It’s a commonly accepted truth, that being a native English speaker dramatically increases one’s chances of being a linguistically lazy traveller. In most parts of Europe you’ll find near-fluency in English amongst 30-year-olds and younger, and even in the remotest corners of the globe you’ll probably find someone who has watched enough episodes of How I Met Your Mother to help you out of almost any situation, sticky or otherwise. Still, travelling on my own around Brazil was going to be a challenge enough, without factoring in painful misunderstandings with every taxi driver, hotel receptionist, supermarket attendent, waiter and barman I came across along the way… I like things to go smoothly, and if I was going to enjoy my travels, it was time to buckle down and learn at least rudimentary Portuguese.
Why Sign Up for Language Lessons?
I’m a strong advocate for including some language learning at a local school as part of your travels/holidays, especially if you plan on spending a lot of time in just one or two countries, so let me make a quick list of some of the benefits, as I see them:
This is the obvious one! Whereas you’re unlikely to go from zero to expounding your personal take on Nietzsche’s Zur Genealogie der Moral after a two-week crash course, from both a practical point of view (saving time, getting what you want!) and a satisfaction point of view (being able to interact with locals) communication skills in a foreign language are invaluable. Even in a country where everyone speaks English, you’ll score extra points for having made the effort, and will make friends more easily. If someone sees you’re putting the time in to understand their language and culture, they are far less likely to treat you as just another tourist on the treadmill.
Apart from being able to directly communicate with people, things like being able to read signs, menus, understand snippets of conversation etc. will help you better understand the environment and culture you in, and possibly make you feel smugly superior to the common tourist (…if that’s what gets you off). Of course you’ll need to reach pretty much fluency to be completely assimilated into a new culture (and even then you may find yourself a forever outsider!), but every little helps.
If you sign up for a few weeks to a language school in a foreign country, one thing is for sure is that you will meet some fantastic fellow students and have a great time while you learn. Previously, I’ve signed up for Spanish classes in Valencia (in 2004) and numerous times in Barcelona (2009-2013), plus Polish classes in Krakow (2005) and now Portuguese classes in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil (2014) and each time I’ve met great people who I’m still in contact with now… (in fact if I hadn’t met a cute Polish girl in Valencia I may never have moved to Krakow and started my career as a travel writer… so maybe your destiny is waiting for you in a language academy somewhere!). Typically people who choose to spend their spare time learning a language are well-educated and open-minded travel lovers, with plenty of energy, who want to combine everything the city/country has to offer. Warning… this normally means a LOT of partying. The one “con” of this social aspect is that you will be hanging out with other foreigners and not locals, but if you are travelling on your own, at least you are out and about interacting with people (not feeling lonely in a budget hotel room somewhere) and as such you’re sure to meet some locals too. Plus your teacher is normally a local, and can often be persuaded to come out for a few beers after class and tell you more about their city.
Activities and Cultural Immersion
Most language schools I have studied at complemented their linguistic programme with a cultural programme of activities and tours designed to help their students gain a little more cultural immersion than possible in just the classroom and bars (where they spend the rest of their time). This might be a simple guided walk around town, but also is likely to include stuff like local cinema, cooking classes in the local cuisine, sports nights and day trips to local attractions. If it wasn’t for signing up for Portuguese lessons in Rio, then I never would have played volleyball on Ipanema beach, discovered that I am the worst ever Samba dancer in the history of the world, and all parallel worlds, and most likely I would never have got around to taking that awesome favela tour (…more about the latter in a future post!).
Most language schools also organise cheap homestays or shared student accommodation for their customers. This can be a life saver (hyperbolically speaking) if you want to spend two or three weeks in a place, because you will not have to pay tourist prices for each night in a hotel/hostel/apartment. The savings here can even offset the cost of the lessons!
So there you have it. If you have the luxury of being able to spend a bit longer abroad on your next trip, I thoroughly recommend signing up for some language classes, and building that into your itinerary. Typically it takes a couple of weeks to really make friends with your fellow students (and at least that to get the very basics of any language), so try for a minimum of 2-4 weeks if you can. This will also give you the opportunity to really get to know a destination a lot better than the casual weekend tourist too, and you may even make contacts that will bring you back to the city again and again!
Learning Portuguese in Rio
Picking a language school in Rio was easy… the only affordable one I could find online was Casa do Caminho: and not only were they by far the cheapest but all the profits go to an orphangage, plus their school is based in Ipanema, arguably the nicest district in the whole of the city, just four or five blocks from the beach. I wanted to study for three weeks originally, but in the end I had to miss the first week of the beginner’s course and arrived a week late, hoping my half decent Spanish would help me quickly catch up with the rest of my class. In fact, I was surprised just how similar the two languages are… (which is no doubt why so many gringos end up speaking Portunol… a mix of Portuguese with Spanish vocabulary hopefully chucked in wherever the Portuguese word escapes you)… although if anything Portuguese strikes me as easier, as loads of little things that piss you off as a Spanish student have either already been tackled (for example the difference between ser and estar), or even better don’t exist (for example gostar is a nice straight forward active verb… none of this “a mi, me gustan flores” stuff as with Spanish… it’s just “eu gosto de flores”. Simples.).
Anyway I’m not going to bore you with a blow by blow account of how I butchered the Portuguese language for two weeks, but suffice to say… you should do it too. Or else study French in Paris, Spanish in Buenos Aires, Mandarin in Shanghai, or I don’t know, Guugu Yimidhirr in Hopevale, Queensland. After two weeks I can now understand basic conversation if spoken slowly, parlay small talk with taxi drivers and haggle with market stall owners. I’m still a bit away from writing Brazil’s 21st century epic poem, but I’m sure by the end of the trip…
Ok I’m now in Recife getting ready for Carnival… it starts
tomorrow today! But I’ve got two more Rio posts for you still to come. One on enjoying Rio de Janeiro pre-Carnival (this will blow your mind, because in fact you can experience all the essential Carnival experiences for free, before it happens! Yep, I didn’t know that either) as well as some random cool things to do in Rio which I found time to enjoy. Meanwhile check out my first impressions of the Samba City along with Rio safety tips by clicking on the link. Ate logo, amigos!
And just to keep you bang up to date, here’s a photo of my Recife hosts at a bloco party last night…