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Lost in Translation!

I have a memory like a sieve and the patience of a gnat so my attempts to learn the Portuguese language, as you can imagine, are an uphill struggle to say the least. If I’m brutally honest with myself I’d probably stand more chance of swimming the Atlantic than ever holding a meaningful conversation in Portuguese or indeed any foreign language.

However, I do believe it is really important to learn the language in the country where you live otherwise you can never really integrate with the local community – you remain an outsider looking in.

I listen wistfully to some of the local Portuguese women chatting at our local café, their Algarvian accent strong and difficult to understand. I decipher the odd word here and there, but they could be chatting about the next solar eclipse and I would be none the wiser! As I eavesdrop on their conversation I listen to how they pronounce the various words I do recognize and then practice them quietly in my mind in an attempt to improve my pronunciation skills. I’d like to ask the women for help; they look kind and jolly, but unfortunately I am shy and lack the courage for fear of rejection.For example, my pronunciation is obviously so awful that when I recently asked two elderly Portuguese women for directions to a particular street in our local town, they looked at me completely nonplussed. Was I an alien who’d just stepped off a space-ship, and was asking directions back to Mars? A heated discussion ensued between them and they directed me to the beach! I tried again, but no luck – they just shrugged their shoulders and walked away.

My funniest or maybe strangest language misunderstanding was when I asked for help in our local supermarket. “Ondé esta ovos, por favour?” (where are the eggs, please?). I was directed to the grapes which are uvas. Ovos and Uvas may look completely different when written but when spoken they sound similar. So only with the aid of my best chicken clucking impressions accompanied by equally lifelike chicken strutting impersonations did I manage to make myself understood. Were they laughing at me or with me, I wonder?

Our local farmers’ market and co-op is a great place to peoplewatch and listen. The old farmers, weather beaten by decades of toiling on the land, are a wealth of knowledge regarding growing vegetables etc. Naturally inquisitive and a keen gardener I would love to discover more about growing my own vegetables so local knowledge is invaluable. One day last year, determined to grow my own, I went to our local co-op to buy seed potatoes. There were a couple of old farmers in the queue waiting to be served so I plucked up courage to ask them, in my best pigeon Portuguese, the best way to plant seed potatoes. Initially surprised by my interest they launched into a lengthy explanation accompanied by a demonstration on how and where I should cut the potatoes rather than planting whole. The lesson ended with them disagreeing about some technical point and a lot of hand waving ensued and I was forgotten. It was then my turn to be served only to discover they had bought all the seed potatoes. I had to laugh but at least I had a lesson in growing potatoes – they were still arguing when I left!

My first attempt to learn Portuguese was with a private tutor from Lisbon. I spent two years learning how to construct a sentence on paper. However, when I opened my mouth to speak in real life situations my head emptied, my inhibitions kicked in, and words failed me. If you have tried to learn a second language later in life and are not a natural linguist you can probably relate to this feeling!

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I eventually gave up on the private lessons and attended some free group lessons at a local school. The class included many nationalities – from Germans and Russians to French and English to name a few! The lessons were conducted mainly in Portuguese, including the grammatical explanations. A great way to learn, but I often felt like a little rabbit trapped in the headlights of a car – frozen to the spot in terror when the teacher asked me a question. I still have nightmares about the use of prepositions to this day!

I may never learn to speak the language but at least I’ve tried.

Are you experiencing problems learning a second language or are you like my daughter who can converse in English while eavesdropping in French? Please leave your comments below.

To discover more about everyday life in Portugal visit my blog Piglet in Portugal or follow me on Twitter at twitter.com/portugalpiglet

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