When words are not enough
Micah and Chris Leitch are BMS mid-term workers in Brazil.
Micah is a retired software engineer who is now involved in maintaining the website for BMS’s pre-school programme, PEPE, and Chris is a retired social worker, helping the PEPE-Network to look at their child protection processes and training.
Here is their humorous account of the difficulties in learning a new language, after arriving in Brazil.
After weeks of procrastination in the UK when we should have been starting our language study, we arrive in Brazil knowing two words – obrigado (m) and obrigada (f) – or is that one word? We decide it is one word and immediately reduce the number of words we have to learn by half a million – this language learning is easy! The next word we learn is desculpa – a necessity because we keep getting things wrong, getting in the way and so forever having to say “sorry!”
Armed with these two words we head for the supermarket. We cannot find the milk. Chris rifles through the dictionary, corners a woman with two kids and says, “I don’t like your dress and also you smell”. I am impressed. I still don’t know how to say “The pen of my aunt is on the table” – the sentence that was the most potent weapon in creating the greatest empire of all time.
CREDIT: Alexandre Ferreira
Chris has now extricated herself and found the location of the milk. We head for the checkout.
Avoiding the checkouts with the long queues we place our trolley behind a couple of elderly gents who have a few items and look like farmers – cloth caps, rugged faces, large, strong hands. They are not in much of a hurry. Each item is discussed at length with each other and the checkout girl. I begin to get irritated.
Come on you guys! Why are old people always so slow! One of their friends arrives and a conversation ensues. I then remember our cultural training, quell my irritation and step over the cultural divide (not into Brazilian culture but from the oldish to the older).
After about ten minutes, it could have been 15, we eventually reach the checkout and the girl scans our items and we pass over our credit card. The girl says something incomprehensible. The people in the queue behind us smile, then stop smiling when they realise they are in the wrong queue. A conversation takes place in which not one word is understood on either side.
Eventually we are made to understand that “cardo credito” are not acceptable. “No worries, mate” I say – an expression gleaned from language training in a previous existence – and we hand over our debit card. Debit cards are equally unacceptable. We pay by cash. We can build up our depleted resources at the bank tomorrow.
Don’t bank on it!
The next day we arrive at the Banco Santander with our brand new Santander Abbey card. The ATM does not want to play ball. We try all the combinations but without success. The queue is getting restive so eventually we try the information desk. The Santander Bank does not accept the Santander credit card? Apparently not! We are incredulous. What to do?
“Try the Banco Ahgahehseebehseh two blocks down the road, ” says the man behind the information desk. We have not seen it but head off full of hope – we see it! “Ahgah. Ehsee. Beh. She.” HSBC. The World’s bank. It is almost like home!
Everything seems vaguely familiar with a few twists, the alphabet is the same
(minus K, W, Y), the script is the same (with a few squiggles for emphasis), and the language is European.
Our thoughts turn to our friends Richard and Elly, newly arrived in Nepal, and to our son, Brian, in Thailand. We have been able to catch a glimpse of the much greater struggle they face in cultures that are totally different and learning languages for which nothing learned previously could have prepared them.