Miscommunications in a foreign language

IMG_0096I just returned from a trip to Teresina, the beautiful capital city of the Northeastern state of Piauí. It is my first chance to be here in this part of Brazil.  I have been here visiting some dear old friends, Alvacir and Aurea Siedschlag, who is serving as the mission president for the LDS church in this part of the world.  Alvacir and Area actually live in southern Brazil, so they are just as much “foreigners” here in the NE as I am.  And that is the linguistics feature that I wanted to write about in today’s post.  The whole time I have been here, it has been fun to compare the linguistic experience that Alvacir and Aurea (as native speakers of Portuguese) have had in Teresina with that of my (non-native speaker) experience.

I believe it is normal for us non-native speakers of a language to always blame our non-native proficiency on all of our miscommunication problems.  The truth, however, is that we all go through thousands of miscommunications every day.

For example, Aurea mentioned to me that when she first arrived in Teresina, she went to the checkout line at Bom Preço, and they asked her if she would be using her Bom Preço discount card.  Since she had never heard of such a card, she basically didn’t understand and didn’t know what the girl was talking about.  I have had a similar experience of entering a supermarket in another country and being asked a similar question.  Unprepared for that question, when I didn’t understand, I blamed it on my non-native proficiency.

A second example, Alvacir and I had “sapoti” juice for lunch.  Sapoti is not a common fruit in the southern part of Brazil, and even Alvacir had never tasted it before.  After lunch we were talking about things, and neither of us could remember the name of the fruit juice we had just ordered at lunch.  My natural tendency was to assume that I didn’t remember the word because I am a non-native speaker of Portuguese.  Turns out, even native speakers have a hard time remembering new words.

At one point I was looking for a music store in downtown Teresina, which had actually moved to a new location.  I was near where the store used to be located, and I asked someone on the street where the “casa de regentes” was located.  The response was something like, “Oh, they’ve moved.  They are now past the “calçadão” near “Babylândia”.  Since I had never been in downtown Teresina before, I had no idea where the “calçadão” was and I have no idea where “Babylândia” was located.  Consequently most of his instructions ended up sounding like garbled noise.  What I basically understand was that it was somewhere that a way. So I walked in the general direction and then asked somebody where “Babylândia” was located. Once again I got garbled descriptions, which most assuredly contained local reference points that I was unaware of, which meant that I didn’t really understand.  It was also interesting to realize that the people that I had been talking to on the street had no way of knowing that I was unacquainted with that area of town.  For them there was no reason to provide me with anything other than local reference points.

All of this has confirmed to me again that a gigantic part of what we understand is based on the context, what we already know, and what we assume that we are probably going to hear.  It was almost refreshing to hear of the miscommunications that my native Brazilian friends had experienced when they first came to this new area.



2 Responses to “Miscommunications in a foreign language”

  1. ken carroll Says:


    It’s good to see that you’re still doing some posting over here.

    Ken Carroll

  2. Orlando Says:

    BTW, for those who are not familiar with Ken Carroll’s approaches to learning, you may be interested in his new creative blog on writing techniques: http://ken-carroll.com

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