, anything in English, but somehow I’m supposed to be able to get the people around me to understand what I’m thinking. Like charades, you’ve got to make a fool of yourself for the game to work. You need grand hand gestures, ridiculous body motions and excessive voice accentuations just to get a simple point across. To run through a quick list of today’s antics: I wafted my armpit three distinct times to make up for my lack of olfactory vocabulary, I sang opera to my host mother because I had/have no knowledge of opera let alone Brazilian opera and to cap it all off my grammar sounds like a five year old who tried to memorize a dictionary. But there is a secret to make it all work; a smile.
Rule #2: Smile
It may sound ridiculous, but smiling is the key to success in any foreign country; expressions of happiness are near universal. If you smile and laugh a little people will usually respond in kind even if they have absolutely no idea whether the sounds that just came out of your mouth belong to any language at all. In Brazil, at least with my limited experience, people of all walks of life want to talk to you as long as you show interest in them. The cashiers at the book store started a conversation with me and so did the students at the high school where we are learning Portuguese. Even though it takes them time to muster a few words of English, it takes me even longer to cobble together some semi-coherent Portuguese. So don’t worry about messing up, just smile through it, be confident in your lack of knowledge and most of the time the native speakers will be happy to nudge you along.
Rule #3: You will freak out
I have spent just about 72 hours with my host family and I have ‘freaked out’ at least five times; that’s once every 14.4 hours! A freak out is when, in a matter of seconds, you are hit with the fact that “Sh**! 7 months of this is a looooong time!”(at least this is the way my brain vocalizes it. Everyone has their own personal neural interpreter with his/her/it’s own level of profanities). After this initial internal declaration your brain proceeds to swim, or drown more like it, as it tries to comprehend what 7 more months of the last few days of incomprehension and isolation could be like. Once your mind has fully submerged itself in its ‘freak out’, it begins to shut down and you are finally able to slowly exit the race track of thoughts that have been maddeningly circulating within your skull. These ‘freak outs’ occur because your brain has tricked itself into thinking that the future is a linear recreation of the past, when in reality that is not the case at all. It is easy to comprehend that the next seven months will not be the same as the past few days but internalizing another story. For now, this thought cycle remains a part of my daily routine. I will let you know when I sort it out.
Rule #4: These rules may not be for everyone
In the above set of rules I tend to use “your” and “you” rather than “I”; so it should be known that these rules are not meant for everyone, they are just written that way so that they can be applicable to anyone. This rudimentary list of rules comes solely from my limited (3 day) experience. As the year goes by and the reality of my surroundings sets in I will revise it for someone who (hopefully) knows Portuguese and who is assimilated into a foreign culture. But no matter who you are or where you go, I hope these rules can be of some use to all of you on your own adventures. Good Luck!