Week 43: Wood and words
The longed-for red-rumped swallows have not made an appearance, but our other keenly awaited event has taken place: the new kitchen is complete except for the tiling and the final electrical connections. It’s both beautiful and practical, and even more of each of these qualities than we imagined.
When you try to learn a new language as an adult, you spend a great deal of time in the in-between stage of neither speaking the language nor not speaking it, if you follow me. This stage can last years, and of course you might never come out the other end where native speakers will talk to you quite normally. And in the vast in-between stage you need to rely on the patience and kindness of strangers. You need the people to whom speaking the language is as easy as breathing to understand the effort that it costs you, and to play along. Now, I have to say, on the whole the Portuguese are good at this, willing to understand you and to be understood by you. They don’t automatically switch to English, but they almost all will do so if asked.
English is quite widely spoken. I remember the conversation (in English) with the pony-tailed young man who came to install the satellite we didn’t want (Week 27). ‘We Portuguese are good communicators,’ he said. He put their linguistic abilities down to a number of factors, including the viewing of imported television shows that are subtitled rather than dubbed, and an outward-looking temperament. He declared the Portuguese to be very different in this to the Spanish.
I don’t know enough about Spain to have a view on that, but I certainly do observe the Portuguese to be outgoing, and helpful too. And one day, in a very nice little pizza restaurant, we had a particularly helpful young waitress, who was very encouraging with our language efforts. We liked her a lot. To make a short story even shorter, she’s now my Portuguese teacher. She drives here and gives me an at-home, one-to-one, two-hour lesson once a week, the second of which was this morning. She’s great. It’s going to help me a lot.
It is, of course, frustrating not to speak the language, but it is also interesting to listen and not understand: to hear the sounds and the cadence instead of the meaning. (For anyone who doesn’t know, written Portuguese looks like any other Romance language and you can make a reasonable guess at the meaning. The pronunciation, however, is a very different story, and the spoken language is far from guess-able.) So, in listening and not understanding, I’ve noticed the nasal quality of the language, the many ‘sh’ and ‘zh’ sounds, the cut-off endings of words, and a plosive, popping quality: bunches of repeated ‘p’ and possibly ‘d’ sounds. Best of all is the cadence, which is equally evident when Portuguese people speak English. The tone in many sentences is slightly raised, especially when something is being carefully explained, and then rises and falls at the very end. It’s charming, and I want to mimic it. Cadence is surely the first step in a language. You know you can tell the nationality of babies by the cadence of their early vocalisations? So I believe.
A few vocabulary tasters for you: puxe, pronounced ‘push’, appears on many doors, and means ‘pull’. Queque, I learned from Husband yesterday – who had the leisure to go to a cafe! – is the Portuguese rendering of the English word ‘cake’. Of course, Portuguese also have their own cakes, many of them, and delicious too, which come under the general name of bolo. And the picapau is the woodpecker – which features large in our lives and will have to be the subject of a future blog, since I’ve run out of space in this one.