English Shminglish

I can’t quite recall why, but I started taking English classes back in Brazil when I was only 6 years old. The English school was a 2-minute walk from my apartment building and I loved, loved, loved going there. I still remember one day when the English teacher said that we would be reading and interpreting the lyrics to “The Time of My Life”. Yes, that song from Dirty Dancing! I was so thrilled! I loved that song so much and could not believe I would actually get to learn lyrics. If you grew up before the Internet was invented, you understand and appreciate how truly excited I was. See, back then, you couldn’t just Google something and have it magically appear on your computer/phone screen. Heck, we didn’t even have personal computers when I was little. Or cell phones. I actually kind of miss those days sometimes … life was, in many ways, simpler then.

So back to learning English. I took formal English classes from age 6 until about age 13. After 7 years of going to class twice a week, I got a certificate that said I had “graduated”. I still took English in high school, because it was mandatory, but by then, I already knew how to speak it fluently. Or so I thought.

This is no joke: at 13, I really thought that I was fluent in English, and I guess compared to most of my friends and family, I kind of was. So imagine my surprise when I arrived in “the south” 5 years later (see my previous post for reference to “the south”) and could only understand about 50% of what people were saying. No, actually I think it was closer to 35%. Yep, I could barely understand when people talked to me. After all those years of hard work and memorizing many song lyrics, what I thought was my second language was nothing more than just a foreign language.

Now, it is true that people talk a little differently in the south. Words roll into each other, you all is pronounced y’all, and “I am fixing to…” does not mean that you are going to repair something. But even though I knew I was surrounded by a hard-to-decipher southern accent, I was very shocked to discover that I still had a lot to learn. My vocabulary was very limited and what I thought was the proper way of structuring sentences sounded almost silly when spoken out loud. Not to mention the prepositions and my inability to use them correctly. On, off, in, out, into, onto, at, under, underneath… WHAT? I give up! Or is it give in?  And then, of course, you have those words that, to us Brazilians, can be very tricky to pronounce sometimes: beach vs. b!tch. Sheet vs. sh!t. Liter vs. litter, among others.

Sometimes I laugh out loud when I think about the many times that I pronounced words incorrectly. One time I went to a Ben and Jerry’s and decided to order a pint of ice cream: “May I please have a pint of the chocolate peanut butter ice cream?” Sounds just fine, right? Well, not really. The problem is that I pronounced “pint” the same way you say “mint”, just with a p instead of an m. The guy behind the counter had a blank look on his face and it finally hit him. “Oh, you mean pint“. My face turned red instantly and my first instinct was to run out the door when he turned around to get the darn pint. But I didn’t. I just decided to never go back there again, which sucked because it was within walking distance from my house. Then later I found out (the hard way) that he also worked at the used CD store, which was, of course, within walking distance from my house as well. It was time to move…

So after many other similar situations, I eventually learned English (for real this time) and, more importantly, got used to the infamous southern accent. Just like with everything else, it takes practice – a lot of practice – to learn and be fluent in a second language. I am going through a somewhat similar situation now with my daughter. She was born in the U.S. and her dad is American, so we speak English in the house. I have, however, been talking to her in Portuguese since she was born, so she understands basically everything I say in my native language. The hard part for her is speaking it, because she is not exposed to it anywhere else, unless we travel to Rio. But our time in Brazil is always so limited that it is not enough for it to stick. So I am working on that now, teaching my daughter Portuguese – or “Por-cue-jeez”, as she says it. And let me tell you, it has been a process. I often wonder if she will ever speak it, and get frustrated by the idea that she may not. But then I remind myself that she is only 5. I was a year older than her when I started learning English, so there is no need to push her too hard. Otherwise she may not want to learn it and that is definitely not what I want. So for now, my plan is to try to make it fun, make it natural, incorporate it into every day play, and one day I am sure we will be telling each other jokes and secrets in Portuguese and driving my husband louco!

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Southern-ish

I am a city girl. Born and raised in the New York City of Brazil – the prettier version, in my opinion – in an apartment building, surrounded by other buildings, rush hour traffic (which with the turn of the century has turned into 24-7 traffic), noise, pollution, noise pollution – yes, there is such a thing – people bumping into you in the crowded downtown streets, you know, all those perks that come with city living. But despite the daily frenzy, I really did enjoy growing up in Rio. Not that I had a choice, but… city life was fun. THE BEST PART: the beach! And I guess the fact that there are no natural disasters was a plus too. But the beach, oh, the beach. In particular, Ipanema Beach, my favorite hangout spot.

Life was grand when I was 18. I could finally drink alcohol (legally), drive, I had the best friends in the whole wide world, nothing could stop us … and I now that I come to think about it, I have a slight suspicion that Sex and the City was loosely based on our lives, sans the sex part. So, at what I thought was the peak of my life, this then 18-year-7 1/2-month old girl hops on a plane to “The South“. I knew very little about the town I was going to live in for the next 4 years and for some reason made no effort to learn more about it before leaving home. I guess I thought I already knew what it would be like. After all, I had been to the U.S. before. I was in Orlando for 10 days when I was 15. Disney World. Sure, that is the same. Silly little me.

It’s hard to describe what that change was like. I guess you could say it was like moving from Manhattan to Boise. Maybe not that extreme, but at 18, I felt like I was in a different world. A world in which people you don’t know say hi to you in the streets. It’s true. I am walking down the street and… what the hell?! Did that guy just say hi to me? Have we met? Well, he is kind of cute. He must be in one of my classes, or in my dorm. Oh, I wonder if he is my roommate’s boyfriend. It was kind of dark when I met him the other night. Wait, why is that old lady smiling at me? I know she is not in my class and she definitely does not live in my dorm. Why is everyone nodding and smiling? Oh, God, do I have a booger hanging out my nose? A giant pimple? I better go find a restroom.

It took some getting used to, but now I am one of the weirdoes saying hi to people I don’t know. It is the polite thing to do, the southern thing to do. I also say y’all. Yep, y’all is part of my vocabulary. I haven’t been able to say “I’m fixing to go cook dinner”, “Bless your heart”, or learned to refrain from using my horn, but maybe some day.

Speaking of horn, that was one thing that was so hard to get used to, and still is. See, in Rio, people have to have their horns replaced every 18 months (think NYC or LA traffic), because they get used so often. But here, people only use their horns when they drive by someone they know. So one day I am a passenger in my friend’s car, we are at a stop light and the light turns green. The car in front of us doesn’t move and we just sit there. “Use your horn”, I tell her. She responds with a confused tone “Why?” (she probably didn’t even know where the horn was). Look, I know people live at a slower pace here, but do I really have to explain why? Because that car in front of us is not moving, of course, and we just wasted 9 seconds of our lives sitting here. I didn’t actually get to respond because she finally got it “Oh, don’t worry about it. He will move eventually”. And he sure did, after the light turned red then green again. As soon as that sucker turned green the second time around, I slammed my left hand against the horn and there went the car in front of us. There, done, easy, now we can go on with our busy lives. My friend was so shocked that she never allowed me in her car again. I never quite understood why, after that day, she always asked me to drive separately whenever we went to the movies, or shopping… until I ran into a friend we had in common a few years later. Somehow the horn subject came up and she mentioned that our friend was so traumatized after that day that, after she graduated, she moved to a small rural town about 3 hours away, where they literally have ONE stop light.

Bless her heart…