Word Mangler

Word Mangler

My colleagues run for their office when I arrive and the coffee area
empties almost instantly. The mere sight of my Portuguese notebook has been known to give
my boss palpitations. Now, I have resorted to inflicting my bad conjugations on my
By Philip Blazdell

After once having been chased across Tokyo by a slightly inebriated kimono-clad
housewife who was just dying to practice her stock of English idioms on me and having had
to once lock myself in my darkened office to avoid another painful verb mangling session
with my oh-so-serious director I am now reveling in the opportunity to get my own back on
the world and commit my own linguistic atrocities on a daily basis. My colleagues run for
their office each morning when I arrive, the coffee area (the hub of all Brazilian office
gossip, decision making and social activities) empties almost instantly and everyone is
suddenly ‘terrible busy’. The mere sight of my Portuguese notebook has been known to give
my boss palpitations. I have resorted to dragging poor unsuspecting students into my
office and inflicting my bad conjugations on them.

Of course, I had fully prepared for my new life in Brazil—I had a couple of
lessons with a native speaker whilst living in Japan and purchased a phrase book and
dictionary. I had to conclude that for once I was fully prepared. My coincidence was
bolstered by a basic working knowledge of Spanish which had been earned hanging around
dubious bars in Mexico City. Nothing could possible go wrong.

Two minutes after my plane was airborne I suffered my first major dent in my confidence
when I tried to order a beer and the stewardess gave me an in-flight magazine instead. I
put this linguistic ineptitude down to nerves and excitement. I spent the next 26 hours
with my nose in the phrase book setting stock phrases to memory. Undeterred by the chronic
jet lag, lack of sleep (and more importantly lack of beer) after the flight I was itching
to try out my new linguistic prowess at Sao Paulo airport. I scanned the section dealing
with customs and immigration and committed a phrase to memory. Eventually my time came to
have the visa stamped into my passport, I cleared my voice, smiled my best smile and asked
the harassed immigration officer:

Posso nadar aqui ?—can I swim here?

I soon realized that the perils of a phrase book are two fold. Firstly you have to have
some degree of common sense and linguistic ability—which is a major problem for
me—, and secondly when you do finally master an expression, such as

Eu tenho um visto—I have a visa

the recipient of this linguistic gem instantly thinks you are a native and invariably
launches into a long and complex story about his mother in law, a goat and a small piece
of cheese, leaving the bemused amateur polyglot in a daze and wishing they were back in
wet England. I ditched my phrase book in the next trashcan I saw.

Little did I know that worse was to come and with the slow, and painful ascent of my
Portuguese skills, life would become more and more complex. Like for example my
well-meaning Brazilian friend who has somehow got his linguistic wires crossed and
believes that the only way for me to understand him is for him to talk exceptionally loud
to me in English—which is a novel spin on the average Englishman’s idea that to get a
foreigner to understand you simply shout as louder as possible till they understand. My
neighbors have now politely requested that he only calls my cell phone during the hours of
daylight less he scares their kids.

Though I can claim more then one language I still hold Eveyln Waugh’s tenant of ‘no man
who speaks more than one language can possible express himself memorably in either’ dear
to my heart and live in constant fear of waking up one day and not remembering the English
word for something important like beer, car keys or worse ‘no, I really don’t want another
bottle of champagne now.’ The topic of conversation amongst my learned, and patient
colleagues, most mornings is whether it is best to give or receive linguistic torture.

If it is possible to excuse my mangled verbs and tortured tenses of the language of
angels, then the next problem—perhaps the most fundamental one—is when everyone
thinks they are speaking the same language. Someone once wrote that America and England
are two countries separated by the same language. Getting a bunch of foreigners together
all speaking what they innocently believe to be excellent Portuguese can lead to
spectacularly hilarious results.

Meetings take on a surreal air when anything is possible; I sat in one a few weeks ago
wondering why one colleague wanted a small furry animal for his experiments. My students,
never liking to miss out on the fun, take this linguistic Russian roulette
further—spanners become fruit, reports turn into newspapers and I just dare not ask
for the key to the lab again.

But, in despite of this, or maybe perhaps I feel that my language skills—or more
exactly the lack of them—make me a better person. I am now stripped down to simple
thoughts and emotions. I can no longer articulate complex thoughts or emotions, and like
someone trying to assemble a tricky piece of furniture without instructions, I am often
left stumbling in the dark. But, this slowing down of my thought process and the
simplification of my emotions also has positive aspects. Everything becomes more
considered, more thoughtful and slow, you can be sure that when I order a beer in
Portuguese I really do want a beer. Additionally, in quieter moments, I kid myself that
there is something endearing about a 28-year-old man whose emotional vocabulary is limited
to the extremes of love or hate—my head of department is still considering how he
feels about me declaring my new found love for him during a staff meeting. But, if someone
could explain to me why I only need to be told a swear word once for me to remember it
when I can’t remember the verb conjugation I spent all day studying I would be most

And sometimes, just sometimes, I suddenly stop and find that I am actually talking
Portuguese. It always strikes me as a little strange to be chatting away in a language
which is not my own and expressing myself clearly, but, this is just one of the many joys
I have living here in Brazil. It will be a long time coming but I look forward to the day
that someone mistakes me for a Brazilian. After all, I am at heart one of life’s

The author is currently living in the Northeast of Brazil where his
continued linguistic failings are a source of amusement for all. He shares his life, and
travels, with his multi-linguistic girlfriend who regularly juggles five languages a day
at work. There is absolutely no truth in the rumor that his last language teacher fled the
The author may be contacted via philip@dem.ufc.br and will personally reply to every

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