After learning 6 languages to fluency in 6 years of travels, and learning to speak Czech in just two months (and of course, telling you how I did it!), it’s time that to go on to the next level in language learning!
I think that I may finally be ready for the greatest challenge I’ve ever set myself. This time I am not only setting the bar higher, but I’m setting it the highest you possibly can! What’s the next step after fluency? “Very fluent”? Too vague. “Bilingual”? Quite good, but I can make it much more fun than that…
On Monday morning I’m hopping a flight to Rio de Janeiro, where I’ll be spending the next 3 months. Out of all the places I’ve travelled to, Brazil is by far my favourite. In 2006 I spent 3 months in the south, mostly on the island of Floripa, and in 2008 I travelled the northeast, and experienced the amazing Carnival in Olinda. Over both trips, and a total of about 5 months, I’ve mostly bussed all the way from Porto Alegre in the very south to Natal in the north-east tip (a distance of about 3,000 km…) and have friends everywhere and gotten to know many cities. Nevertheless, Brazil is big, so I’ve barely even scratched the surface!
Even so, I still at least know the country a bit. There are many, many reasons that I love Brazil and keep going back, but the main one is by far the fact that it has o povo mais legal do mundo - the coolest people in the world. Although Brazil may be famous for its amazing football players, samba dancers and very beautiful natives, there are so many more levels to them that those who don’t travel there, or just go for extremely brief holidays, just don’t get. I’ll gladly explain the many reasons I love the country and its people in a later post. For now, just know that I highly respect Brazilians, and even idolise them. Their way of living and enjoying life is something that Europeans and North Americans could learn a lot from.
So, my next mission is to become Brazilian in these 3-months. No, this doesn’t mean that I’ll be applying for citizenship. The end goal of this mission is very simple to explain, but it will be extremely complicated to achieve:
I want Brazilians to think that I am Brazilian
That’s the mission! By mid-December, I want several Brazilians to have believed that not only am I speaking Portuguese as good as a native, but that I actually am a native. This is way more than just a linguistic mission. This will involve examining and adapting everything that I do; how I walk, how I dress, how I shave, how I eat (e.g. in Brazil you shouldn’t eat a pizza with your hands, but you should smother it in tomato ketchup!), how I dance, how I socialise, how I react to certain situations and many other things that I haven’t even considered yet. I want to put on such a good show for them that they will be genuinely surprised when I reveal that I’m actually from a town in the middle of Ireland!
There are two main aspects that I’ll be working on in this mission:
Speaking like a native
Easier said than done! I’m making things really hard for myself this time because I’ve never gone beyond fluency, so this is entirely new territory, which I may not be ready for yet. Reaching a native level in 3-months (starting from fluency) in itself is already a tough nut to crack and I genuinely don’t know if I can do it. Especially in such a short time limit; I’ve met foreigners who have managed to speak a language with no accent, but it took them years to get there. If I manage this, it will have been from a total of only 8 months of exposure to Portuguese. I may be aiming way too high this time! This objective is daunting, and ridiculously ambitious… which is why I simply have to give it a try
Until I see how to adapt my current learning method to this new challenge, I will treat this like I have with any language. I am not aiming to speak “Portuguese” like a native, because nobody actually speaks that; in each language we usually have plenty of dialects and Portuguese is no exception. I will be focussing on trying to speak the sotaque carioca (Rio dialect of Portuguese) fluently first and then like a native, by adapting my current rather neutral and somewhat formal Portuguese to become more casual, and of course to reduce my accent and foreigner-isms, and include as many of the dialect’s nuances and expressions as I can. Then I’ll start getting into the nitty gritty final mistakes I’m still making with my pronunciation to see if I can reach the holy grail of language learners, and speak with no foreign accent! Do we really need years to achieve this? Or is it possible in such a short time-frame? That’s what I intend to find out!
Cultural and appearance
Even if I were to (somehow) speak the Rio dialect perfectly and with no accent, there is still no way that I would pass off as a Carioca in my current state. The last frustrating 6 weeks stuck indoors working double time to work off debts means that despite all the sunshine in Prague, I’m completely untanned, and even a little stressed out, so I won’t initially be as relaxed and up-beat as many Brazilians (but I’ll be chilled out soon enough over there!!) My body language screams gringo and also, my clothing, grooming, facial expressions, and many other things are simply the result of my upbringing and even some influence from countries I’ve recently lived in, and will all give me away as just another gringo in Rio.
Despite all that, becoming Brazilian is an important attempt for me to try to understand the culture a little better; from the inside. Also, imitation is the best form of flattery! There is no culture that I have grown so fond of as I have with the Brazilian one, so I want to learn as much as I can about how they think, and how they live their lives. I’ll try to adapt my outward appearance and general behaviour to the Brazilian style. Luckily, I’ve spent a lot of time in Latino countries in the last few years, so the general warmth between people is no longer an adjustment I have to make, and is something that I’m actually quite looking forward to returning to! I also fancy myself a bit of an amateur actor, so this will be my greatest role! I have fun trying to integrate myself into other cultures, as you can see when I tried to pretend to be Italian, and I will be examining every aspect of how Brazilians behave and attempt to emulate it.
Challenges and realistic limits
I am of course aware of the obvious first criticism to this being possible; I’m a white northern European! Believe it or not, even us Irish can tan pretty well. And Brazil has possibly the greatest ethnic diversity on the planet, with no “typical” Brazilian look possible, as there are African, Asian, European, native-American and many mixtures in-between there. So there are plenty of white Brazilians!! If I find that I still look too “alemão” to be a Carioca, then I have a plan B!! (And no, it’s not plastic surgery!!)
Apart from the obvious challenges (like this being a ridiculously difficult objective and the fact that you’d have to be crazy to try it), there are some that are more surprising. Brazilians are actually too nice, especially when it comes to gringos trying to speak their language. They will always compliment you and congratulate you, no matter what your level is, because you are trying to learn their language. This was excellent motivation to keep my momentum up in the early stages, but the lack of criticism is going to hold me back at this more advanced stage, so I need to make sure that I can find some Brazilians who don’t mind correcting me and reminding me of my mistakes, as I did to reach fluency in my first trips.
It is also important that I am clear about what I am aiming for and what I am not aiming for. I won’t actually reach “native” level, but I will hopefully reach a point where talking to me briefly seems like talking to a native. I don’t intend on impressing or “fooling” any linguists, or reaching a professional level of Portuguese. I just want normal people in normal social situations to talk to me for 2-5 minutes until I slip up on something, or just naturally mention where I’m from, and I want them to genuinely think that I was Brazilian. I’ll be meeting lots of new people, and unless a decent amount of them think I was Brazilian in December, then I won’t be giving myself 5 gold stars! I obviously don’t intend on lying to convince them; I want them to draw their own conclusions that I will correct.
I will say right now that I will be trying my hardest and devoting most of my free time to this project (although, I still have to work a normal work-week as a translator), but that I am totally accepting the likely possibility of not reaching this objective and will take it in my stride if I “fail”. Having said that, like in my previous project, I will presume that I will succeed and work on that assumption until proven wrong.
The best part of all of this is that even if I “fail” (as I said when I stopped my 3-month mission at 2 months, with the right attitude there’s no such thing as failure), I won’t actually fail since I will have achieved quite a lot in those 3 months! I’ll have (hopefully) greatly improved my Portuguese, and my understanding of Brazilians and how they think, and I’ll have learned what I need to do if I aim for a quasi-native-level again in another language in future (which I will). And you know… I’ll have spent 3 months in Rio, which can’t be that bad
How you can help!
As a novelty, I decided to blog my latest mission over the summer about learning Czech, and my general language learning tips, and the huge amount of encouragement that I got from comments, and seeing the subscriber numbers go up so quickly was definitely my main motivation to continue! Now, I’m no blogging expert or writer, but despite that the site has naturally grown somewhat popular! I’m not sure if it’s because of the mission and story itself, or because of sharing my language learning tips and ideas, or a combination of both, but seeing this growth is such amazing encouragement for me to continue!
This means that even if you don’t know any Portuguese, you can definitely help me achieve this next mission! My energy source to learn languages is pure positivity and motivation, but sometimes I do need a recharge So if you’d like to join me in this new adventure, I just ask that you leave the odd comment to share your thoughts, encouragement or advice, and especially that you share interesting posts with your friends through Facebook, twitter and stumbleupon so that more people can join me in this adventure! Also, I’m not making any money from this site (not at the moment anyway), so if you’d like to treat me to an Orange Juice (although, my drink of choice will mostly be Guaraná for the next 3 months!) it would always be welcome
So, do let me know your thoughts below and share this post with others and join me as I try to become Brazilian in 3 months!!
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If you enjoyed this post, you will love my TEDx talk! You can get much better details of how I recommend learning a language if you watch it here.
This article was written by Benny Lewis
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