Two months of learning a completely foreign language has been one of the most interesting and, in many cases, most demeaning experiences of my life.
My language skills right now are approximately equivalent to those of my 6-year-old host-cousin, although she surpasses me in pronunciation and often vocabulary.
Learning Portuguese is like putting together a huge jigsaw puzzle in which all the pieces look the same, and far too many have gone missing. Letters that I think make one sound suddenly make another, and noises are required of me that have never before been fashioned in my vocal chords.
Eating dinner with my Portuguese family, we are all learning a new language. Fishing for the correct English word, my father points to the peas and asks me to pass the "small green balls" I get a good laugh, but the tables are turned with my attempt to pronounce the appropriate Portuguese word. My little brother chokes on his soup, not even attempting to hide his amusement as I ask to please be passed the "ears."
There are obvious embarrassments that can be the result of attempting to speak a language that you do not fully comprehend. You could easily order the wrong food, give incorrect directions, or in my case, tell your grandmother that her hair is really lesbian. Now this may seem ridiculous, but I think someone ought to find out who decided that the words for soft and lesbian only have one small vowel of difference. It's a good thing that my grandmother here is fairly easygoing and had already enjoyed several glasses of wine, or my slip of the tongue could have gotten me into some trouble. Next time I may not be so lucky.
For this to be my only language folly in the past two months would have been a miracle, and I have run into miscommunications and flat-out language road blocks around every cobblestone corner here in Portugal. My response to most questions or comments is just "fish" which was the first Portuguese word I learned when I arrived, and translates to Portuguese slang for "cool". Seeing as usually life here is pretty fish, it serves me pretty well.
Not knowing a language changes more than just your communication, I have come to realize it changes every aspect of your life. No longer can I communicate all that I want or need, sometimes I just change or ignore it. It is no longer easy to make friends, and so I have to put more effort into all aspects of socializing in order to even create foundations for possible friendships.
Each time of the day takes more force, more concentration and more determination to make things work. Sometimes I come home and just sit alone, not sad or lonely but just exhausted from being out-of- my-element, out of my established routine. I found out the other day that the word "push" means "pull" in Portuguese, and laughed at the little things that remind me of how upside down my world really is.
Adrienne Bosworth is a high school senior on exchange in Portugal. She is graduating early, after completing her coursework within three years. For an independent study this spring, she is writing regular features about her experiences abroad for Ali McKenna's "Writing for Publication" class. She plans on attending college next year and is awaiting responses from schools.