Written by Sarah Hendrickx


Turning Portuguese?

In her new column, Sarah Hendrickx shares with us what it’s like living part-time in Portugal. This month she’s getting to grips with the lingo. Imagine her disappointment when she headed to the llama park.

Portuguese language test paperIn Portugal, if you hear the word ‘cow’ (cão) don’t go expecting any milk or a moo as cão means dog and, if that isn’t complicated enough, if someone tells you to ‘push’ (puxe) a door don’t; because puxe means pull. It’s enough to make anyone shout loudly at the natives in English.

Language learning is not something that appears to come naturally to many of us Brits. My Portuguese teacher said that the British don’t learn the structure of our own language as children in the same way that other Europeans do and so are disadvantaged when it comes to learning a second one. We have to learn what a definite article is before we know what to do with it.

It seems to me that we also lack necessity: what with English being the main language of the Eurovision Song Contest, why bother? For me, none of these are excuses for not learning a few badly pronounced basic greetings and inflicting them on the local population of every single country you visit. Yep, I’m that person.

My partner, Keith and I began learning Portuguese via Skype with teacher Luis last year, but that relationship faltered after Luis told Keith that one lesson with him was more draining that four lessons with any other student.

Keith, it must be said, is not a natural linguist. He failed English O-level five times and won’t believe me that ‘thank you’ is two words. He is a scientist, an engineer and he needs to know ‘why’. Why is a cup feminine and a boat masculine? What the shit is a verb? All reasonable questions, but too much for Luis.

The teaching materials were not much help. Apparently originating from circa 1979, the adventures of Steve Harris and his visit to his friend Miguel in Lisbon were the stuff of Frodo and Samwise, with more moustaches and tighter tennis shorts.

Ancient Portuguese language text book imageThe women didn’t get much of a look in, being too busy being secretaries and having their hair done, but on we struggled with teacher number two, who was made of sturdier stuff, Keith also having been told by this point (by me) that language learning was not up for question: it just is. Our own language doesn’t make much sense, so he shouldn’t expect this one to either.

I reminded him of the day we had excitedly traversed the lanes near our house looking for the Parque de lazer with great expectation of paint-balling, camouflage and shooting each other with pellets, only to discover that lazer means ‘leisure’ and in this somewhat hot and dry neck of the woods, that means a patch of dirt with some pine cones and a bench.

Almost as disappointing was a similar tromp round Santander looking for the Parque de la Llamas. I like llamas, they can be a reasonable replacement in the absence of a goat (my favourites) and again I was looking forward to seeing them.

Llamas, it turns out, means ‘lights’ in Spanish. Not a spitting mini camel/sheep in sight. There’s a pattern here involving our lack of proficiency in languages and our repeated sense of disappointment when travelling. Makes you wonder if we should stay at home.

“Last night I went to a cafe and, despite greeting the waiter in Portuguese, was given an English menu and greeted in English. I did not rescind; I’ve paid for these lessons: I’m going to use them.”

This week, I am studying Portuguese at a language school in Faro, trying to really get the hang of this madness. I haven’t spoken English for four days and it’s helping. Multilinguals advise that the way to learn a new one is to immerse yourself completely and force yourself to communicate in that language rather than your own.

In the Algarve, however, this is easier said than done because the younger generation of Portuguese speak superb English, never expect anyone to have bothered to learn Portuguese and hence immediately speak to obvious foreigners in English. For me, this is where the battle commences. The aim of the game, nay war, is to see who switches language first.

Last night I went to a cafe and, despite greeting the waiter in Portuguese, was given an English menu and greeted in English. I did not rescind; I’ve paid for these lessons: I’m going to use them. He appeared to feel the same. Every single interaction was carried out in my Portuguese and his English. A bizarre cross-cultural tug-of-war that, on this occasion, frustratingly, had no victor, and no casualties.

Language school has been the most exhausting week I have spent for many a year but it’s also been exciting, challenging and a wonderful indulgence of time to learn a new thing. It may be old hat for those multilingual Europeans that share my classroom but for a Brit like me, it’s a brilliant new toy that I intend to play with until I drive my mother mad and the wheels fall off.

I’m going back to that cafe tomorrow for a smoothie and a rematch. But I won’t be ordering the pasta because here in Portugal country ‘pasta’ means ‘briefcase’. As they say in France: ‘merde’.


Follow all of Sarah’s Portuguese adventures here.

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Written by Sarah Hendrickx

Sarah Hendrickx is a writer, author, autism specialist and occasional standup comedian. She lives part-time in rural Portugal where she tries to make friends with geckos and grows broad beans. Her book about moving overseas, How to Leave the Country is available on Kindle/e-book. She blogs at www.bicyclesandbiscuits.com.