Thursday, July 5, 2012

Top 5 Mistakes Brazilians Make When Speaking English.

Learning a new language is hard work. Really hard. One thing is certain though; EVERY student studying English will make mistakes from time to time. I’ve been teaching English in Brazil for about two years now, and in this time I’ve obviously corrected a number of these mistakes, some of them more amusing than others. So I thought it was about time I shared a few of them.

Am I sharing these because I want to make fun of people who make mistakes when speaking another language? Hell no! I've made enough mistakes when attempting to speak Portuguese myself to understand that this is just part and parcel of studying another language. 

If you’re a Brazilian who is studying English, or if you’re a foreigner about to come over to Brazil with the intention of speaking to Brazilians, this list might even help you avoid a potentially embarrassing situation.

So without further ado, my top five:

  1. The Adulterers

“I’ve been single for a while” said one of my students in response to being asked if he was married. “I had two affairs last year, but they didn’t work out” he added in a slightly despondent tone.

My initial thought was just….’WOW!’ I mean, I wasn’t about to judge him for brazenly telling me he likes relationships with married women, but there were three of his colleagues also sat there, listening in. These three were respectable business people. Obviously I thought they would be looking slightly uneasy at this revelation. Well, I was wrong! As I looked around I noticed that they were actually looking at him sympathetically!

I’d not been in Brazil for all that long, and at this point I thought to myself; “Hang on a minute, do Brazilians think nothing of extra marital relationships This can`t be right, can it?”

By now, I was curious….”Sooooooo, is it erm….common for Brazilians to have relationships with married people?” 

I looked at my students quizzically.

They looked at me in confusion.

We all looked at each other.

A few seconds later the silence was broken by a student. “Sorry, but why are you asking us this?”

After a slightly awkward conversation it turns out the word ‘affair’ over here means something slightly different! In English it means you’re having some sort of extra marital relationship; in Brazil it means you are simply having a relationship.

4. You V’s He/She

Quite a lot of the beginner and intermediate students I've taught in Brazil have found pronouns to be a bit of a problem, which can lead to some interesting misunderstandings. Let me give you one as an example. One of my classes was focused on personal appearance, and my student was asked to describe a famous person:

“So what does Angelina Jolie look like?” I enquired.
“She is very beautiful, she is very tall”
“She has long, brown hair”
“And you have very beautiful lips!”
“Well thank you….but let’s get back to describing Angelina!”

It took my student a good few seconds to notice his mistake, and as soon as he realised, he began back tracking. “No, not you, not you, I meant Angelina! Angelina has beautiful lips! Not you!”

“Too late, you’ve said it now” I joked, mid-pout.

  1. Are You A Bitch Lover!?!

Although the alphabet in English is written as it is in Portuguese, when spoken many of these letters sound different. To a Portuguese speaker the letter ‘e’ is pronounced like the English letter ‘i’.

One day in class, quite out of the blue, a beginner student asked me this, “do you like bitches?”

Another of her students then quickly pointed out her mistake. Of course, she hadn't meant to ask me about my love of hoes, she'd meant ‘beaches’.

I thought now would be an appropriate time to add a picture
of Scarborough beach!
This mistake seems to be one that the majority of English speaking Brazilian’s are familiar with, so if a Brazilian uses the word ‘beach’ mid-conversation, don’t be surprised if they look really intensely at you after saying it. It is likely that they are just looking at you like this to check their pronunciation was correct. Another word that proves quite challenging to master correctly for Brazilians is the word 'sheet'. I once had a student tell me he had a question about the shit I gave him in our previous class! 
I’d be lying if I told you the difficulties Brazilian’s have with the ‘e’ sound made my list for this reason alone. OH NO! It made an entry on my run down after another incident in class, because in class it sometimes couples up with another pronunciation mistake. Portuguese speakers have difficulties pronouncing the ‘th’ sound in English because they don’t use this sound in their own language. So they often pronounce it simply as ‘t’.

Let me set the scene:

It was 7am, and my student, an elderly lady, arrived for class on time looking a little tired. “I’m always impressed that you arrive on time for class” I said to her. “You must wake up very early. Tell me about your morning routine”

“Well I wake up at around 5.30am, take a shower and then brush my tits before I have breakfast”
“Sorry….you brush what?”
“My TITS!”

I fought so hard to repress a laugh as she repeated herself, but I couldn’t help it! I was sat picturing this immaculately presented woman, combing knots out of her hairy tits after a shower! Obviously she didn’t mean tits (or at least I didn’t think she did!), she'd meant teeth. She brushes her teeth on a morning.

I’m not quite sure if she actually brushes her tits, but it didn't stop me thinking about her doing it for the duration of our class!

 2. “Do You Want To See My Fantasy?”

I gave a class just after carnival one year to two students, a man and a woman, both in their late thirties. The class started with me asking the guy what he’d done during carnival:

“I performed in a samba school parade. It was such a fantastic experience!”

“That sounds great,” I said quite enthusiastically, “tell me more about it”

He looked at me with this huge grin on his face, and then he turned to look at the woman sat beside him. He hesitated for a few seconds before continuing. Unknown to me, he was just seconds away from giving me one of my most awkward classroom experiences, EVER!

“Ok, do you want to see my fantasy?”
“Excuse me!?!” I asked, with the smile on my face dropping ever so slightly.

“Do you want to see my fantasy?” he repeated.
I'd had a feeling that’s exactly what he’d just asked me. Without prompting then, he said “one moment, I’ll find a picture of it for you”

I sat in a stunned silence; about a million thoughts began to fly through my mind at once! “He can’t be! He’s not really about to show me something rude in class is he!?!” As he flicked through the images in his phone, I looked over at the woman sat next to him. She seemed unphased by the fact he may have been about to show us something he found arousing. Like this type of thing was normal, like he always shows his 'fantasy pictures' to everyone back in the office!

“I’ve found it”

I’m not gonna lie to you, right there and then I feared the worst.

“How funny!” my other student giggled as she inspected it.

Funny!?! Well now I was REALLY interested! Just what was it!?!

He turned his phone around to reveal a small image on the screen….of him during the carnival, dressed in traditional Brazilian samba attire. I was as confused as I was relieved.

So in this class I learnt that in Brazilian Portuguese, the word ‘fantasy’ refers to a costume and not to someone’s sexual desires.

  1. My Student’s Favourite Slags

It had been a long day, and by the time I’d got to my final group of students I was pretty tired. This group contained a young woman who was telling everyone about a film she’d seen the night before. “It was great, and I watched it without the Portuguese subtitles too, it was quite difficult to understand everything in English, but I recognised a few of the slags”.

“I’m sorry” I said, with a huge grin spreading across my face. “What did you recognise?”

“A few of the slags. Why are you smiling?”

Again, I had a feeling that was exactly what she’s said.

“Well, who were these slags you recognised?” I asked, desperately trying to suppress a loud, belly-laugh, but also trying to retain a sense of professionalism.

“Who? Sorry I don’t understand!
“Well, what do you mean by slags?”

“Slags are informal English, aren’t they?”
Erm….NO! I pointed out (unfortunately by now I was really laughing) that the word she was looking for was not slag, but slang. “Well, what is a slag?” she asked.

“Be careful with your pronunciation here, because ‘slag’ has a completely different meaning to ‘slang’” I said, totally trying to avoid the question!

“Yes, I know this now. So what is a slag?” The conversation suddenly stopped being funny as I now had to explain.

“Well a slag is British English for a woman who enjoys sex with many different men. It’s a derogatory term”. “Oh” she responded, without so much as a smile. “And does the woman get paid for having sex with men?”

“Well no, a slag isn’t a prostitute” I replied.

My student then cleared her throat, leaned into the table and then looked straight into my eyes. A good few seconds passed before she said this:

“Tell me, what is derogatory about a woman who enjoys sex with men if that woman doesn’t charge for it?”

With four students now staring at me and waiting for my response, I struggled to think of a good answer. Then feeling the pressure, I began to turn a deep shade of pink (the same colour pink I once saw my Mum turning when she’d got to the supermarket checkout and realised she’d left her purse at home).

“I think by your definition, that makes me a slag!”

I sat there unable to think of an appropriate response to this.

“Do you know what?" I asked, with my beetroot-like face,  I think we’ve had enough talk about slags for one day, so let’s open our textbooks to page….”

This ladies and gentlemen, is the day I got OWNED by a student!!!


  1. Great stuff. I regularly get good laughs in class as well. One of my favorite students is a budget director at a U.S.-based company and would frequently mispronounce the 'th' as a simple 't'. This all changed the day he told me about his budget meeting. His 'third' quarter budget meeting, that is. I explained what a turd is, and told him his bosses are all laughing inside everytime he pronounces it that way. That was the last time he ever mispronounced the 'th' sound. Now, he laughs at his colleagues for making the same mistake.

  2. 4. You V’s He/She

    There's a simple and understandable explanation for this...

    In Portuguese the pronoun 'seu/sua' can mean 'your','his', or 'her'. So it's natural for confusion to arise. Even my advanced students sometimes fall into this trap. I simply ask 'whose?' and they nearly always realise their mistake and correct themselves.

  3. Re: Slag. Maybe you should also research what Brazilians would make of calling a man a "stag".

  4. It's amazing how quickly a conversation can take a turn in these lost in translation moments. I have heard other cultures refer to relationships as "affairs". Pretty amusing!

  5. Being American, today I learned some British slang.

  6. stag aqui no Brasil é o mesmo que GAY , se o homem não for gay ele fiará muito ofendido.

  7. Probably your student said "and your lips are very beautiful" rather than "and you have very beautiful lips". We usually mix the possessive pronouns in that way, but not the personal ones.

  8. There is one mistake in number 3. In Portuguese the letter "i" is pronounced the same as the English "e".