Exactly a month ago I arrived in Rio with the mission of becoming Brazilian in 3 months. As in my previous language mission, I’ll give a monthly update for those curious of my progress, and my hopes of reaching the goal of walking the walk and talking the talk enough to convince some Cariocas that I’m one of them, at least for a few minutes, by December.
First I’ll get the bad news out of the way; I could have done a lot more this month. After my financial issues this summer requiring me to work double-time for 6 weeks, I’m trying to make sure that I don’t end up in the same situation again and have continued to work quite intensively to try to reach some sort of financial stability (not there yet). This has given me a lot less time to really appreciate Rio, and I still haven’t done much more than go out with Couchsurfers and other friends a few times a week.
Despite this, I’ve squeezed all the time I could out of my day to get some studies of the Carioca dialect of Portuguese, and chatted to lots of people and socialised only in Portuguese for the entire month; avoiding speaking English as always! Even though I could have achieved what I have this month in just a few days if it wasn’t for work, I can happily say that I have learned a lot, and I am still confident that I have a good chance of reaching my goal, especially since I’ll be giving more time to the mission for the next month!
What I have learned this month has been absolutely fascinating!! This will make a huge difference, not just to my Portuguese, but to all of my languages (especially the Romance ones), as I try to reduce my anglophone and general foreign accent. I’ve learned to a much deeper level that a foreign accent isn’t simply about pronouncing the letters right (which I’ve already had a pretty good command over), but so many other factors.
As I’ve already said, some non-Romance language speakers (like anglophones and those who speak other Germanic langauges as well as some Slavic ones for example) tend to focus too much on consonants, and this can leave certain vowels of words as not being said clearly. For example, the Portuguese word for “word” is palavra. In English, I don’t believe we usually say “ah” so often in non-stressed consonants (it depends on the dialect of course, this is the case in the Irish accent), so I tend to pronounce this as “puh-LAH-vreh” when speaking quickly. I would unfortunately also do the same in French, Spanish and Italian for example; this is a classic mistake that us English speakers make (as well as the other ones I mentioned in the above linked post, like our pronunciation of the letter R for example). With some help, I have been able to repeat certain phrases and can proudly say that under controlled conditions I can say a sentence so well that I’ve been told that it’s in a perfect Carioca accent!!
Unfortunately, “controlled conditions” means that I have to repeat that same phrase several times over and be very focussed and get corrected a lot until I say it right. I need to make this pronunciation come naturally, and this will be a big part of my challenge; deprogramming myself from 27 years of tossing unstressed vowels aside.
Other reasons I was told that I reached the perfect Carioca accent after lots of attempts at the same sentence include my work on rhythm. Sentence rhythm in Romance languages is extremely different to other European languages (depending on the particular language in question). I’ve been told that English and German speakers (the non-Latino gringos Brazilians would be most familiar with) have a very robotic way of speaking Portuguese, with a single sentence being segmented too much and not flowing like a wave. This is a crucial difference that I will come back to, to explain better – especially once I have learned to apply it better!
Finally, a language is not just the words you say, but how your body says them. Even saying that sentence perfectly would still seem unnatural if I had my hands on my lap as I said them. Speaking a language also involves adapting the body-language of native speakers; moving your hands and your head, and opening your mouth so you are saying things very clearly rather than mumbling them. My outward appearance and body language are just as crucial to speaking like a native as eliminating my accent is.
Less than two months left!
This isn’t actually a 3-month challenge since I’ll be going home for Christmas a week before the 3 months would be over. So the pressure is mounting! I need to get all the learning and theory and the bulk of practising done. The purpose of this next month will be exactly that; I want to learn all that I need to learn so that my final weeks are just for practising and ironing out the final issues until I (hopefully) reach my objective! I will continue to share my insights on this site along the way as always
The best part of doing this in Brazil first (before I try it with other languages), is that I am getting a huge amount of encouragement from Brazilians, as I had hoped. Not one has doubted that I will reach my objective! Even I have to admit that there is a good chance that this may be beyond my current capabilities, but I’m still presuming that I will succeed until proven wrong. No matter what, I will have learned so much in this time in Brazil about speaking like a native for any language, so it will be time well invested! And if I am even somewhat successful, I can take that confidence with me, that I will have entirely thanks to Brazilians being so nice with me, to a culture that will be much less encouraging and much more sceptical.
What about you? Do you think it can be done? Has anyone else reached a similar objective? Am I crazy to even try? Do share your thoughts in the comments and let us know you are out there
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This article was written by Benny Lewis
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