Dumb Mistakes In a New Language

Mistakes, mistakes! My wife Doris and I made lots of mistakes as we learned Portuguese in Brazil…well at least I did. But that was O.K. for we wanted to speak the language. Since learning and dumb mistakes are twins, we struggled on.
But it is frustrating not being able to come up with the right word at the right time. I recall dropping in on a Drogaria—a drug store shortly after we were in Campinas in language school. All I wanted was a small bottle of iodine. I had no idea what the right word might be and I did not yet have a dictionary because Doris and I had been in the country for only a few days. The clerks in the store gathered around me hoping to help. But no help there. This would be a situation common in Brazil since few are fluent in English. I left the drug store frustrated and with the clerks smiling and shaking their heads.
As well it takes time to learn the ins and outs of another culture. For example, we quickly learned that a person does not knock on a door to see someone but stands at the gate and claps. That generally works well for yards are small or non-existent with at times the front door opening directly onto the sidewalk. That reminds me of an incident that I’ll share here though it has nothing to do with the language.
Doris and I with our daughter Monica were visiting in a colleague’s home. Monica was then just a few months past her second birthday. The house had an iron front gate that was on the edge of the sidewalk, only a few feet from their front door. We had shared a meal there and were chatting while Doris fed our baby boy Vernon–he was then a few months old. She says that I spoke up having noted that Monica was not in sight. I rushed to gate and Doris says that I screamed, “Oh my God,” for Monica was standing in the middle of the street with traffic and trucks going by in both lanes. None of us could have imagined that little girl could climb that gate.
As I was checking out the details of this incident with Doris, she said, “Once again the angels were working overtime.” Me? I still vividly remember that little tyke in the middle of the street with traffic around her.
But to more pleasant matters…the language. Brazilians are extremely polite and would never embarrass a person over a mistake in Portuguese. Yet I am sure at one time or another they must have had a good many laughs at our errors.
Here is what I mean. In the Bible story of the Prodigal Son, when this son returns the father ordered a big party and the killing of a “fatted calf.” The problem is that the word for beetle sounds the same to us as calf. Calf has double RRs together where the word for beetle has only a single R. Both RRs are different from our English R—the double R is trilled or aspirated and the single is flipped–meaning the tongue touches the top gum for an instant. Both of the nouns are masculine making the distinction more difficult yet. So I am told I spoke about the father ordering killed “a fat beetle” for the party.
Just one more laugh, though when you and I share coffee someday I could add more. Mercifully I have forgotten most of my mistakes. Anyway once when speaking to a group I said, “It is a pleasure to be in your stocking.” The mistake is easily made for that word is “meia” which is like “meio” with “meio” meaning “with you.” The difference? One word has a feminine ending and the other is masculine.
If you travel in Brazil there are two things to remember. First, Brazilians will do all that is reasonably possible to avoid your embarrassment. Second, to learn a language means you jump right in and do your best while making mistakes. Just learn to smile no matter where you are trying out another language. Others certainly will.


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