Nils History Part 2: Speaking Portuguese

This week’s assignment:

Did you study a foreign language? Did those lessons stick with you? Were you ever able to use that language on vacation or in your community?

Nils (Elder Rasmusson) at the Orelhao (phone booth)
Nils (Elder Rasmusson) at the Orelhao (phone booth)

Like many LDS men, I served a full-time two year mission. I was lucky enough to be called to serve in Campinas, Brazil. As preparation for the mission, I spent two months in the Missionary Training Center (MTC) in Provo, UT, where I studied Portuguese as well as missionary skills for about 12 hours/day. I had a great time there, though not everybody enjoys the MTC. It was helped by the fact that I was closer than I had been to my girlfriend (and now wife), even though I couldn’t see her. She left me care packages under a nearby tree and we wrote to each other about every other day. In the MTC, as well as on the rest of your mission, you can’t speak to your girlfriend, friends, etc. In fact, you can only speak to your family twice/year. Otherwise it’s just letters but I think they do emails now. That would be nice. But I digress.

Learning Portuguese wasn’t easy for me but the situation made it as easy as can be expected. I took a year of Latin and three years of French (as in, French 1, French 1 again, and French 2) in high school but that didn’t do much for me. No real interest. I was much more interested in the cute girl who sat in front of me (even when my brother started dating her) than the language. By the time I left the MTC, I felt like I could handle myself in Portuguese. I was mostly wrong. When we got to Brazil, I had a very hard time understanding people but not nearly as hard as it was for them to understand me. They couldn’t understand a word the scrawny white gringo said. Oh well. My first missionary companion (we’re always paired up for safety and strength) was a native Brazilian and spoke no English, so I had to learn quick. I was grateful for that. By the time I was two months into my mission I felt I was pretty fluent. Fluent for a missionary, however, is not the same as it would be for an average person moving to the country. We didn’t have to know how to say words like windshield wipers or tax attorney, or other things that didn’t pertain to us. We’d get by just fine but we mostly knew words that applied to our situation.

By the time I left Brazil, I felt very comfortable speaking Portuguese. I was easily understood and had no trouble understanding anybody else. I’m sure I had a moderate accent but it didn’t impede my communication.

Upon returning home to the good ol’ USofA, I found that nobody spoke Portuguese except my brother and I. My brother happened to have served his mission in Portugal and our missions overlapped for a year. I did notice, however, that tons of people spoke Spanish so I set out to try to learn it myself. I bought some books and programs and got to the point where I can speak it OK – not fluently but I can understand most of what people say and I can get my point across in a poor and barely intelligible way. Still, it’s great to have that skill, if you want to call it that. I use Spanish all the time in one fashion or another. On our recent cruise to Ensenada, I was able to barter my way down from $25 per Bonsai tree to $25 for two in Spanish. Not too shabby. Too bad I didn’t realize that we couldn’t actually take the Bonsais back onto the boat. I then got to use my English to sell the Bonsais to the English speaking Mexican guy who was selling a bunch of useless nick-nacks in a booth. All’s well that ends well.

As it turns out, for the last 16 months or so I’ve been working everyday on a business with one of my old mission companions who, obviously, speaks Portuguese. We lace many of our conversations with Portuguese but with the understanding that our ability to speak the language more than ten years after leaving Brazil is ruim demais.

– Nils

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