Accent reduction and the Brazilian way of speaking English

3 08 2008

Almost 10 years ago, I took some courses on accent reduction at IBM. If you know me in person, you must be thinking – that didn’t work, I still can’t understand you 🙂

In fact, I don’t think my accent is any different now, but the course was good to raise awareness on the English words Brazilians have the most trouble with. I’ve lost count of how many times I heard fellow Brazilians saying something like “people from China/Korea/Japan/India/Russia have such a hard time learning how to speak English, I can’t understand what they say”. There’s a subtle prejudice in that line of thinking that most people don’t realize.

One of the instructors in the accent reduction course had a good explanation for that. Imagine 3 people: John, a native English Canadian speaker, Ana, and Wong. Both Ana and Wong have been living in Canada for 5 years, learned English as adults and speak their respective mother tongues at home. Ana is Brazilian and Wong is a Cantonese-speaking Chinese. John understands most of what Ana and Wong say, but occasionally misses things here and there during a conversation. The same can be said for Ana and Wong towards John. But Ana has a hard time understanding Wong and thinks that’s because his English is not very good, as she can perfectly understand Carmen and Adrian, her Colombian and Romanian colleagues, speaking English.

Of course, one possible explanation is that Wong’s proficiency in English is not that good. But often what happens is that they all speak English equally well – or equally poorly – from John’s perspective. But Wong’s flavour of English is very far from Ana, Carmen and Adrian. Clear as mud, eh? Here’s what I mean, in a picture:

One can make a credible case that Portuguese, Spanish and Romanian are all Latin or Romance languages, and English is heavily influenced by Latin – arguably 60% of the English vocabulary has its roots in Latin – so it’s ok to assume that Asians would have more difficulty with English than we do. I agree that’s probably easier for a Portuguese-speaking person to learn a workable English vocabulary, but accent is a different story altogether. Cantonese has much more phonemes than Portuguese, so in theory Wong could be better equipped to notice the many nuances of spoken English.

Here are some of the English language traps Brazilians – including me – have a particular hard time with. I added links to Dictionary.com in case you want to check the pronunciation (you have to click on the gray audio icon).

1. Vowels
bat (morcego), bet (apostar), beet (beterraba), bit (pedaço), but (mas) – they all sometimes sound the same, so you have to rely on the context to tell what’s being said. Particularly embarassing is when I try to say “sheet” or “beach” without blushing everybody in the room 🙂 . There are many other cases: sheep and ship, super and supper, man and men, etc.

2. T
The letter T in English sounds a bit different from Portuguese with a discreet sibilant sound, but it’s definitely not like “tch”. So, it’s common to have Brazilians pronouncing “tea” like “chee”, and “two” or “to” like “chew”. Think Herbert Vianna from Paralamas do Sucesso singing “Uma Brasileira”: One more time. That’s a good “t”.

3. Assuming similarly spelled words are pronounced alike
Nike does not rhyme with Mike. Nike is pronounced Nai-kee.
Other examples of tricky pairs are:

4. Voiceless Consonants
This is a very peculiar thing in Brazilian Portuguese. When we say “pneu” (tire) we kind of pronounce an “i” between the p and the n: “pineu”. The same happens with “cacto”, “subtrair”, “gnomo”: we say “cáquito”, “subitrair” and “guinomo”. For example, pay attention to Chico Buarque saying “subtraída” in “Vai Passar”. English is full of voiceless consonants, and we tend to do the same when we say things like cryptography, dogma, verdict and others.

Naturally, I’m completely overextending myself here, so please correct me if you noticed anything wrong on what I said above. I remember a roommate of mine from Peru telling me in Portuñol: “Yo no comprendo como tantos Latinos viven dos, tres anos en Brasil y no aprenden a falar português”. I may as well be doing the same in this post. Also, there are plenty of Brazilians who speak English very well, and English itself is spoken in different ways around the globe, so my observations can’t be generalized. When I say “we”, I actually mean “those Brazilians who, like me, are totally inept to speak English well”.

One problem in learning English in Canada is that most people are too polite to correct me, so I probably say things the wrong way all the time without realizing it. You would be doing me a big favour by correcting me, so please don’t be shy. I promise I won’t be offended 🙂

Updated: Added a reference to “beach” – thanks Alan!

Updated again: I forgot to include one important item to the list above:

5. Intonation.

Brazilian Portuguese has much less variation in the way we speak. For example, we typically say a very soft, flat “Congratulations”, the same way we would say “Parabéns”. In North America, when you say “congratulations”, you can almost see all the whistles & bells, a festive cake with 1000 candles and the clown parade that go along with it. If you say anything that way in Brazil, people will think that you are trying to sell them something expensive.