It is so nice when I hear enthusiastic comments from Brazilians about my Portuguese, even though it is still some way from being fluent. But I suspect that a phrase like ”your Portuguese is great“ – which I sometimes hear – is in fact more a sign of enthusiasm about seeing a foreigner learning Portuguese than it actually reflects on my mastery of their beautiful language. I have already pointed out that Portuguese is not quite as easy to learn for an absolute beginner as I would’ve expected. But there is one more thing that drives me a little crazy while trying to learn Portuguese and I call it the Fear-Freeze. It usually happens when a Brazilian realizes that I am a gringo.
The fear of English speakers
I have to admit that I was amused when I saw this TV-commercial for English language classes for the first time. An American client visiting a Brazilian office and basically everybody working in the huge office-building is hiding away from the gringo. The poor American business-man is trying to find someone to talk to and it takes a while until he meets this woman, asks her for directions and she smiles and answers in English and shows him the way. I thought the reaction of fear, as shown in the commercial, was ridiculously exaggerated. Now I know better.
When communication stops
Some days ago I was asked my CPF by a woman working at a reception. (The CPF is my tax number and a unique ID, and everybody is asking for it, if you go shopping, when you book a flight or a hotel etc.). The CPF consists of 11 digits and while it may not be quite as easy to remember (I am bad at these things) telling 11 digits between 1 and 9 is one of the easiest things to do. Portuguese 101. But just as I told the woman at the reception the first three digits of my CPF she dropped the pen instead of taking notes, looked at her piece of paper and with a little despair in her voice told me: “I don´t understand a thing”.
This can be a quite frustrating experience. And while this woman was a little extreme but at the same time quite frank with me (which I appreciate a lot), this insecurity is something that happens quite frequently. Many times when I tell something I am being asked “what?” and I just repeat what I said and I am understood. It’s not very practical, but I get myself understood.
My wife was with me on the day I could not even tell my CPF to a Brazilian and quickly gave her my number (my wife is better at these number things, so she even remembers my CPF). When I asked her a little later and a little desperate if my Portuguese is really so awful, she calmed me down and said, that what I said had actually been perfectly understandable. But since I had a slight accent the poor women went into a perfect Fear-Freeze and could not understand a single word from me anymore.
I understand that having to deal with foreigners can be exciting, especially in a country like Brazil which receives only as much international tourists annually as the city of Munich. And I know that a city like Berlin can be equally frustrating, because there people just answer in English when you try to talk in German with a strong accent. This is also not very helpful when you trying to learn a new language. So maybe I should actually be a little more grateful and just get used to repeating myself until I drop my accent? They say the best thing for learning a language is repetition, so maybe the Brazilian Fear-Freeze is in fact a clever (and polite) way to improve my Portuguese? Oh Brazil, you are full of mysteries….