Category Archives: Brazil

Surviving a Language Immersion, in 3 Steps

The Tower of Babel, by Pieter Brueghel the Elder. [PD]

I write about languages because I’m interested in them. So yes, this post is kind of a general interest post, rather than a writing post, but I will start by putting in a plug for writers to learn a little of the languages of the countries they are writing about. After all, you wouldn’t want to be like Dan Brown, who reportedly mutilated French in the Da Vinci Code. (Though it was still a best-seller in spite of that – I guess the French just got a few chuckles at his expense!)

Anyway, here are three important things to do if you want to survive in another culture where you don’t know the language. I won’t claim these things will make you fluent, because it takes time and effort to make language come completely automatically. But following these tips will help anyone get a basic grasp of whatever language they’re immersed in. And if you happen to know any other hints, please share!

Without further ado, here’s what to do:


Step 1: Pre-Study:

Many people think it’s easier to learn a language by going somewhere that speaks it. They’re right, it is easier, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t take work! And it’s even easier if you prepare a little beforehand, or you risk getting overwhelmed and giving up in the first couple days.  Do try to learn a little bit ahead of time, even if it’s just grabbing a couple CDs from the library and listening to them on the way to work. You will be surprised at how vocabulary you thought was useless actually is used by people who speak the language. It’ll give you such a comforting feeling to know you understand something, even if it’s just one word out of fifty. And it gives you a handy structure for you to slot in all the future vocabulary you will (hopefully) pick up in the country. It certainly helped me! For example, before I left for Brazil, I learned a bunch of tourist vocabulary, including the word for ‘change,’ as in, money. The word is ‘troco.’ And I thought, okay, might be useful when talking to cashiers and stuff. But when I got there, I discovered the verb for ‘I change’ is ‘eu troco’ – just like in English, change is a noun and a verb! That surprised me, because languages don’t always work that way. But it meant I learned two words instead of just one, and I never forgot those two words either.

Step 2: Take Courage: Okay, so you memorized the Spanish-English dictionary before you left for Mexico (not a strategy I’d recommend, but let’s say you did). Despite knowing all these fabulous words, chances are you will be filled with nervous apprehension when faced with the opportunity to actually use these words in front of a native speaker. After all, they’ve spoken this language way longer than you. You remember how you laughed at that recently-immigrated clerk back home who was completely confused even though you used very simple English. What if this Spanish-speaker laughs at you? Sniggers about that gringo to all his friends? Or worse, just stares at you blankly? How will you ever pluck up the courage to actually use the words you learned?

This is probably my weak area in learning Portuguese. I would probably know more Portuguese if I tried to use it more often, but I tend to revert to English whenever humanly possible. Or made-up sign language, if English isn’t possible. But a bucket of courage and a willingness to make a fool of yourself is a great advantage when learning a language.

Step 3: Listen: What, you thought learning a language was about forcing your mouth to spout foreign phrases? That’s certainly part of it, but it’s not much use if you pronounce them so badly no one can understand you. Just because a word is spelt with an ‘a’ in it, it doesn’t exactly mean the ‘a’ is pronounced the same as an English ‘a’. And how do you learn the difference? By listening to people who actually know the language, of course! This is so important, some language theories actually recommend only listening to the language phrases you are trying to learn for several days, before attempting to pronounce them yourself. By hearing it correctly in your head before you say it, you have a far better chance of being understandable. That said, everyone will always have an accent, unless you devote endless hours to training yourself to reduce it. But at least you can reduce your accent until your pronunciation is not painful to native speakers’ ears.


So there you have it. Any tips to add?


Filed under Brazil, Language Learning

How Not to Write About Brazil (Several Tips)

Let’s just say you’re going to write a novel set in Brazil. I know, I know, there’s not a whole ton of novels out there set in Brazil, but I think the world could use a few more set in South America. If you’re going to go that route, or even if you just want to travel to or talk about Brazil, there’s a couple common mistakes you’ll want to avoid. I’ve written before about getting the setting right, and I don’t feel fully confident I’d get Brazil quite right if I wrote about it, but at least I’d avoid obvious mistakes like having my main characters take their honeymoon off the west coast of Brazil. And now you can avoid mistakes that will mark you off as a naive gringo to all your native Brazilian readers, just by keeping these tips in mind!

First tip: Think about Brazil. Now let me guess two things that crossed through your mind: Rio de Janeiro and the Amazon. Congratulations! You’re right, both well known places are located in Brazil (and you must have learned something in Geography). But just because they’re both in Brazil, it doesn’t mean you should be planning plots where characters dash from the wilds of the jungle into the streets of Rio, or (in the case of tourists) planning vacations that dodge back and forth between those two places. They are NOT right beside each other. Not even close – to take myself as an example, I’ve been to Brazil twice and have only been once in the Rio de Janeiro airport, and nowhere near the Amazon. It’s like saying Vancouver and Toronto are beside each other, or maybe New York and Los Angeles if you’re from the States.

Why do people easily assume other countries are small, even when they know how hard it is to get around the place where they live? It’s a common problem – people in Europe ask me if I know people in Toronto, when they’ve never left the borders of their two-hundred-kilometre-wide country themselves. I think it’s because it’s easy to know the differences between places in the country you live in, but when you think of a place you don’t know very well, you tend to put the whole place into a single category. It’s only when you get to know a place that you realize it’s got just as much variety, or maybe even more, than the country you come from.

So maybe chalk this one up to a common human failing?

Next tip: Brazil is more than a jungle. Talking about variety – there’s about a zillion different regions in Brazil, with their own culture and climate, yes, the southernmost parts do get snow. What, you thought the whole country was a rainforest? While most stereotypical descriptions of the place like to portray it as the deepest jungle, any country that big is going to have a variety of landscapes. For example, where I stayed in the northeast, there seemed to be a lot of hills and tangled forests, fields of sugarcane, and (fortunately) absolutely beautiful beaches. Brazil is not as big as Canada, but it’s sure big enough. So clearly, if you’re going to write about it, you’re going to actually have to pick a region. Think about it on the same scale as you would if you were writing a novel set in the United States – you’d probably pick a state to put the story in, right? Fortunately, it’s tons of fun to find out stuff about the cultures of all the different regions in Brazil (and listen to them tell you why you should pick up their accent for your Portuguese, rather than the Rio de Janeiro one.)

Bonus tip! Rio de Janeiro is not the capital of Brazil either (that would be Brasilia). I’m told it’s a very beautiful city though, and that I must visit it on my next trip. 🙂

Two further tips: Brazilians do not speak Spanish, and obviously don’t enjoy being told they do. It’s not too much of an effort to remember they speak Portuguese, the sixth most spoken language in the world – apparently more spoken than French, which surprised me since I’ve been told since I’ve been in grade school that it would be the most useful thing in the world to learn French. I’m glad to hear learning Portuguese wasn’t a waste of time either.

Also, if you call yourself American – well, Brazilians are Americans too (South American, that is). Just like Canadians technically are Americans as well, we’re just usually too polite to argue about this. 🙂


In the interests of full disclosure, I’m going to reveal I did set one chapter of a terrible fantasy novel I wrote in highschool in Brazil, mainly because we were covering Brazil in school that year. But I did not do any research, and most of the chapter concerned a hidden base in the jungle where magical power was concealed. Clearly, I missed an opportunity to insert realistic culture and background into my novel! Oh well, perhaps I’ll come up with a better plot now I’ve actually been there.


What pops into your head when you first think of Brazil?


Filed under Brazil, On Writing

2 Things That Scare Me About Going (Back) to Brazil

Olinda, a lovely seaside town. Photo by Esther S.

I’m doing better this time – last year I wrote about the 3 Things That Scare Me About Travelling to Brazil, and this year it’s only two things! Two minor things, as you’ll see below. The real reason for this post was to let all my lovely readers know I will be leaving in a week and a half, so while this blog will continue to be updated, my responses to comments, etc., will be slow. Also, I wanted to leave plenty of time for you all to tell me if there’s anything you want me to write about Brazil. Are you setting your next work-in-progress in the exotic setting of South America? Have you always wished to travel to the Southern Hemisphere yourself? Did you just realize you know absolutely nothing about the continent below North America when your know-it-all friend informed you they speak Portuguese in Brazil, and not Spanish? If so, submit your questions and topics here, and I’ll do my best to write a post about them!

Anyway, back to the two things that scare me:

Starving to Death in the Airport

As I’ve written before, I am a celiac – which means I can’t eat anything contaminated with wheat. Now, plane food isn’t great at the best of times, but if it’s covered in bread crumbs or wheat-based sauces, it’s downright inedible for me. Most airlines offer a gluten-free option, but there’s always the risk the message doesn’t get through, and your specially prepared meal doesn’t get loaded on the flight. Last year, I was fortunate enough to get dinner on the way from Chicago to Sao Paulo, but the breakfast was all bread-based. Therefore, I was starving by the time we landed. And then I ran into the language barrier – my Portuguese was so basic I couldn’t manage to ask what the ingredients in the fast food all were. Not that fast food places are ever great places for asking what’s in their food (even at home, I generally avoid there). By the time I eventually got to northeast Brazil, I finally managed to convey to one fast food worker that I wanted to buy something to drink. It took a lot of handwaving and confusion. But food was beyond my sign language, so I just stayed hungry until I got my suitcase and could unpack some of the snacks I’d brought along.

This year, I get to spend even longer travelling, because I have a longer layover. At least it’s in the States, where they speak English. So my chances of starving are pretty slim, not to mention the fact I’m slightly more confident in Portuguese now (though I’m afraid I’ll never be fluent!) Still, travelling is stressful at the best of times. Being hungry on top of that is never fun!

It’s Never the Same the Second Time

What was it I loved about Brazil last year? It’s impossible to put into words – just the feeling of being there, the atmosphere, the difference from North America. But nothing is ever the same twice. Nothing ever goes exactly as you expect, and I know enough about life to know things always change while you are away. And maybe it’s that sense of not quite knowing what to expect that makes things so exciting the first time.

Fortunately, I know that often the second time is just as good. After all, I’ve been to the Netherlands several times, and it’s always been so pleasant that I want to go back. Things can be just as good in a different way. And no matter what happens – even if I feel like an ignorant gringa the whole time, annoying all the native Brazilians with broken Portuguese – I’ll still be back in Brazil. Back in that crazy, interesting country that turns all my assumptions about how the world works upside-down. I guess that’s why I loved the place so much!


So there you have it! There’s still some time before I jet away, so there’s plenty of time for suggestions for posts. I’d better go practice some Portuguese 🙂


Filed under Brazil

Things You Might Not Have Known About Brazil

One last post on Brazil, now that I’ve returned to North America (and experienced a touch of reverse-culture-shock). Here are a few things about Brazil that I found interesting:

Brazilians like things very sweet:

You may have been able to guess this one, since Brazil is known for growing lots of sugarcane. Still, I was surprised by how sweet their desserts and candy were, since I thought North America was known for liking things sweet! Here is a picture of some banana candy I brought home for my family to taste – they liked it, but it’s a bit sweet to eat all at once:

banana candy!

I never drank a cup of coffee that wasn’t sweetened either. Fortunately, I always put sugar in my coffee already. My mother, on the other hand, would have to insist not to have sugar added.

 There are very strange fruits in Brazil:

I expected fruit to be fresher here, since it’s closer to where they grow it. And bananas, pineapples, and even plain old apples, did taste a million times better – it’s amazing what a difference freshness makes. But Brazil is also home to fruit I never knew existed. If you ever happen to be in that part of the world, don’t be shy, try them! Even the spiky ones taste delicious. Here is a picture of what is known as graviola fruit. It makes amazing juice as well:

A graviola fruit – they’re quite big! (“Corossol” by Damien Boilley, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution License)

Not everyone in Brazil speak Portuguese the same:

I expected this. I was kind of nervous I’d show up in Northeastern Brazil and find out all the Portuguese I’d learned was completely incomprehensible to them. It wasn’t that bad, but some of the pronunciation rules I’d learned did go out the window. For example, all my language programs carefully taught me to pronounce “de” as “je,” and “te” as “che.” Guess what? That turns out to be the way they pronounce it in Rio de Janeiro (obviously where all the language teaching programs assume you’re going if you go to Brazil, because they all taught you to do that). Of course, I go to the one area of the country where they don’t do that – they pronounce it the way we do in English! It actually would’ve been easier for me to pronounce some of the words they way they looked to me, instead of learning the “Brazilian” way of pronouncing them.

For example, the word “pode” (“you can”) is pronounced in Northeastern Brazil as “pod-de,” and not “pod-je.”

So I had to decide what kind of accent I wanted!

They shower more often than we do:

Unless you happen to shower multiple times a day, the people in Brazil probably shower more often than you do. When I was there, my frequency of showers did go up, because the weather can be hot and sticky, and a shower feels quite nice. But still, I thought showering once a day was pretty frequent, and now I know it’s not!


Anyway, those are a few things I thought I’d point out! This will probably be one of my last posts on Brazil, so I’ll probably go back to my usual blog subjects over the next couple of weeks.

“tchau!” from Brazil 🙂


Filed under Brazil

My Typical Day in Brazil

I thought I’d give my faithful readers some idea of my life in a different culture, since some sort of explanation as to why this blog isn’t being updated as often might be nice!

Recife, Brazil. Photo by Esther S.

I wake up in the morning around 7:30 (thankfully my fellow Canadian, Esther, has an alarm clock, or I’d never know what time is it…) For breakfast, Brazilian usually keep it simple  bread (pão), maybe with cheese or eggs, and coffee. How I love the coffee part… the coffee here is always strong and sweet, and you can add milk if you want. I probably would never wake up if it weren’t for coffee.
Of course, the bread is a no go for me as a celiac, so I’ve eaten a lot of eggs. And rice. Somehow, even though they eat rice all the time here, everyone still thinks it is incredibly weird to eat it for breakfast. But what’s a celiac to do?
In the mornings, I spend of a lot of time practicing English with the people I’m staying with. They’re very enthusiastic students! Many people in Brazil do want to know English, as it’s very useful since so many books, etc., are in English. But I’ve never been anywhere where the average person knows less English than here. In Europe, it seemed like everyone knew enough English to help a poor, hapless tourist from Canada. Here, even in the airport, it is hard to find someone who speaks English fluently. Fortunately, the friends I am staying with do know a lot of English, and enjoy practicing.

Turtles that live outside the place I am staying at. Photo by Esther S. (Yes, I do not own a camera)

Turtles that live outside the place I am staying at. Photo by Esther S. (Yes, I do not own a camera)

Lunch is the big meal of the day here. As I’ve spent more time here, I’ve come to realize I love Brazilian food. It’s not known world over like French cuisine is, or anything, but I enjoy it. Just give this celiac rice and beans, and she’ll be happy 🙂 But there’s usually plenty of meat and salad to go with the beans and rice. They take their meat pretty seriously here… and somehow their beans always taste fantastic. And their rice too…
While practicing English with the Brazilians, I am still attempting to absorb as much Portuguese as possible. On rare occasions, I find myself understanding a whole paragraph. But more often, the random phrases I understand just confuse me. (Why are they talking about chickens? And policemen? And jiujitsu? And sharks?) If I understand enough to respond in Portuguese, it’s even better. It’s such a rush to have a conversation of more than two sentences in another language.
Between all of this language stuff, I still find time to take a dip in the pool, learn about cooking in a Brazilian way, play Risk, and just get to know Brazilians better.
Well, hopefully that’s enough to give you an idea. You can probably tell I’m enjoying myself. Unfortunately, before I know it, I’ll be on a plane back to Canada!

Olinda, a lovely seaside town. Photo by Esther S.


Filed under Brazil

Possibility of Blog Post Scheduling Interruptions! Oh, the Horror!

I mentioned in a previous post that I decided to stay in Brazil three weeks longer. The good news is, that means I like Brazil! (Also, none of the things in 3 Things that Scare Me About Traveling to  Brazil actually was a problem!) The bad news is, I may not be posting as often. Before I left, I scheduled enough posts to cover the weeks I was gone. Every post that has gone up recently was scheduled ahead of time, except for the posts I made about Brazil (The Portuguese Echo and Things You Shouldn’t Do (In Brazil)). So expect interruptions in my usual Monday-Thursday posting schedule, including in my posting of my novel, Why Polly? I guarantee a post on August 20th at the very latest.

I look forward to catching up when I get back! And I plan to post all about Brazil every time I get enough access to the internet here!


Filed under Brazil

Things You Shouldn’t Do (In Brazil)

On Doing Them Anyway

Soccer field in Brazil, by Esther S.

Before you go off to a tropical country, people give you all kinds of advice. Advice from doctors on how not to get sick, advice from your parents, advice from other travelers… there’s a load of things you should or shouldn’t do. Of course, half of them you find yourself doing anyway–without exactly intending to break every rule in the book.

For example, the water at the Training Centre in Brazil that I’m staying at. We all thought it was filtered when we got here. Then someone told us the filter didn’t work. Then someone else told us it did work, but it was only a carbon filter and didn’t filter out bacteria. Either way, by that point some of us had drank gallons of the stuff (soccer is a popular sport here, and you work up a thirst afterwards). Fortunately, by the time we figured out maybe we were drinking something we’d been told not to drink, none of us had gotten sick. And days after that, still none of us were sick.

There was a whole list of other stuff – don’t walk barefoot in the sand because of the weird e. coli that might live there (advice from my doctor – but seriously, walking or running in sand with shoes on spoils half the fun. The sandals are off before you even remember you weren’t supposed to do that). Don’t get bitten by mosquitoes (yeah, you try telling them to stop biting me. I’d appreciate it. Dengue fever doesn’t sound like fun…) Don’t risk eating anything that might have come into contact with gluten at any time (because I have celiac disease). I think I’ve been doing okay with this. But it’s really hard to communicate this because of the language. Waiters stare at me in Canada because they’ve never heard of celiac disease. They stare at me even more here because 1) I’m a gringo 2) My Portuguese is horrible, and 3) They’ve never heard of celiac disease.

The important thing to remember is not to get freaked out by the possibilities of something happening in a tropical country, but just to enjoy it while you’re there. After all, you could get mauled by a bear in Canada (not likely, but still…) Or hit by a car. Or die of cancer. At the same time, you can’t be too stupid. Don´t wander the streets of Recife at night, alone. Don’t drink the water from random taps. And so on.

Obviously, I’ve found Brazil interesting so far. I apologize I haven´t had a chance to post more about it. We’ve been so busy! But I’ve enjoyed it so much that in fact, I have decided to stay here longer. Three weeks longer. Hopefully all continues to go well 🙂


Note: I also apologize to all those blogs I’ve faithfully been following until these past couple weeks. It´s a bit tough to keep up from here! But I look forward to catching up and commenting when I get a chance.


Filed under Brazil

The Portuguese Echo

As you may know, I’m currently in Brazil–which means I need to know Portuguese to communicate. The area I’m in (northeast Brazil) has very few people who know English. I tried to learn as much Portuguese as I could before I got here, but it’s been a challenge for sure!
At first, when I arrived Portuguese sounded like, “blah, blah, blah–word I know!–blah, blah, blah–voce (means ‘you’)–blah–agora (means ‘now’)” etc. But it gets better the more you try and try to understand it. Now, I’m so used to struggling to learn Portuguese than every word that crosses my mind comes with a Portuguese echo (if I know the Portuguese equivalent). So, like this: I (Eu) acho (think) that (que) I (eu) hear (ouvir) a Portuguese echo (um echo Portugues).
If you know Portuguese at all, you know I’m missing all the accents and cedillas and so on. I don’t know how to do it on this computer (English computer, you see). Wish me luck with this strange new language!


Filed under Brazil

3 Things That Scare Me About Travelling to Brazil

“Praia Juaquina, Florianopolis, Brazil, December 20 2008”, by Mike Vondran. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution License, 2.0 Generic

In psychology, they tell you that the closer you get to an event, the more your excitement increases – and the more your anxiety increases. In fact, your anxiety rises faster than your excitement. Yes, that’s why they make you buy your plane tickets ahead of time. You can’t back out so easily.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m excited about travelling all the way to South America. But…

1.) What if I don’t make it there?

One of my worst nightmares is getting stranded in Chicago or something. Or worse, in Sao Paulo, 1,300 miles away from where I’m supposed to be (and from anyone I vaguely know). I’m flown before, to Europe, but not by myself. And flying has never scared me before, but suddenly I notice the hundreds of things that could go wrong… bags stolen, strip-searched by security, suspected of drug-trafficking or being a terrorist, missing a flight… Oh goodness, now I sound neurotic.

2.) What if I can’t handle the stress?

I’ve never travelled so far alone before, so I hope I can keep a cool head on my shoulders to deal with whatever issues come up. Travelling is fun, but not always completely stress-free. Last year I had some issues with anxiety and stress. This year seems to be better… let’s hope it stays that way!

3.) What if I can’t speak Portuguese?

Yeah, I’ve been trying to learn, because in Brazil that is what they speak. Because not everyone I’ll be meeting will necessarily know any English. But I’ve been learning online and off audio tapes, so what if my accent in incomprehensible? I’ve got visions of people staring at me and thinking I’m crazy or something. In addition, I have a condition known as celiac disease, which means I can’t eat a speck of wheat. I hope I’ll have enough Portuguese to be able to tell people, “no bread, please.”


All the same, the day of departure is coming up fast! I’ve scheduled a few blog posts to show up when I’m gone, and for Polly, the Princess, the Enchanter and the Jadess to continue, but if I have computer access in Brazil I may add a couple travel posts as well.  Stay tuned for that!


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Filed under Brazil