For those of you who have been following my latest mission, I was successful in convincing several Cariocas (residents of Rio de Janeiro) that I was one of them. This involved working on two parts of how I interacted with people; my body language/outward behaviour and my spoken Portuguese.
In today’s post I am going to go into the technical details of what I did to improve the level of my already fluent Portuguese, but with a typical gringo accent, to the point where I could convince a local that I was one of them (talking for about 20-30 seconds until I slipped up), as long as I was focussed.
With a time limit greater than 3 months I could have stretched that 20-30 second timespan further and reduced the number of mistakes, and not needed to be so focussed, as it would have come more naturally with practise.
Despite that, I’m pretty sure I’ve discovered the main things that someone in the same starting position would have to work on, if they were aiming for the same goal. Here they are!
Improving your Portuguese
The only book I studied this time for improving my Portuguese (since most of my work was practical and hands-on) was Colloquial Portuguese of Brazil 2, which you can get off Amazon (UK or US). There is also a part 1 here: (Amazon US/UK), but part 2 already presumes that your level of Portuguese is quite good.
It goes into slang and informal usage and gives a lot of dialogue examples; it definitely focusses on Portuguese as it’s actually spoken, where most books will teach you the formal language. I highly recommend it for someone who already has a pretty good grasp of Portuguese.
If you’ve only learned Spanish, you need to be aware of the many differences between Portuguese and Spanish and work on your Portuguese grammar (components like the future subjunctive don’t exist any more in other European languages for example), expand your vocabulary and practise a lot until you reach fluency or are at least speaking pretty well.
Even without using books, in this article I’ll presume that your Portuguese is already quite good if you aim to speak like a Carioca.
Without a very good level of Portuguese, the mistakes you make will give you away. Cariocas themselves do not actually speak the formal Portuguese that nearly all courses teach you (why I liked the untraditional book above), but the “mistakes” they make are very specific. They can be emulated, but ideally you would work “down” from a good level.
For example, in Rio, there is a frowned upon yet extremely common use of the “tu” (second person) pronoun with “você” (third person) conjugation. This gives us tu vai, tu sabe, tu é, etc. Absolutely “wrong” Portuguese, but you will hear this regularly among Cariocas. This happens in English too in some dialects, but is very restricted.
However, you can’t ever say “eu vai”, “eu sabe” as well as less obvious mistakes; i.e. only the accepted mistakes (if that isn’t an oxymoron) should be repeated. It is better to work on your “formal” Portuguese first, if possible, and then to focus on the Carioca dialect from there
Gírias (Turns of phrase, expressions) are the padding to soften formal language beyond pure fact and literal translations. Their use will make you sound more local than the most formal and perfect Portuguese ever can. I always make it a point to learn these as soon as possible in any language, and in trying to emulate a native, it was essential to increase my usage of them.
Instead of saying “OK” to confirm you want to go to a praia you can say Partiu! or Demorou! Look for equivalents to English expressions; the ironic “yeah right!” has its “Até parece!” and standard words have their informal replacements. Mentira becomes caô, feia becomes canhão, inteligente becomes cabeçudo and legal (cool) becomes irado or maneiro!
It would be impossible for me to list all of these here, but a good place to start for general Portuguese expressions (i.e. not specific to Rio, but just as important in Rio) is this list on Wikipedia.
A much more amusing list that is very specific to the Carioca dialect, is given on the Portuguese version of the uncyclopedia, on the article on Carioquês <– definitely worth a read. It mentions more typical Carioca examples like meu irmão, mó etc. Both the “desciclopédia” and the wikipedia articles are in Portuguese of course.
Finally, cursing is, once again, frowned upon by formal learners, but essential if you want to understand and attempt to blend in with locals. Any frustration must be indicated with words like Porra, and referees who make decisions you don’t like must be loudly instructed to vai tomar no cu! Here is an excellent sample dictionary of Portuguese curses <–> English (most of these are general and not Rio specific). Listening to locals for even a few short hours and emulating them will quickly give you hundreds of curse words!
The above focusses on what you are saying but not how you say it. Your accent will be the defining factor in convincing locals you are one of them. I’ve already discussed some general tips to reduce your English-speaking accent, that should definitely be kept in mind.
In the Carioca dialect of Portuguese, some other tips include:
- Make the r guttural. This only applies to initial or ending rs, double rs or those preceded by an n or l (i.e. Rio, carro, tenro but not compras or espera). It is not as harsh a guttural sound as in other languages, and you can get away with simply pronouncing it like a forced “h” some of the time (as they do in other parts of Brazil), but other times you do need to really go for the ch sound in loch to make it sound authentic.
- s chiado - another typical Carioca sound is changing an s specifically at the end of a word/syllable followed by an unvoiced consonant (t, c, f, p) to sh. So meus pais is pronounced mih-oosh pah-eesh, although the most famous example that I’m obligated to give is biscoita, pronounced as if the s was replaced by a Portuguese x. Before a voiced consonant (b, d, g, m, n, r) the chiado actually becomes more like the French j or the s in measure (Israel, rasgar etc.)
- Join the words together! One of the most obvious ways a Brazilian (not just a Carioca) can recognise a speaker of English (or German etc.) is by the seemingly “robotic” way of separating words. Those… imitating… me… said… that… I… speak… like… this. In Portuguese (and more famously, French with its liaison), words flow together to make one sound. This is in combination with the wave that I’ll be discussing below. So, no pauses mid-sentence. Pronounce everything before a comma or full-stop as if it was “one word”, while saying it clearly; you do not have to speak quickly to achieve this.
- One consequence of the above rule is how the previously mentioned chiado and r pronunciation works. Although the r at the end of “por” would be pronounced as a guttural r if said in isolation, at the very end of a sentence or when followed by consonants in the next word, it would actually be rolled (as in single r in Spanish/Italian) if the next word begins with a vowel. So por você and por isso both have different r sounds. This principle also works with the chiado. So mais um has the s pronounced as it would be if that were one word maisum and not as a chiado sound (as in mais bonita).
- Don’t overdo the chiado! The above point in combination with the fact that sometimes even Cariocas occasionally say it like the rest of Brazil, means you shouldn’t force this sound; my over-enthusiasm with the chiado at first made me sound quite strange.
- Open vs Closed vowels. This one is generally a tricky part of Portuguese, since there are two ways of pronouncing some vowels depending on the acute accent ó (open) or circumflex ô (closed). Unfortunately, most of the time these accents are not written if the stress would fall on that syllable without the accent. So “olho” can mean both “eye” and “I look”, but is pronounced ôlho for the first and ólho for the second. Vaguely, ó is “aw”, ô is “oh”, é is “eh” and ê is “i” in “sin”. An important subtle difference is that he is êle but she is éla (both not actually written with accents).
- Southern preference for closed vowels and t/d chiado. Before Rio, I had spent more time in the Northeast, where there was a preference for open vowels, while in the south/southeast of Brazil, they prefer closed ones. So it’s pronounced dêzembro in the South/Southeast and dézembro in the northeast (even though it’s not written with either accent). T & D are also more phonetic in the northeast and have a chiado applied in the south. So teatro is pronounced as spelt in the Northeast but as tiatro (ch sound like in “chain” on the t) in the south/southeast.
- Carioca diphthongs on single vowels. When speaking certain words, Cariocas open their mouth wider when saying stressed vowels, which results in a diphthong. So the word “Carioca” actually sounds like Cariôaca (subtle “a”), “amigos” can sound like “amíegos” (subtle “e”), apartamento actually sounds like apartame(a)nto, (with both e and a nasalised due to n) etc.
- Unstressed o becomes u. When starting to learn Portuguese, you will quickly see that os at the end of words require a u sound, but I found out that (at least in the Carioca dialect) some unstressed os in other syllables also become u. So bonito is pronounced “buni(e)tu”, dormir is durmir etc.
- Softer consonants and open mouth on vowels. Something I mentioned early on in the mission is that in English we tend to eat unstressed vowels. I also found out that a typical English accent forces consonants too much. ps and bs do not need to be so “explosive” and every other consonant should be sound less stressed.
Another thing I mentioned at month 1 in the mission was that sentence rhythm was essential to improving my accent. The “wave” in Portuguese, or specifically in the Carioca dialect, must be adhered to closely, as English (and other languages such as German) speakers can be spotted immediately by their robotic way of speaking.
Parallel to the point I mentioned on not pausing, the wave must continue uninterrupted to avoid this robotic sound. This is something I will go into in much more detail another time, but for the moment the best comparison I can give without providing recordings or going into musical analogies is to imagine how the Indian accent sounds in English. This up-down movement within words may sound weird to us, but it is the music of other languages that makes English sound so monotone to other speakers.
The music of this wave in the Carioca dialect is not the same as it is in Indian English, but applying this up-down pattern fluidly will improve your accent. It’s important to note that the sentence usually ends on a down tone (even in many questions, unlike in English), and that some words get stress more in Portuguese than they do in English such as “e” (and) and key words of the sentence.
Not applying this rhythm will make your sentences sound incomplete or confusing; when I travelled deep inside Brazil away from large cities, they had trouble understanding me exactly because of this. In cities like Rio, they may understand you, but it’s only because they are used to so many foreign accents. The best way you can improve the musicality of your sentence rhythm is by mimicking how people speak (less annoying if you do it with the TV or radio!)
Finally, the music of a sentence is improved if you put emotion into your voice. This is especially true when reading, where it would come out quite dull otherwise. When reading a newspaper article aloud I imaged how I would read it to a child to make it sound more alive, rather than how we would naturally read most English.
Dr Seuss once said “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.” That is how I feel about my amazing time in Rio!
Before I wrap up the Brazilian mission, I still want to briefly mention How to act like a Carioca, and I will be summarising all the posts of the last 3 months before discussing the next mission! In the next post, on Wednesday, I’ll ask a favour of 3 minutes of your time – anyone who has it, it would be appreciated
With regards this post and the expressions, musicality and the Portuguese-improving aspect of sounding like a Carioca, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts! Almost everything I discussed here was something that I have learned in the last 3 months; this should make it clear why I had to be so focussed and would only make it to 20-30 seconds before slipping up. It’s a lot to remember!! Practise would make it come more naturally
For those who speak Portuguese, is there something that I left out (that wasn’t mentioned in the links I gave either)? For those who speak other languages, do you find any of this can apply to that language too? Do you strongly agree or disagree with any of my recommendations? Do let us know in the comments!
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This article was written by Benny Lewis
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