One very practical impact of living in Mozambique is the presence of the Portuguese language. Mozambique used to be one of the African colonies of Portugal (besides Angola, Guinea-Bissau and the island states of Capo Verde and São Tomé and Príncipe). Portuguese is still the (only) official language of Mozambique. However, only half of the population does actually speak it, and only a quarter of that half considers it as their first language. Given the dimensions of the country – its North-South extension is roughly 2.700 km, which is more than the distance from Stockholm to Rome– it does not surprise that the native languages of the country are of an enormous diversity. There is no dominating indigenous language that is understood in wide parts of the country and hence could become a Lingua Franca (as it is the case with Swahili in several Eastern African countries. In fact, Portuguese does fulfill the role of Lingua Franca, the link language that connects the regions and enables communication, and of course language of the national media. In Beira, as in other larger cities, Portuguese is the main language used by locals also among each other.
That means, of course, that I also have to speak Portuguese. And I do admit, that is a daily challenge and gives me the most controversial experiences – from deepest frustration (“I will never be able to get along in that language!”) to highly motivating success stories (“Wow – I just gave an unprepared, spontaneous presentation…in Portuguese!”). For me, it is the first time that I have to “function” in a language that I do not master properly. When I lived in France and the Netherlands, it was different. I knew French profoundly before I got there, and Dutch – well, a German speaker is never an absolute beginner in Dutch.
“The Tower of Babel”, painting by Pieter Breughel the Elder
I am definitely a competetive person, which means I do not like doing things I am not already good at…this goes for sports, games, crafts, and definitely for languages. On the other hand side, this challenges me to try to get better every day.
Just as so many other things that I experience here, my process of getting used to the new language is highly interesting to observe.
Here are some of the things that I have discovered about language learning in the last few months:
1. The worst thing of not speaking a language properly is feeling ignorant and incompetent.
And that is a terrible, terrible experience. It is quite normal that passive language skills – understanding – exceed active skills. Hence, in reality I end up in countless situations where I am able follow the course of a conversation, but all I can do to participate is nod or shake my head and express attention and understanding by making big eyes and a friendly face. As soon as a question is directed towards me, I need “special assistance” – someone to repeat the question over and over again, someone who would quickly switch to English for me, someone to help me out with words I am searching for. And that makes me feel so – handicapped, so stupid, so ignorant.
However, it is definitely something to bear in mind in the future when dealing with people who are not fluent in the language they have to function in – maybe they are feeling exactly the same.
2. Paradoxically, the more abstract and specific conversations are, the better I master them in Portuguese.
Conversations that are related to my job, my professional background, my field of expertise are usually the motivating ones, the ones that trigger an adrenaline outburst, when I start babbling about E-Learning Policies, Sustainable Development Goals or Content Management Systems. The conversations that leave me frustrated are usually unexpected everyday encounters – someone addresses me on the street, a question from the cleaning team, administration stuff at the immigration office. The latter ones, however, are the classic “textbook” situations that go as basic language skills, whereas the former are much more specific and usually not even covered in language courses.
I have given some thought to that phenomenon – and after all, it might not be so paradoxal: Whenever I use “language or specific purposes”, I am usually familiar with the purpose, the context, the typical communication patterns. Talking about concepts, aspects, ideas, theories, requires a certain level of abstraction that I had to acquire gradually during my professional development – and it is relatively independant from a specific language, hence quite easily to be transferred from one language to another. On the other hand side, the everyday encounters are unanticipated. I have no frame of reference about the subject, the content, the purpose of the question someone addresses to me on the street or in a restaurant, neither about the attitude or expectation of the other person…and that makes it way harder to decode and react to.
Scene from “Lost in Translation”
I always thought the urban legends about scientists who give a highly complex speech at a conference in a foreign language and then, during lunch break, don’t manage to order coffee at the bar, are highly exaggerated. I don’t really think so any more.
3. “Conquering” a language on Duolingo does not automatically qualifiy you to “function” in that language
However, neither do several years in high school or even a university degree in the respective language. Duolingo, in any case, is a great starting point, and an even better means to keep me motivated – and now, that I am learning new words, expressions, structures mainly “in the field”, it is a wonderful platform to every now and then monitor how much I have actually progressed. Unless another revolutionary platform appears on the horizon soon, I assume Duolingo will remain my favourite and most recommendable language learning app for quite some more time. Even more since they are currently working on Swahili.
August 10, 2015 – The Day I conquered the Portugues skill tree
4. Latin languages are sexy.
The more Latin a language looks and feels, the sexier it is. And Portuguese, which has conserved a lot of conjugation, does look and feel very Latin, at least to me. And Latin is pretty awesome.
Keep calm and love Latin
5. My requirements for grammar do not follow a linear pattern
To give you an example: In reality, I do not have the time to first learn to conjugate all irregular verbs correctly in present tense before putting myself in a situation where I need to refer to a past event. Similarily, I cannot wait to get started with adverbs only after knowing everything about adjectives by heart, and at times, a badly formed conjunctive, that nevertheless obviously is a conjunctive and hence fits the politeness requirements in a given situation, is more appropriate than a well formed indicative.
“I would likes a Pizza Margarita” is definitely more appropriate than “I want a Pizza Margarita” when placing an order in a restaurant. Wouldn’t you agree?
6. Talking to people I know is often easier thantalking to strangers
It probably has a lot to do with habits. If I know someone’s way of speaking, their specific accent, their mimics and gestures, their individual tone and melody, it is much easier to focus on the actual content of what they are saying. Also, it probably is related to trust. So, to my Portuguese speaking friends and acquaintances out there…if I dare to speak Portugues with you, it probably means that I trust you.
7. Learning a language is definitely an excellent excuse to re-read all Harry Potter novels.
No further explanation needed. It just is.
8. “Yo falo Portanais, et vous…”
The anti-phrase I used in the title was a special creation, born during lunch break in the international language school in Lisbon where I studied Portuguese for three weeks last summer. At some point, me and some colleagues got hopelessly lost in translation and mixed up all fragments of all Latin languages we knew, ending up with an Esperanto-ish dialect that sounded strangely like the Minion language without the extensive use of Bananaaaaa.
9. Moçambicanismos are a thing
And finally, of course, Mozambican Portuguese is neither European Portuguese, nor Brazilian Portuguese. Like every variety of a language, it does dispose of some very specific elements, mainly on vocabulary level. Find here is a list of some of my favourite Moçambicanismos:
matabicho: breakfast; also comes in the shape of a verb, matabichar (eating breakfast). Nobody uses pequeno-almoco (Portugal) or café de manha (Brasil) here.
machamba: farm, agricultural space. Borrowed from Kiswaheli shamba(ma) and widely used.
tchungamoio: informal market, mainly used in central Mozambique. It derives from the Cindau language where it literally means “open heart“, and figuratively refers to being courageous.
tuga: Informal, pejorative expression to refer to the Portuguese (as a noun and an adjective), people from “Tugalândia” (Portugal)
txapo-txapo: means “fast, quickly”, derives from the (Pidgin-)English expression “chop chop” that itself was imported from China and probably also forms the origin of chopsticks.
xingumbungumbu: Unsurprisingly, this is an onomatopoeia that originates from the sound of hitting a plastic can and hence refers to exactly that kind of container.
muito-muito: Portuguese muito means much; many; a lot. The doubled expression in Mozambique means mainly and is influenced by the common construction principle of Bantu Languages to intensify the meaning of a word by repeating it.
gangsters paradise: Playful reference to cars with the letters GP on their licence plates that appear in large quantities in Maputo and the Southern coastal region, mainly during South African holidays. GP (in reality) stands for Gauteng Province, the South African province where Johannesburg is located.