Tuesday, 16 March 2010


I've been brushing up my rusty and extremely rudimentary Portuguese, in anticipation of a visit this summer. My dedication to the task wavers, as I swing back and forth between fascination with and aversion from this most unfamiliar of European Romance languages. I keep myself motivated by the dream that one day I might be able to make sense of the volume of Pessoa's poetry that I bought when we were in Lisbon a few years ago (until then, I shall continue to rely on Richard Zenith's excellent translations) - or, failing that, at least order a drink without making a fool of myself.

Someone once described Portuguese as sounding like Spanish spoken by Sean Connery. Not only is this insulting to the Portuguese, who deeply resent such comparisons with their former colonisers, but also completely misleading. In fact, spoken Portuguese sounds nothing like Spanish. There's a closer aural resemblance with Russian, particularly in the way 'l' is pronounced, and in the ubiquitous 'sh' sounds. Not to mention the echoes of French, especially in the frequent nasal vowels ('bon', 'mim'). Then there are the dipthongs, such as 'ao' and 'oes', which are uniquely Portuguese and for which it's difficult to find equivalents in other languages. Finally, after years of learning to unflatten my southern English 'a' when trying to speak French, German or Italian, it's disarming to come across a European language in which (for example) the words 'para' and 'banca' sound like they're being spoken by a Cockney rather than by a Scot.

I started off with the BBC's lively little Talk Portuguese book and CD: all chirpy voices and annoying jingles, but it leaves you with a good grasp of the basics. I've now moved on to Teach Yourself Portuguese, which pleases me by interspersing the dialogues with grammatical explanations: something that BBC language courses, in hock to a spurious pedagogic pseudo-progressivism, seem to have spurned (as I argued here, this kind of withholding of the academic tools of the trade is actually patronising rather than empowering).

I only have two criticisms of the Teach Yourself course. One is the execrable quality of the CD (at least on the version I own), which seems to have been recorded in a cupboard and which features actors with less-than-crystal-clear enunciation (grasping spoken Portuguese, with all those 'shushy' consonants and swallowed vowels, is difficult enough for beginners). The other is the decision to teach European and Brazilian Portuguese together, which is as misguided as the BBC's attempt to combine European and Latin American Spanish in its Suenos course. The pronunciation and even the vocabulary used in Portugual and Brazil are often very different, and listening to the CD it can be difficult to make out which country the speaker comes from, and therefore which form would be appropriate in which location.

The compensation for all of these frustrations is being able to understand just a little of what my favourite Portuguese and Cape Verdean artists are singing about. Here's Mayra Andrade, providing the perfect accompaniment to a sunny spring afternoon:


Minnie said...

Bon courage, Martin! I understand your frustration with the lack of focus on grammar in so much contemporary language instruction.
Wonderful singer. Had never even heard of her, so many thanks for the introduction to someone new & magical.

Martin said...

Thanks for the comment, Minnie. She also sings beautifully in French - think she's based (like a lot of Portuguese / Cape Verdean exiles) in Paris. Follow the links in my post for an interview with her in French.