I try not to think about how I must sound.
I am learning Portuguese - Brazilian Portuguese. Six years after marrying into a multilingual Brazilian based family I am going to upgrade from ‘gringo’ status to ‘enthusiastic gringo’. In December there will be a big Brazilian family get together. I'm really looking forward to it, but I have three months to avoid sitting in the corner smiling politely with a Caipirinha for the entire week of Christmas.
I studied French and Spanish in school, and the Gallo-Irish nun who taught me French lambasted me for choosing Spanish over German for my second language. She thought very little of the romance languages. “Thee are all the seem!” She said. As a habitually lazy student, I saw this as a rare opportunity. Learning Spanish would get me Italian and Portuguese with very little effort, and by great coincidence, very little effort is my specialty.
Fourteen years on there are some linguistic dregs still sloshing about at the bottom of the memory glass, and while my remaining stock of Spanish phrases is starting to consolidate around the ones used to complain about late takeout, I still try to follow whenever conversations with Krissa's family completely accidentally slip into Portuguese even though I am sitting right there next to them at the dinner table. Sometimes the flow of the conversation is so obvious I join in and make a comment in English.
This never works.
When I am learning on the computer, this is what I must sound like to Krissa, who speaks both English and Portuguese.
I sound so patently ridiculous the only person I am comfortable being in the room when I’m doing this is the dog. Portuguese is fucking hard. If you read it it looks like someone was typing Spanish really fast on a keyboard with no interest in correcting their mistakes. If you listen to it it sounds like someone is urgently recounting a fairytale to a child, perhaps one with attention deficit disorder; every sentence has exciting, looping high and low tones that dance giddily with in and out breaths, coming to an end with long drawn out zzzzzzzzh and oou sounds, giving the impression of skidding to an exhilarated halt. Don't get me wrong - it sounds amazing, but if you try to mimic it...well let me change that - when I try to mimic it, I fail. Deep vowels requiring lots of breath, like OOOOO, require sudden hand-brake turns into top-of-lung vowels sounds like OI with nary a consonant to bounce off, and the whole affair is sprinkled with Js that are alternately zhees or nonexistent but punctuated by breaths and/or disappointed looks from Krissa.
I worry that the computer takes pity on me after five or six attempts.
Earlier this summer Krissa ridiculed a British character on television for their accent, and attempted to mimic the way they said ‘milk’. There is no real L in the Cockney ‘milk’. It’s a dead vowel sound instead. We spent a while in conversation about the finer points of this.
"Miuhk," I said.
...and this carried on until she got annoyed and challenged me to say ‘bread’ in portuguese. It is spelled P A O. Apparently the end of the word is not just O. It’s a dead vowel sound instead. We walked to the subway.
This went on for some time. A young man who was clearly also walking to the subway crossed to the other side of the street, lengthening his journey time by one traffic light but ultimately relieving himself of the pressure of being too close to the cut and thrust of scholarly linguistic exchange.
Now I am learning Portuguese properly my vocabulary is expanding but my pronunciation is still terrible, and the fear I have, as my rough and ready skills expand, is that confidence and the delight in learning will lead me to completely ignore pronunciation because it’s insanely difficult. I am haunted by one of my childhood favourite TV characters - in ‘Allo Allo!’, a rompy sitcom set in Nazi occupied France over a garish laugh track. ‘Crabtree’ was an undercover English spy whose French was perfect - apart from the vowels. He would walk into the cafe and draw the owner conspiratorially aside.
"Good moaning. I am the bronger of bod toadings. The Brootosh Air Farce have dropped their bums on the witterworks."
This is exactly how I currently sound in Portuguese, but I’m getting a little better here and there- I don’t have a completely inflexible accent.
When precisely drunk enough and in the company of not-too-many people I can do an English country bumpkin accent. When slightly drunker and in the company of just Krissa, I can apply my 6 years of living in these United States and do a passable American accent, as long as a gravelly 1980s movie announcement qualifies as an American accent.
I understand that the intricacies and myriad subtleties of human expression mean that the tiniest shift in tone can change a meaning and that any language student needs to be sensitive to this, and above all patient with themselves and the natives. For example! I once bought a train ticket from a window booth in the South of France without getting arrested.
“Good morning!” I said, in French. “I would like a ticket to Grenoble, please.”
The salesman looked at me, eyebrows raised and nostrils flared, as though I was urinating into the little ticket slot.
“I do not know this place.”
“Grenoble...it’s one of the largest cities in France, in the mountains-”
The salesman cut me off triumphantly.
“AH-HAH! You mean Grenobl!”
He grinned proudly at me as he printed off the tickets with a flourish, happy to have educated another visitor to mother France, and I restrained the sudden urge to urinate into the little ticket slot.