My life currently can be characterized by the deliciously inverse dual task of learning Portuguese and teaching English. I have started teaching an English class to adults in Rocinha, the enormous favela quite proximal to my house. The Instituto Dois Irmãos, or Two Brothers Institute, is an NGO NGO (that is, a nongovernmental, non-commercial organization) based in San Francisco. It functions in Rocinha and it offers, among other things, volunteer-taught English classes.
After a month, I’m not sure how much my students’ English has improved. If their improvement is anything like mine was in Portuguese after a month in Brazil, then all is good. But the circumstances are different; a variety of challenges affect their English learning.
Unlike most of the kids from wealthy families who attend university, my students have never needed a lick of foreign language in their lives. In order to enter into the university system in Brazil, it is necessary to speak another language, and English is a popular choice. Public universities are few, and very limited spaces make for an extraordinarily competitive entrance process. Private university tuition, on the other hand, is many times more expensive than the annual income of most Cariocas. They are left in the dust, higher education-wise, and consequently never had the time or the dire, pressing need to speak another language.
But English always lingers in the back of the Carioca brain as a secret weapon of advancement. Any job performance in a giant, touristy, international city such as Rio can be augmented by a little English proficiency.
On the first day of class, one of my students, an initially ordinary-seeming 40-something year old man with an ever-emerging personality, came prepared with a list of phrases he “needed” to learn “quickly.” He met an Australian woman the previous weekend, and he needed to have something to say to her when he called her later. He was planning on making plans to meet at the beach some time, when he would ask her a multitude of questions including, “What’s your impression of Brazilian men?” “Have you ever tried to dance Samba?” and “Are you married?” So, evidently, everybody’s got their motives and uses for the English language.
Aside from experience and exposure, or lack thereof, another challenge associated with the task of learning English is the language’s infinite linguistic confusions and frustrations. Considering my continuing need to improve my Portuguese, I can generally relate to my students’ expressions of befuddlement when they are presented with seemingly nonsensical constructions. Whose fault is it that “read” (present tense) and read (past tense) are spelled the same, anyway? And why is the plural of “person” “people?”
And then there exist these entertaining expressions that are muddled in translation. How do I explain why it’s better to say “I have been married three times” than to say “I have three marriages?”
The concept of “to be” in Portuguese, like in all romance languages, is expressed primarily in three verbs. Generally, “ser” expresses permanent states of being, and “estar” expresses temporary states of being and location. Some temporary states are expressed with the verb “ter,” the verb “to have.” One is not hungry; one has hunger. One is not thirsty; one has thirst. One is not scared; one has scare. Uh, fear. One is not married; one has marriage. So the concept is hard but the usage is easy: am, are, or is, three tiny words that can express all states of being.
But what confusion English lacks in terms of “being,” it makes up for in other inexplicable phenomena. For example, how can I expect my students to understand when to use “to say,” when “to speak,” when “to tell,” and when “to talk”? I despair, until I remember the word “pegar,” which is used roughly like the verb “to get,” but can also mean “to become,” “to take,” “to cause,” “to put,” “to pick up,” or “to put,” among many other verbs, depending on the context. Whenever my students get confused, I just remind myself that they undoubtedly understand the verb “pegar,” so anything is possible.
And then there’s the accent. I have come to believe that it’s a lot easier for speakers of English to drop their strong “r” sound (as in “red”) and replace it with the Brazilian pronunciations. The “r” in Portuguese sometimes either like a really quick “d,” as in “cara” (the word for face, also an informal word for “dude” “man” or “guy”). Most of the time, though, it sounds like “h”: as in “cachorro,” the word for dog, pronounced “cachoho” or for river, rio, pronounced “hio.”
A funny little point about the Brazilian accent is the placement of a “y” sound at the end of words ending in consonants. To the unaccustomed ear, it sounds like they’re giving everything a cute baby nickname. The name Mark is “Marky.” “Futebol” (football) is “foochy-bol.”
Also, specific to Rio de Janeiro’s accent is the “ch” sound. The letter” “t,” when followed by a vowel, is pronounced like “ch.” So a “website” is a “sichy.” And the letter “d” is pronounced like the “g” in “page.” The Red Hot Chili Peppers are the “Hegy Hochy Chili Peppers.” One cara told me that he had already traveled to the United States. “Which city?” I asked. “Heevear-sachy,” he replied. He was talking about Riverside.
Another impossibility for Cariocas is the “th” sound, which, like the strong “r” sound, their mouths have never produced. “The,” “that,” “this,” “those,” “these.” My students think I’m joking when I make them stick their tongues out, bite them, and try to make the sound. “Thirty-three” and “thatched roof” are unfailingly funny tongue twisters. Others are the names of two of my best friends from UCSB. To practice the “r” sound I have them say “Kendra Crone” and “Courtney Parkin.” Kendra and Courtney would be proud.
All of this accent difficulty will presumably diminish with practice and with the accumulation of more vocabulary. Regardless, English class is always a settling reminder that my Portuguese imperfections are reasonable and excusable. Additionally, every class is a very funny review of all the hilarious Carioca accent eccentricities that make for a constantly entertaining life among Brazilians.