Tongue Tied – Overcoming The Language Barrier in Brazil

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When my husband James and I  got an opportunity to move to Brazil for several months with his company we decided to make a major change in our lives, selling everything we owned to be free to travel for years to come. All of a sudden my days consisted of packing, selling and donating our belongings until all we had left was a mattress on our living room floor and a small storage unit full of keepsakes. We were ready to go.

The city we were moving to was called Recife and is the fifth largest in Brazil. When researching our soon-to-be home I would get lost for hours reading about the culture and looking at pictures. I’d imagine my days full of exploring the markets and lazing on the beach.

When I told people that I was moving to Brazil for a couple of months they all asked the same question, “Do you speak the language?” My response was always the same, “I don’t speak Brazilian Portuguese but I’ve been to many countries where I didn’t know the language and have gotten along fine.”

After my first day in Recife, I quickly realized just how cocky and unprepared I was. Sure, I’ve been to plenty of countries where English isn’t the primary language but those places are also huge tourist destinations and very accommodating towards Americans.

What I didn’t take into consideration was that Recife is not a tourist hotspot. It receives visitors from other areas of South America but unlike Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo, most Americans have never heard of Recife, Brazil.

We landed on a Saturday afternoon and hit the ground running, ready to explore this new land. However, by Sunday night I laid in bed thinking, What have I gotten myself into?, and fighting the rising anxiety in my chest. My vision of how life would be here was fading fast.

Besides my husband, I hadn’t heard one word of English the entire weekend and I quickly learned that it was a rarity altogether. People stared with a mixture of awe and confusion when they’d overhear our conversations. The looks from children were especially amusing as they’d tug on their parents clothing and point to us as with wide eyes looking for confirmation that what they were hearing was not normal.

I had never experienced such a disconnect before. My usual confidence was replaced with fear and self-consciousness. Each night I’d study phrases but panic and freeze when it was time to use them. The vision I had of myself as this suave, well-traveled adventurer now seemed like an illusion. Instead, I felt like a coward for avoiding situations where I would have to speak.

I knew I’d regret not exploring Recife while I had the chance so I challenged myself each day to get out of my comfort zone and take risks.

First, I began to really study  basic words and phrases that allowed me to exchange pleasantries, order food and ask questions. When I was out I made a point to not begin conversations with “Do you speak English?” Instead, I’d try to see how far I could communicate in Portuguese. Many times I’d surprise myself but most importantly people appreciated my attempts.

Sometimes people wouldn’t understand me or even snicker at my pronunciation but I powered on, setting my insecurities aside. I slowly became more confident in my abilities and actually looked forward to leaving my apartment each day. The thought of hailing a taxi or asking my waiter for a menu no longer made me panic.

When it was time to leave Brazil I was proud of how far I had come in such a short time. I learned that travel is about stepping away from what you know to make room for something new. I look forward to taking many more unfamiliar roads in the future and am now confident in my ability to do so. (See How To Get Around When You Don’t Speak The Language)

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Note: This piece was originally published in the Spring 2013 issue of Eidé Magazine.

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