By Sophie Winter –
Wait! Did I just understand an entire conversation in Portuguese? The typical mushy words that created mundane background noise to me suddenly flourished with meaning and purpose. I’m elated, I’m exhausted, I’m aching for more. Because just as I had suddenly understood, I was just as suddenly lost again. This up-and-down has become my normal life as I adjust to being fully immersed in Garopaba, Brazil. My everyday life lives and breathes Português and Brazilian culture. The billboards, the conversations, the papers that were once in English were all mixed and jumbled into a foreign tongue.
When I first arrived, I knew how to say dog (cachorro), woman (mulher), and beer (cerveja). I quickly realized that the summer homework of learning basic Português—which I had continuously put off—was now more important to me than I had deemed at the time. My new family, excited to speak with me when I arrived, spoke in rapid Português. It could have easily been German, Hindi, or the language of elves. Quickly thereafter, they realized I comprehended nothing. They switched to “professor” mode, taking on the difficult task of teaching this English-speaking gringo their language.
My first month flew by as my days left me exhausted and profoundly interested in my new home. I quickly found that I have a love for pão de queijo, a bread baked with cheese. When it is pulled slowly apart, it has a mouthwatering, eye-indulging tug as it separates. I learned that my community is one large family as we eat lunches together, dance in Zumba, and attend a multitude of birthday parties and weddings. My lovely host family, the Bentos, appear to have endless patience as I forget and remember certain words. I constantly forgot the word for thunder (trovão) and often had to resort to creating the sound and backing it up with wild hand gestures—an impromptu game of charades.
On average, I learn and retain two to five new words a day. For me, the hard part is not remembering the words—it is using them in a sentence. Oftentimes, I would use all the correct vocabulary, but my sentences came out gibberish and useless. My English-wired brain can’t wrap itself around the concept of switching words around in a sentence to essentially say the same thing.
English is my only language, even though I do pride myself on having two years of high school Spanish under my belt. I realized that I needed to work harder at Português to grasp the basics. So I did what summer Sophie should have done: I signed onto my Rosetta Stone® account on my phone. I religiously started using a combination of memorizing apps, Rosetta Stone, duolingo, and my notebook to work through my questions that puzzled me the most. My favorite feeling is “A-ha!” I got it! I understand! Over a month, I created a baseline of Português. I could converse with my family and delve into other topics regarding politics (turns out the United States isn’t the only nation with a president problem), religion, and of course, celebrity gossip.
Rosetta Stone became a tool I used to learn Portuguese. It was the difference between me constantly asking my family the same question—for the same words, hundreds of times—and driving myself crazy because I couldn’t remember.
I work on an organic farm named Morro Do Fortunato. It’s nestled in the hills of Garopaba, with a stunning view overlooking the valley of trees, houses, and eventually the ocean. Morro Do Fortunato is a large piece of a Quilombo, which is a place where descendants of slaves live. Their story is inspiring and eye opening. As my language progresses, I understand more of their history. We chat while we pick weeds, plant baby plants, and cut vegetables for the market and schools. It’s an environment that teems with Português and a rich heritage. They taught me the names of the vegetables and showed me the different fruit trees. One in particular, the Jabuticaba tree has little grape-like balls of fruit growing from its trunk. They’re sweet and tasty, and unlike anything I’ve ever tried before. We make a day out of collecting these small fruits, as we lug the heavy ladder up the hill and climb up to the top of the tree to get the biggest and most delicious fruits, fending off the orange-beaked toucans who also have a love for them.
I have failures and then triumphs. My sentences can leave people wetting their pants in laughter, confused and puzzled, or it can lead to a marvelous conversation. I make people laugh, and I revel in those moments when I am suddenly not a child but an adult again. I realize how important language is and how large its role is in allowing people to connect. It is either a bridge or a wall. Being a firm believer that walls are not good anywhere, I choose to build a bridge.
My interest in learning about different cultures, people, and language intensifies with each new experience I have. I’ve gone paddle boarding in the rain, hiked to a hidden waterfall in the forest, jumped in the ocean, befriended a cow, and made conversation with a stranger.
Português is my budding second language that I hope to refine. My tool kit keeps growing as my time being immersed in Garopaba, Brazil, lengthens. Looking back, my first month here connects in a jagged line of dots that at the time did not make sense to me. Now a month and half after my initial immersion, my foundation is laid. I have my foothold and am now searching for my next handhold. I am officially living proof that it is possible to immerse yourself in a new place without knowing any of the language. With the right tools, people, and attitude, you can learn a new language.
About Sophie Winter
A current Fellow with Global Citizen Year, Sophie Winter has lived in places ranging from Washington to Doncaster and currently resides in the small town of Sisters, Oregon. She has a love for nature and wildlife. The issues that are important to her are equality for all and global warming. She hopes to become more globally aware during her gap year in Brazil, and become equipped with the knowledge and skills to help her become an influence to creating a safe world.