|The green areas depict where Portuñol occurs.|
She informed me that many Brazilians as well as hispanohablantes from the surrounding Hispanic countries believe they can communicate effectively with their linguistic neighbors without having to study. While Portuguese and Spanish do share many similarities (grammar, the appearance of sentences, etc.), they both have their fair share of false cognates, special rules, and unique expressions to cause confusing (and somewhat humorous) misunderstandings between Lusophones and Hispanophones. I chuckled at her stories of several headstrong Brazilians who felt confident that they could speak Spanish by virtue of knowledge of Portuguese and wound up being embarrassed in the end due to some vocabulary quirk or incorrect pronunciation. I laughed at these anecdotes because I myself had never unknowingly code-switched before. Each time I'd inject an English word or a Spanish conjunctive adverb into my dialogue with family, I had always done so freely and intentionally.
Little did I know that I was already experiencing the first stages of Portuñol by the time I arrived in Brazil. Last semester, I started noticing how I would sometimes confuse my Portuguese and Spanish. Granted that I still use the odd Spanish verb in my Portuguese conversations, my mishaps were never too great. Until of course, last Thursday.
I had been called into the Campus Ministry office at the Colégio to help interpret for the American World Youth Day pilgrims from the University of Portland. Going back and forth between English and Portuguese was a breeze and afterwards I spoke animatedly to my Portuguese tutor in the hallway about the successful interaction. I remained at the office, however, awaiting the call from the Chilean pilgrims from Colegio San Jorge. Although I had not had any practice lately with my Spanish, I felt certain I could communicate effectively with the leader from San Jorge. But I was dead wrong.
As soon as I answered the phone, I fumbled and stumbled with mi castellano, pronouncing sentences with a Brazilian accent and conjugating incorrectly. My mind was blank, having suffered a sort of Spanish amnesia whereby all of my Portuguese knowledge had been misfiled as español. I survived the encounter and helped the Chilean to the best of my ability. Luckily for me, my Spanish comprehension was still okay. What freaked me out the most, however, was the fact that I was speaking Portuguese subconsciously, having no apparent control of my conjugations and pronunciations.
I guess my recent Portuñol incident is rather bittersweet. Before, I had merely thought that one could mechanically switch between languages without any significant problems. I now recognize the obvious fruits of learning Portuguese in an immersive environment and understand that I have to brush up on Spanish when I get back to the States.
As a French major, however, I'm hoping I won't be saying "au revoir" to my French by the end of summer.