Thursday, 12 April 2012


By the time I'd lived four years in Brazil I was virtually bi-lingual.  Not entirely, because there were whole areas of Brazilian life where I didn't have the vocabulary: like discussing the previous night's episode of the latest "soap" on TV (didn't watch it), or visiting a beautician (which all Brazilian women seemed to do weekly), or taking the car in for repair (mind you I struggle with that in English).  But my business Portuguese was pretty good and I even wrote reports and gave presentations, which most people seemed to be able to understand.

By contrast, my French is still abysmal.  There is still much that I do not understand (at least on first hearing) and I often have to ask someone to slow down and repeat what they have said.  I managed that in the post office this morning - a reply paid package to Belgium that I wasn't sure would be accepted.  The lady behind the counter smiled and rattled something back at me.  We started again. This time, S L O W L Y.  Ah! if, I'd brought a copy of the label with me she would have stamped it so I would have had a record of the despatch - sensible idea!

I left feeling smug that I'd understood, but then rapidly deflated as I realised that I would not have been able to say any of that in French to someone else.

Yesterday, after I'd dropped Tod off at Bergerac airport I popped into Jardinland, pretending I was there to buy compost, but really for a tea and cake in the glossy small cafe surrounded by the sweet smell of fresh greenery.  I stood at the counter waiting to make my choice. A woman alongside me struggled with three words of French, gave up and said (in English) "I'll have that one".  The French girl behind the counter smiled and said (in English) "of course".  The "that one" was a tarte au chocolat.

Although I am far from fluent, what my time in Brazil has given me is the courage to gesticulate, make a fool of myself, make up words that are a mixture of French, English and Portuguese and to realise that quite often the French I need is not that different from the English.

However, I may just not understand the reply!


  1. I'm getting to grips with Spanish...and sympathise with you.

    I just keep ploughing on and it is improving though there are some days when it just doesn't work at all!

    I find reading the newspaper helps a lot.

  2. Hi Fly, I wish I had your interest in what newspapers publish - but sadly they bore me. I have found a glossy magazine - Geo - which interests me more. The challenge is getting the words to stick!

  3. As I read somewhere and had only to agree, our problem is that we can do the shopping, restaurant, type of french and get by. When it comes to a discussion of say, politics, with a french speaking adult our skills are obviously that of a six year old. It is no wonder that we have to sort of congregate with other english speakers to hold an adult conversation.

  4. Hi Lesley, adult conversation round here is mainly about farming or building! So although I can't talk politics, I'm getting to know my crops, and as for my building vocabulary .... better than in English! :)

  5. My problem is that I'm far too conscious of making mistakes so I freeze and end up by not saying anything. My husband always acts on the assumption that the other person hasn't heard him so he just repeats himself quite calmly. he's fuent, I'm tonguetied.

  6. Victoria you have my sympathy - I was like that in Brazil for the first two years. It wasn't until I left my (then) boyfriend and HAD to cope that I broke through that barrier. I think that was what happened to the lady in the cafe. If she'd stopped, taken a deep breath and calmed down, she would have realised she DID know the name of the tart she wanted. :)