Brazil: A country without a language

December 12, 2016 - 06:20

OPINION: Brazilians speak Portuguese. But do they really?

Brazilians in Portugal are often told by the country's inhabitants that they speak Brazilian, not Portugese.

For many years, socio-economic factors have triggered waves of Brazilians moving abroad, searching for better opportunities. Many of us choose Portugal, because there is—apparently—no need to learn a new language. After arriving, Brazilians find out that the linguistic barrier between Brazilian and European Portuguese goes beyond accent distinctions, and extends into the social context, generating uncomfortable and unpleasant situations. 

"You speak Brazilian, not Portugese"

As part of my PhD research at the Arctic University of Norway, I have spent several months in Portugal, actively interacting with the Brazilian community to try to investigate what goes on after they are exposed to this new linguistic reality.

As a Brazilian who has been an expat in the United States, living in Norway for the past four years, I was particularly curious about the social implications of being an expat when the language barrier is smaller, at least on the surface.

As it turns out, Brazilians are no stranger to many of the issues that take place in immigrant communities elsewhere. Interestingly, many mentioned that they’d been discriminated for speaking Brazilian, which technically has not yet been categorized as a language. In fact, in Brazil, we are taught that the language we speak is Portuguese, so some confusion is bound to happen when we hear that many European Portuguese speakers use the term Brazilian to refer to the language used in Brazil.

Change the way they talk

The differences between Brazilian and European Portuguese have caused a chunk of the Portuguese population to treat the former as a broken variant, and not proper Portuguese as spoken in Europe.

Naturally, to prevent discrimination and to facilitate their integration in society, many Brazilians in Portugal make an effort to learn European Portuguese. This can be seen as a defense mechanism. In the context of the United States for instance, southerners moving north often attempt to mask their "Southern drawl" so as to not be labelled as rural, uneducated or dimwitted—among other not-so-flattering adjectives.

Others claim that they shouldn’t have to change the way they talk, because Portuguese is Portuguese, whether in Brazil, Portugal, Africa or Asia. However, all Brazilians who participated in my study did show some influence from European Portuguese, whether they had made a conscious effort to learn it or not to learn it. As is typically the case with languages in contact, one’s first language can be influenced by many years of daily exposure to a second language, even in a context where the two languages are so similar - and at the same time, so different.

Should there be a division?

I must say that I do not particularly disagree with the Portuguese. In fact, I am very much in favor of an official division between Brazilian and Portuguese, since the two systems have gradually evolved in different directions. In the Scandinavian context, Norwegians, Swedes and Danes still manage to understand each other, despite speaking different languages.

The key difference is that, since Norwegian, Swedish and Danish have been politically defined as three separate languages, it is not possible to claim that Swedish is “wrong Danish”, for example.

Until this division becomes official, this will remain a sensitive issue for the Brazilian community in Portugal, who are being told that they do not speak the only official language of their country, but rather a broken dialect, full of grammatical imperfections. If Brazilian officially becomes a language, at least then Brazilian immigrants in Portugal would no longer hear that they can’t properly speak their own language.

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