• Language Blog

    You Can’t Truly Live a City Until You Speak its Language

    Lisbon is not Disneyland! Screams a particularly angry wall I pass every day on my way home from work.

    The sharp influx of tourists, foreign investors and digital nomads into the Portuguese capital in recent years has inspired rancour among many residents. City-centre apartments are now being rented for two or times the average Portuguese salary, leading to a ban on Air BnB rentals in certain areas. While many are benefitting from this wave of development, many are being left behind.

    When you newly settle into a city as an “expat”, as I recently did in Lisbon, you want your new home to accept you. The current climate in cities like Lisbon, Barcelona and Amsterdam is making this harder. If you are looking to stay a while and really call this place your home, you want to prove you’re not just another hipster hiking up the price of coffee.

    There are one hundred and one ways you can make sure you are a respectful and generous member of your new society – but one in particular will ingratiate you further than any other.

    To truly live a city, you need to learn to speak its language. Literally.  

    I first discovered this when I was travelling in Brazil after graduating university. I had studied Portuguese so was able (after a swift switch of accent) to chat away to everyone I met.

    This meant that I wasn’t limited by the hostel’s recommendations for where to go and what to do that was chalked up week by week. I could find out from people at bus stops and on the beach – real cariocas – what I should be experiencing in the cidade maravilhosa. I found out when the local samba school was rehearsing at the Sambódromo and stopped by for a free sneak peek at their performance. I was able swerve the VIP entry to favela funk parties sold to tourists and experience the real deal. Speaking the language was like having the key to a secret cellar in a shop I was browsing, that held the best and most magical items, just waiting for me to discover them.

    Most importantly, I got to know more about the people living there. Because a city is the people who live in it. They are the living, breathing spirit of a place. As we rely more and more on online recommendations, and have social media link us to other expats with uber ease, we are losing sight of this.

    Fast forward to the present, settling into the Portuguese capital has been exponentially richer for learning its language. My experiences here are unique, and filled with friendly interactions. Lisbon is my chatty downstairs neighbour, who has an impossibly fat cat and insatiable desire to feed me. It is the affable waiter at my favourite lunch spot that can always squeeze me in and knows my order before I make it. 

    Of course, a grand proportion of the people you’ll come across in your new home will speak English. But Nelson Mandela put it best when he said:

    “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that will go to his head. If you talk to a man in his language, that goes to his heart.”

    Just making an effort to begin to learn and communicate in the local language will go so far towards making deep and lasting connections with people that they will value wholeheartedly.

    So where should you start? Dedicated language learning courses should obviously be the first port of call, but see if you can find one that includes cultural activities and conversation exchanges with local people. Meetup.com is likely to have an array of these on offer, wherever you are. If you are just starting out, watch your favourite shows with subtitles in your target language (Netflix should help you out here if you are in the target country). For more advanced students, watch TV shows with a familiar format that you’ll be able to follow. Portugal for example has cracking versions of First Dates and Strictly Come Dancing which were my staples in the UK and help me brush up even now. Explore podcasts and radio programs that will embed the sounds into your skull, even if you only keep them on in the background.

    Most of all, you’ve got to get brave about talking to people. Pouring over grammar notes and vocabulary lists is going to get you about 35 per cent of the way there. The rest is practice, in the real world, with real people, in real time. But I might make a mistake! I hear you cry. Correction: you will make mistakes. Lots, for a long time. But does anyone care? What is the worst that can happen? You might resort to English, or pointing to what you need, and will have lost nothing. You might ask the person to explain what you get wrong, and then won’t forget it. Do this often enough and it will become second nature, while your confidence and language proficiency quietly grows in the background.

    Invest the time. Listen without understanding. Make embarrassing mistakes. Before you know it, you will be let into a whole new world.  

    Featured image: Cristina Gottardi

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    1 Comment

  • Reply Carol Delmazo April 5, 2019 at 3:27 pm

    Liz speaks perfect Portuguese and is one of the few people I know with the ability to switch from Brazilian to European accent very easily. Besides, she is very smart and has an amazing sense of humor. Last but not least: she loves Lisbon and the Portuguese language, so I am sure she will be the best person to guide a foreigner to this wonderful world.

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