Cleaning products, brand names and language learning

limpezaI write this post from Salvador, Bahia, Brazil where I’ll be spending the next month.  I am teaching a course in Brazilian/American culture to a group of students from the University of Texas, Kansas, and Illinois.  It has been a very enjoyable time with them so far, despite the rain that has fallen.

The picture here is of a message that Lúcia, my housekeeper here in Salvador, left yesterday.  It says: Gentileza providenciar os materiais para limpeza: Agua sanitária, sapólio limão, limpa vidro, veja limpeza pesado, veja.

The problem is that not even my wife Tonia likes to send me to the store to buy things, much less Lúcia, who is soon to discover my inability to purchase the correct things.

As to learning a foreign language, my first challenge was to figure out Lúcia’s handwriting, no easy task.  Linguistically I was impressed to see a new way of making a command form: “gentileza” (which means “kindness”) followed by a verb in the infinitive “providenciar” (to provide).  Second, I had to figure out what sort of cleaning products she was looking for.  Third, I ended up showing the note to some Brazilian friends of mine, basically asking to help me understand what was a brand name (e.g., sapólio) versus what was a product (limpa vidro).  Fourth, I had to go the the store and actually find the items (and this is where I run into problems in Texas too).

I’m happy to report that I have returned home with a general disinfectant – água sanitária and a general window cleaner – limpa vidros.  Turns out that sapólio is a powdered cleaner.  Unfortunately I couldn’t find lemon scented, I hope that pine scented won’t throw the universe into some crazy funk.  I wasn’t as lucky with the veja. Veja is actually a brand name, and there were a lot of different veja products, not to mention a magazine by that same name.  I grabbed one that has “multi-uso” and figured that was as close as I was going to get.  I’m pretty sure it isn’t what Lúcia needs, but we’ll try phase 2 of this purchase story soon.

Buying cleaning products in Brazil is a new experience for me.  Along the way I have learned new vocabulary, had a chance to manipulate the words by talking to friends about them, went through the experience of actually spending real money based on those new words, and soon I hope to have an interesting conversation with Lúcia as we clarify the things that I didn’t get quite right.

All in all, it was a fantastic language learning experience and has given me new ideas for assignments for my students as well.  If any of you have similar language learning stories, I’d love to hear them.



7 Responses to “Cleaning products, brand names and language learning”

  1. Tommy Says:

    Check out the wikipedia entries on Veja and Sapolio:

    Both have references to the slogans used to market these products, which may be interesting in the classroom, along with signs, banners, billboards, etc. Once again, I really like the concept, but my feeling is that the effectiveness in the classroom would be greater if you have actually had the experience of going to the store and buying these products. Sometimes it makes me think of teaching a child about how a peach tastes without a peach… What do you think?

    I work in the chemical industry, and am always fascinated by the local “stuff” produced by local companies, or in the case of Veja and Sapolio, local lines funded by global companies.

    I have had similar experiences with buying food at the “super” in Japan (スーパー ) when I either couldn’t read the Kanji or just ignored the writing on the packaging. Once I bought what appeared to be a pack of string-cheese sticks, only to find out upon eagerly stuffing it in my mouth, that it was actually a rubbery, processed fish product. I was too disappointed and disgusted to ever figure out what it was.

  2. Orlando Says:

    Tommy, you are always a step ahead of me. Why didn’t I think of going to wikipedia to read up on sapolio!

  3. Sonia Says:

    Shopping trips can be so educational regardless of the country and shopping list items. Recently in Costa Rica, a friend and I went on a shopping trip that turned into a scavenger hunt! Even though our intent was to purchase a flower as a heart-felt gift for a friend, we almost purchased a dangerous plant. I’m happy we discovered this fact sooner than later. We were both learning Spanish and definitely learned new words that day! I can’t wait to hear Part 2 of your shopping adventure.

  4. Orlando Says:

    … and I can’t wait to hear the name of the plant that you almost purchased!

  5. Tommy Says:

    Dr. Kelm, speaking of plants – do you know of any interdisciplinary courses/studies involving language/culture and ethnobotany? I know Brazil has such unique flora, many plants and trees that make their way into cosmetics, medicines, foods, etc all over the world. My impression is that of the identified species, many have multiple, indigenous names.

    From a university classroom perspective, do you think there would be any value in a course about plants and natural resources of Brazil, language and culture, or is this kind of vague?

  6. James Says:

    I had exactly the same learning experience (many actually…) after hiring my faxineira and getting lists asking me to providenciar (por gentileza!) Poliflor, Veja, Bom Bril… Afetr totally failing to understand her explanations of these products * she even acted-out the meanings * i had the local supermarket folks lead me to them. I even learned the differences btwn “sabonette” and “sabão em pó”

    Em fim, best vocab drilll ever!

  7. Orlando Says:

    thanks James. BTW, readers, if you haven’t checked out Jim’s “Semantica” it’s a great place to get some Portuguese language and culture. Check him out:

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