(Re)learning Languages

I got my “welcome to post” notification from Brasilia.   It is still more than a year in the future and it seems sort of ironic as I watch the snow falling outside my window but the future has a way of becoming the present faster than you think.  

So much advance notice is unusual.  I had my boots on the ground in Iraq about a month after I first even thought about volunteering for the job, but usually we get around a year.   Two years is unusual unless you are assigned to hard language training. 

Portuguese is an odd language when it comes to our training.  It is a “world language” and it is a fairly easy language to learn, but it is not as common as other “easy” world languages like Spanish or French.  Since it is not a  not a “hard language” like Russian, Arabic or Chinese, the FS sometimes doesn’t build in enough time to learn or relearn it as it does for officers assigned to posts with hard languages.   This system can work for French or Spanish, since there are lots of people in posts with those languages, Portuguese maybe not so much.   I don’t know if I explained that well, but it makes sense to me.   Suffice to say that for this PAO assignment they really wanted someone with good Portuguese, so this time they built in enough time to make sure of it and I am the beneficiary.

This is very exciting.  I learned Portuguese at FSI a quarter century ago and I got to be fluent when I was in Brazil for a couple years.   In those days you had to use the language all the time, since English was not that common in Porto Alegre.  But fluent is not necessarily the same as good.  You can speak very fast and fluently but not get the grammar or the words exactly right and I never felt really confident.   Diplomats should be really good at the languages of the countries where they are assigned and this additional training – with some consistent work – will put on the polish.   I hope so.

I don’t expect to speak like a native, but I want to get very good.  We have numbers from 1 to 5.  I want to get to 4 before I leave for Brazil, but the numbers don’t mean much.  I think of it in terms of foreign actors.  I want to get to the equivalent of Ricardo Montalban, but I am afraid I had only reached the sophistication of Sergeant Shultz on the old Hogan’s Heroes in my previous time.  I am not starting from zero this time.  I have been reading the WSJ in Portuguese.  I don’t get all the details, but I can understand most of the articles.  I also bought a dozen of Brazilian movies.  W/o the subtitles I would be out of luck, but even in the short time I have been doing it; the language is starting to come back.

Technological advances make it a lot easier to learn languages; at least it has become a lot easier to get the materials.  I can read Brazilian newspapers online and listen to radio and TV.  And of course Brazilian-Portuguese movies are easy to find.  There is almost no comparison to how it was twenty-five years ago.   I remember being happy to get those old newspapers and having to copy audio tapes.

Look below at what I just did   I used Word to translate the paragraph above into Portuguese and then back translated into English.  It did a decent job.  I would have to make a few minor corrections.   The strangest thing is that it translated the word Portuguese into English.   It also left out some of the subtlety, such as “I want.”  The Portuguese translation is better than the back translation to English, it has the “I want” (quero) for example.  This is understandable, since it is like making a copy of a copy.  But the translation certainly still makes sense and is a thousand times better than I could do on my own – the wonders of modern technology.  

Desta vez, quero aprender a escrever português.   Temos de aprender a falar e ler-se nos nossos cursos de língua, mas nós não aprender a escrever, pelo menos não como escrever bem.    Aguardo com expectativa a obtenção de muita ajuda a este respeito de Bill Gates.   Microsoft Word é muito bom na fixação de palavras que estão escritas quase corretamente.   Ele faz isso em inglês, parto do princípio de que é possível fazê-lo também em português.

Back translation

This time, I learn to write English.   We must learn to speak and read in our language courses, but we do not learn how to write, at least not how to write well.    I look forward to getting a lot of help from Bill Gates.   Microsoft Word is very good at fixing of words that are written almost correctly.   It does this in English, I assume that it is possible also in English.

It is really interesting the way that the machine can translate in seconds.  But somehow I am staring to understand how John Henry felt when he saw that steam drill rolling up.