My Love and Hate Relationship with Portuguese

Placing this in context 

My professor looked me squarely in the face and said, you speak French, yet that isn’t enough, really,  I think it’s time for a new language and I believe Portuguese would be a good fit for you.

Among many emotions to choose from, I felt nothing. I agreed totally with him; I had French as a second language….. and I’d had this conversation with myself before and had stayed tentatively between admiration and envy of people who spoke a third or forth international language. Though I’d imagined and hoped I’d take on another language, somehow there was a disconnect between my wish to do so and what I actually did in real life. Even as I continued to engage in wishful thinking, I never for once considered Portuguese. Portuguese for what?! My considerations were Mandarin Chinese or Spanish but most likely Spanish. Portuguese seemed a bit too steep and irrelevant and mostly unattainable.

On the first day of class, I was completely lost! I was so lost it was so funny: luckily I made out my name in the target language and kept my ears open for more information. The class was entirely in the target language and the professor was talking so fast. So much for teacher talk! Teacher talk is a technique used by language instructors as a buffer against falling back on the native language all the time. The biggest attributes of teacher talk are a slow pace of speech and using very basic vocabulary or cognates. Introspectively I thought about my French language students and how frustrated they likely got when I rushed through a lesson expecting them to know what I was talking about.

6am.

6am. I’m doing homework while questioning myself over this lofty decision. I should be ready by 8am so I can get to work in one piece but the truth is, once I get to work, there’s no way I can do personal stuff. It’s either I finish this homework or go to class once again feeling low and upset over not having done homework. I hate the feeling of irresponsibility that comes with not doing what I need to get done. At the same time, the feeling of accomplishment and confidence that comes with completing tasks is the kind of sentiment I’d rather have all the time. ‘Do something your future self would thank you for’… this thought stayed in my mind so I completed the homework and went off. It’s been a sleepy week already but at least I can rattle off some Portuguese verbs;

Acordar – to wake up (my favorite because it sounds like ‘ak)daa’ in Akan which means child)

Image (11)
My Homework sheet that I took a screenshot of and sent to my aunt; her response was, “Good luck with that”

Comidar – to eat

Chegar – to arrive

Ficar – to stay

Falar – to speak

Fazer – to do

Viajar – to travel

And I know how to conjugate these and a few more in both the present and past tense…isn’t God wonderful? 🙂

The Grammar 😐

Most regular portuguese verbs end with the letters AR . ER or IR this means that these verbs will have different and specific endings when they’re conjugated. Though different, a previous second language helps me envisage these differences and the need for some kind of technique for keeping these verbs and their different conjugations in mind. It gets overwhelming though, but then our brains are capable of so much more than we can imagine. Any person who grew up in Ghana would tell you about a time in their lives when they did some mad random guessing on a multiple choice answer test or exam of some kind; normally, the student in question would sing a made-up song while gingerly pointing at the various answers available. Once the song ended, the particular multiple choice answer the song ended on would be decided as the best answer. It was more like musical chairs, same analogy as sitting on the chair closest to you when the music stops. I used to do that a lot! Oh, my! A whole lot, because I was mostly clueless or too afraid to pick an answer and go with it; I relied on chance to take me through. Did it work? Well, sometimes it did. Other times I’d say the Hail Mary prayer while doing this and leave my choice at the one that my finger rested on once the prayer was done. Mary wouldn’t fail me though, would she?In all of this though, I learned to trust my memory. Afterall, I wasn’t as blank as I thought I was. I noticed that outside the random crazy guessing game, the one thing that happened was that whenever I concluded on an answer and came back to change it, the previous answer was the better one. This taught me to trust my memory ( and maybe instinct ) and choose unwaveringly.

The Post Colonial Perspective and Personal Musings

Doctor Negash would quote me, Franz Fanon;

The colonized intellectual, at the very moment he undertakes a work of art, fails to realize he is using techniques and a language borrowed from the occupier. He is content to cloak these instruments in a style that is meant to be national but which is strangely reminiscent of exoticism

Sitting through postcolonial theory classes have made me feel weird about my foreign language pursuits. Or maybe I’d probably have to read Fanon well to fully understand the way I really feel about this. However, does my speaking foreign languages have anything to do with my loyalty to my heritage as an African? How well do I speak my African languages? I think I am as fluent in  Fante as I am in French or English or as I will eventually be in Portuguese…but then, Fanon says again that ‘no innocent, shame-free cultural production is possible after colonialism; not even after decolonization‘…and that reminds me of the glaring links between Fante and Portuguese and to a larger extent Akan! Voltar is a verb in Portuguese that means to come back…does it have any link with our Lake Volta and our Volta Region? Bread in Fante is ‘Paano’, bread in Portuguese is ‘Pao’, shoes in Portuguese are called ‘Sapatos’ shoes in Fante are called ‘Asopartsee’, the word bucket in Portuguese is ‘balde’. In Fante, the same word is ‘bokitse’ never mind that the letter ‘d’ when reproduced phonetically in Portuguese is ‘dji’ so there is a huge possibility that the word has been adulterated to sound like what it is today in Fante language…. ‘no innocent, shame-free cultural production is possible after colonialism’…maybe the quotation haunts me….no innocent shame-free cultural production is possible after colonialism... and I still have questions;…..how authentic will my work be? Will it ever be possible to write my story or live without a trace no matter how small of colonialism? Indeed, the traces are everywhere, not just physically, case in point the Cape Coast castle where I literally grew up but even in the most abstract sense….. and now they occupy my linguistic dreams.

It is such an enlightening experience learning Portuguese not only for linguistic and cultural gains but also as a key to personal rediscovery of history. There’s no way some vocabulary words in the target language will escape me when I grew up hearing my grandmother tell me those same words no matter how adulterated in Fante.

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “My Love and Hate Relationship with Portuguese

  1. Arthur

    Much empathy with your struggles to learn Portuguese, but very impressed by the connections you make with Fanon and the colonized mind. I must confess I never thought of it that way, how the “local” is always impacted by the foreign, assimilated and eventually localized. But once the foreign has been “domesticated,” is it still foreign?

    I remember my amazement reading a Portuguese text only to realize that what I had always thought of as a Fante word, “prego” (of course, spoken with the musical inflection that Fante gives to many words: you give a good example with “paano”) could potentially have come from the Portuguese. Considering that our houses back in the day were built from mud and thatch, we most likely never had to use nails for building.

    Or to put this in a more acceptable way, we used alternative technologies that were more ecologically sound! It therefore stands to reason that any group would borrow words from another language for things that did not exist or were not used. Again a good example would be bread, made from wheat, a crop that did not grow in our tropical lands. Is this colonialism of the mind? Your thoughts are as good as mine…

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  2. It took me three days to come back to reply your comment and most importantly the part about domestication. I agree I guess to an extent that once the foreign has been domesticated, then it leaves room for questions about its foreignness. I guess in that case we can say it becomes a hybrid? A safe or ‘healthy’ hybrid that has the added advantage of helping later generations like mine learn about those important aspects of history that leave traces behind. I guess this conversation can extend to the subject of the demolition of statues and artifacts that leave telltale signs of historical events we may not want to remember. A friend even brought up the idea of erasing the names of streets named after colonial masters…but if we remove them, do we not remove history and its importance? I digress though, but on language, I guess that you have a point on our having personalized the foreign language to make it our own …

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