I spent my summer in Brazil, learning how terrible I am at speaking Portuguese. When I returned to the U.S., I discovered that I might also be terrible at speaking English.
As one of the least fluent speakers in my L3/L4 summer session class, my Brazil experience induced a decent amount of angst and self-loathing. I don’t know why I expected to get around the country with a vocabulary that basically just consisted of “futebol” and “cerveja” — soccer and beer, respectively — but my weak understanding of both the language and its nuances quickly became an issue. I was speaking the Portuguese of a preschooler, but I was trying to communicate with adults.
One experience stands out to me quite vividly. Brazilian septic systems are generally incapable of handling paper waste, and most of the establishments we visited had signs in the bathroom to remind customers not to flush toilet paper down the toilet, but to instead dispose of it in a trash can. Our hotel in São Paulo was without one of these wonderfully informative signs, so we inevitably found ourselves faced with a clogged toilet and no knowledge of how to say exotic words such as “clogged,” “flush,” or “broken.” My desire to avoid speaking Portuguese was eclipsed by my unfortunate need to urinate, so I called the front desk and produced a sentence that was probably the most insightful Portuguese I uttered during my entire stay in Brazil: “The toilet needs help.”
It worked. The front desk sent someone to help our toilet almost immediately, and I was astounded by the effectiveness of my infantile Portuguese. The rest of the trip continued like this — unable to voice things like “I’m really in the mood for a glass of iced water,” I resorted to: “Want water,” or the even more desperate, but slightly more accurate: “Need water. Now.” I hated myself for speaking like a caveman, for being so unquestionably terrible at Portuguese that I couldn’t even attempt to properly articulate what it was I wanted or how I was feeling. But I was properly articulating these things — “Need water” still resulted in a glass of water being placed in front of me. I was just annoyed that I couldn’t say it in a more eloquent way.
My inability to speak eloquent Portuguese forced me to be direct. Because I was essentially unable to convey uncertainty or indecisiveness, gone were the days of me throwing questions back at the people who originally asked them, in order to avoid giving straightforward responses. When a Brazilian asked me what I wanted to eat, I actually had to give them the name of a specific food item. I couldn’t just say “whatever” because I didn’t know how to say “whatever.” I was wary of broad and polite answers such as “I like everything,” when in reality I hate most things and am allergic to almost everything else. Asking the Brazilian what he or she would like to eat would result in a back-and-forth conversation, which was the one thing I wanted to avoid. So, I just had to answer.
The same sort of directness was required when answering yes or no questions to which your intended answer was “no,” albeit a polite “no.” When asked a question in Portuguese that would usually elicit a polite rejection in English, I was forced to be blunt. Responses like: “I’m actually pretty busy today but maybe I’ll be able to marry you in the distant future” turned into “Can’t,” and “Thank you so much for the opportunity but I’d rather not bear your children” turned into “Nope.”
Although being direct in this way had its obvious merits, I was still bothered by my inability to elaborate. I felt such a need to qualify things that didn’t even need to be qualified. Maybe it’s because I was in Brazil after a year of humanities classes — a year of writing ten page papers when I only had five pages of ideas, of rambling on in section just for the sake of participating.
As an English major, I love that I’ll spend the rest of my time at Yale studying how great authors manipulate words and weave them into resonant sentences. And as someone who likes to write, I’ve always hoped that one day, I’ll be able to accomplish something similar. The goal has always been to create something beautiful.
But there comes a point when the beauty of a sentence begins to cloud its meaning — when verbosity and high diction result in confusion, instead of clarity. How good is an idea that can’t be properly explained? How eloquent is someone who can use their words to impress, but not to actually communicate?
When I began taking L1 Portuguese during the fall of my freshman year, my goal wasn’t to impress Brazilians with my wide-ranging vocabulary. It was to learn a new language that would allow me to communicate with a new group of people, and experience another culture. Also, soccer. Soccer was part of the goal.
If you do a quick Google search of the word “eloquence,” the synonyms associated with it include “expressiveness,” “forcefulness,” “potency” and “effectiveness.” Based on those synonyms, I would have to argue that I may be one of the most eloquent Portuguese speakers of all time.
The broken Portuguese I spoke while in Brazil was probably twice as informative as anything I’ve ever said in English. Maybe next summer I’ll stay home and work on that.