TMP writer Gabrielle Bauer, 61, is three months into a five-month adventure in Florianópolis, Brazil. In this post, she takes a moment to let us know how her study of the language has been going.
The other day, a Brazilian friend and I were walking along one of the city’s many beautiful beaches, discussing the challenges of learning a language in later adulthood. “Want to know what’s different about your Portuguese?” my friend said, pushing an oyster shell around with her toe. “You can convey a full range of emotions.”
As we continued our walk, she explained further: While she had known other foreigners who were studying her language, the great majority were able to convey just information (“Central train station at 9 a.m., later if traffic is bad”) or primary-hued emotions such as excitement (“Half-price caipirinhas at the Mandela? Let’s go!”).
Other people have said nice things about my Portuguese vocabulary, grammar, and accent, but this had to be the best compliment I’d ever received. Conveying emotion, after all, is what talking to other humans is about.
So what made me capable—apparently more capable than most—of conveying emotion in this language I was still learning? For one thing, I put a premium on “emotion words” from the time I began studying the language last year. I still don’t know how to say “wrench” in Portuguese and probably never will. I do, however, know how to say blabber-mouth, people pleaser, and “he didn’t let himself be deceived by flattery.”
I’ve also taken every opportunity to converse in Portuguese, even with Brazilians who speak good English. (Selfish? Guilty as charged.) These conversations allow me not only to practice speaking, but to listen, and I’ve noticed that words and phrases heard in conversation tend to “stick” much better than words encountered in a dictionary.
Along similar lines, I watch far more TV here than I would in Toronto. (To be accurate, I don’t watch any TV in Toronto because I don’t have cable.) Morning talk shows, cooking shows, soap operas… they all let me spy on people having real-world conversations.
In her book Expecting Adam, Marcia Beck describes how she had the hardest time teaching the alphabet to her son Adam, who has Down syndrome—until she connected the letters to people and things that he valued. The letter E on its own meant nothing to Adam. E for Elizabeth (or “Wizbeth,” as he called his beloved sister) meant the world.
I think the same may apply to older people learning a language. While we can no longer rely on the crisp memories of our youth, we can compensate for our synaptic deficits by placing words and phrases in a human context.
There are words I’ve had to look up countless times—until I heard them in conversation. The word “entregar,” for instance, means not only “deliver” but “hand in” or “surrender.” I didn’t fully grasp the word’s range of meaning until a friend told me that “os olhos te entregam”—“your eyes give you away.” The memory of that conversation—where we were sitting, what we were eating, and my friend’s own facial expression—has lodged the word’s essence in my mind.
All of which has led me to conclude: you can learn a language at any age, as long as you work with the brain you’ve got today. And memorize phrases like “I suspect he’s lying to himself, but I could be wrong.”