Voce Fala Portugues?

Sophie Auvin - Brazil


March 21, 2019

One of my least favorite questions when I first arrived in Brazil was “você
fala português?” or “do you speak portuguese?”. At the beginning, I used to
resent the question knowing full well my answer was only a half-truth.
Saying “yes” meant ignoring the fact I would get to a point in the
conversation where I couldn’t continue it. Saying “no” meant ignoring the
fact I was learning to speak Portuguese. Portraying language-acquisition as
a black or white answer or some mythical point where everything clicks is
not only wrong but unfair to those who are learning another language. It
was difficult, especially being surrounded by other fellows and constantly
being compared and scrutinized based on their level of proficiency. I used
to dread talking to anyone in public, dread making a mistake, dread going
out with fellows who spoke better Portuguese. Now, I dread when my skills
are underestimated, which happens a lot. When Brazilians look at me, often
times all they see is a loira(blonde hair, pale, blue eyes). They, from
experience, expect very little. They ask the Brazilian next to me questions
about me or they state “você entende nada, né”(you don’t understand
anything, right). There is the classic look of surprise when I respond and
can hold a conversation. It feels like a victory when I see that look of
surprise, or can understand lyrics to a song, or when I help a tourist
translate something from English to Portuguese. In a small way, I am
breaking down stereotypes built by countless foreigners and tourists who
couldn’t be bothered to learn obrigado/a. After 7 months, living completely
immersed in Portuguese, I finally feel confident to say “sim, falo”(yes, I
speak Portuguese). I don’t feel like it is misleading, or a half-truth, but
I still grapple with what it means to be fluent. Who defines fluency? Is it
a point which can be measured or achieved? And, if I consider myself
proficient in Portuguese, how do I know when I have crossed into fluency?
Fluency is slippery and hard to pin down. Yes, there are tests and
definitions, but these paint language as a non-fluid concept. As if there
is a moment where everything is understood and fluency just appears out of
thin air. But, fluency isn’t a moment and isn’t universal. One person’s
understanding does not diminish the understanding of another. It is an
intrinsic understanding of one’s own proficiency, comfortability, and
knowledge of a language. So, while I chase the illusive feeling of fluency,
I can comfortably answer “você fala português?” with “sim” and “você é
fluente?”(are you fluent?) with “ainda não”(not yet).

Sophie Auvin