Have you ever had someone talk to you in a foreign language and not give you the opportunity to explain that you really have no clue what they're saying? All you can do is smile and nod and hope that you aren't getting yourself into too much trouble?
Have you ever been in a group where everyone speaks two languages but you? You know you could speak English, but the conversation is flowing and carrying on quite well without you and you're not exactly sure when is a good time to interrupt?
These are two situations I have found myself in a lot in the past few months. As a result I have become an expert listener and observer. As my Portuguese has been improving I am able to understand a lot more but I seem to know just enough to get myself into trouble!
I have noticed one thing that differs significantly from my experience living in Asia. There is no question in India or Bangladesh of whether I am a foreigner. It is quite obvious. Also, due to the heavy influence of British colonialism there is a lot of English around and about. There was an immediate expectation that I didn't speak the local language and so many people would approach me and try to speak English. On several occasions in Dhaka I was asked if I would mind if a complete stranger practiced his English on me!
In São Paulo I have experienced something quite the opposite. Being in a large cosmopolitan city along with the already diverse racial mix of Brazilians it is not so obvious that I am a foreigner. At least if I am not a native Brazilian it is expected that I speak the language. And so I land myself in situation #1 on many occasions. On one hand this cosmopolitan nature is something I love about Brazilian culture. On the other hand, it means I have to really put myself out there to make myself understood and not being able to speak fluently seems to be perceived as a real drawback. In Asia I felt that people were more impressed by the fact that I spoke English rather than offended by my inability to speak their local language. Not quite sure what to make of that.
And so I press on, slowly working on my Portuguese knowing that the cost of not learning in the end will be far greater than the cost of time, effort, embarassment and work that must go into learning this language now. At times like this I wish I was more like my dad. He has such a gift for languages and grew up speaking two and understanding at least one other language. He also loves to talk to anyone and everyone and has no qualms about making a fool of himself trying to make himself understood. He already wants to start learning Portuguese.
I guess I have to remember the saying, "nothing ventured, nothing gained." Everyone knows we learn best through our mistakes and once you've spoken something in error, you're not likely to make the same mistake twice. If I don't say anything I won't make any mistakes but I won't learn too much either! So I pray for confidence, humility and the ability to laugh at my myself and try to step out in my dad's shoes.