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The Syndrome of the Island –  linguistic isolation and cultural underdevelopment

The Syndrome of the Island – linguistic isolation and cultural underdevelopment

Since the pieces of text I will be publishing here will be written both in Portuguese and English, it may be interesting to justify such effort – and expand this justification to a more comprehensive reflection. Parental Advisory: Some opinions in this post may sound controversial…
Recently I have studied a little German and, contrary to most comments I have heard on the language, describing it as a seven-headed beast, as I learned some basic functions of the language, the heads of the chimera started to crumble apart. After a few months studying it – in dissonance even with the teacher, who used to make ambiguous remarks on it, telling students they could learn German if they were dedicated, at the same time as he highlighted the “difficult” peculiarities of the language -, the monster no longer had so many heads. It did not even resemble a beast anymore.

A basic task of the teacher is to convey to their students the understanding that, by getting to learn a language, one is touching the tip of the iceberg of a whole culture, and one be open to it. This means learning new concepts, from new genres for old things to different outlooks on the notions of time. However… What if the student does not notice it? What if he does not understand that he must open his eyes and let himself learn more? That he should come out of his isolation and try to see what lies ahead?

The burden of the Portuguese language for Brazilians is quite an appropriate metaphor, which is replicable to various cultural, technological and political aspects that have plagued this country since its “creation” by Portuguese colleagues. Among many historically renowned, famous, award-winning Portuguese language authors, preciosity is not uncommon; many seem to be attached to a funny pride of the persistence in the use of a complicated, structurally complex language, full of details and rules and exceptions to the rules. In addition, yes, with such a heavy and dense language, vessel of a lexicon which surpasses several others in geometric progression of volume, it is fun to play with. It gets interesting to elaborate with Portuguese language. The possibilities – of complication, as well – are endless. One could even go as far as to pretend to be erudite, in order to impress ignorant listeners, and thus achieve several “advantages” – control, resources, power, votes… If, from this standpoint, we have a glimpse at the (shameful) Brazilian history, it becomes easy to elicit a relationship between a complex “native” language and the country’s socioeconomic abysses.

Among the cursing inheritances of Portuguese colonization, we were left with all the stubble, the language added to it, in a rich country of continental proportions. Inside the genesis of the post-European colonization Brazilian individual, there were the slavery, the meekness, the reindeer, the horse blinder (keep that word in mind, the Portuguese language version, “antolho”, sounds really “Portuguesish”). Outside, insurmountable masses of land and water. To one side, just water. To the other, ahead of getting to meet someone, there were thousand miles of forests, fields, mountains. The Amazon, the Pantanal, even the Andes are on the way of those who intend to meet a colleague in the west who speaks Spanish, Quechua, or some other language (brackets are worth here to highlight the part of the Brazilian border which was more “permeable” to direct contacts with other nations, in the south of the country, a region that not for an accident has gone through a different historical process, but such elaboration will be saved for another post). Thus, dirtily simplifying it, having no cultural pressure on itself, Brazil became a large island of Portuguese speakers. “Should I speak Spanish? What for?? This is hypothetical; the country is huge” – “You end up not using it at all.” So let us speak some very ugly “Portuspanish”. “It will work out; who knows if Spanish will really be needed?”

Now take a time to think of a lad who was born in Belgium. If he has not been raised as a polyglot and travels 100 kilometers in any direction, he is doomed to be mute. That’s it, less than a hundred kilometers – the distance from São Paulo to Campinas (respectively the largest Brazilian city and its biggest neighboring town; you have to go eight, nine times that distance, all the way in that direction to reach the country’s border). To the west, you already have to speak English. To the south, you need to speak French. To the west, German, and, just above, to the north, Dutch. If the country has three official languages, just to begin with, guess how many “second” languages ​​and optional subjects there should be in school.

Have you twisted your nose? Now let us suppose you have a Pakistani acquaintance. The boy will grow up speaking Urdu (Arabic-derived) and English, and no doubt he will not escape having to learn some Punjabi, plus a little Caxemiri if he usually travels further north and possibly some other Indo-Aryan languages ​​like Pashto and Sindhi. So what about that fellow from the Democratic Republic of Congo, in the middle of Africa? The French language adapted from Belgian colonization ended up being the common ground among the different ethnic groups tied in a territory where Kikongo (derived from Creole), Lingala, Swahili and Tshiluba are spoken. Not to mention your friend in India, who, if he wants to travel within the country’s borders, has to start with Hindi and English and certainly will have to pick up some of the twenty national languages.


Well… What if these lads made a Brazilian friend, who, apart from having difficulties with his own “mother” language, “whines” when he has to study English? Holly fuck!

Since we got there, what about English? I have heard for years, and I still hear so many Brazilians say, “man, English is pretty difficult”. English came along with the American re-colonization of South America (I will summarize the matter this way, thus not to write another post). Since the country became an official client of the United States and began to pave its lands for the Ford T instead of building railroads, the well-known and established pseudo-necessity of speaking English started to be constructed (attention here to the neologism: pseudo + necessity: “necessity” is not “utility”). Once again, a cultural fact resulting from a political-economic imposition. Nevertheless, one of the differentials here is that the spread of English language was a worldwide phenomenon; the language has taken a ride on British and later US imperialistic power, but there certainly is more to it. English is such an easy language. Much easier than any modern Latin language; incomparably easier than the Portuguese tyrannosaurus rex that we insist to speak. English is flexible; it has a smaller and more versatile and adaptable lexicon; its functions and concepts are easy to be manipulated, and even phonetically, it offers very few obstacles.
I did not have the luck of my parents’ generation, who could enjoy a rare moment in this country of devastated education during which, besides the Portuguese monster, they could also study French, Spanish and, the best, Latin in (public!!) schools; the latest provided them with a solid basis on which to build on to the other derived languages. But I was fortunate enough to be a son of those same parents, who were teachers and enrolled me in an English language school at the age of three or four (and made me continue studying until I was eighteen), at a time when children didn’t use to learn a second language so early in life.

That fact had a positive influence upon my life in several ways. For instance, among the many “experimental” jobs I had in my youth, when I was about seventeen or eighteen I was admitted as a trainee at an audit firm, one of those large multinational companies. After a few weeks working in the lowest echelon of a team headed by a cute manager who used to be fond of his boring corporate bullying, I was pinned from the team under associates’ request. What for? To welcome other English associates who were to arrive in São Paulo for a series of business meetings, and help them in hanging around the city and with their daily activities. I was seventeen, and the associates, who were about sixty, got shocked when they saw the beardless picayune trainee receiving them at the airport. I was not aware at the time, but the Brazilian associates had researched within the HR department who were the employees with best performance in the English language admission tests. I am not being cocky, nor a show-off; on the contrary, I want to call attention to the other side of the story – among managers, directors and associates there were no employees with guaranteed competence so to welcome international visitors. At least no one in a better shape than a trainee who still “wore diapers”, who had simply studied the language “seriously”.
The advent of Internet, coupled with some resourcefulness in using the language that had spread throughout the planet the most in the Modern Age, also brought some small wonders. In various areas of my life – from the care with my own health to researches for specific works, to the most diverse subjects, being them spirituality, history, religions, pets or kung fu – I used to end up accessing more information than most close people, even the ones who were supposed to teach me, such as teachers, therapists, counselors. Several times, when I would go back to the person who had suggested some research on a subject with fresh new information, the problem would turn out to be a new one – having to translate the material so that they could read, since they were not able to. They were in an island. Not only in their vast territory of distant borders, but in their language – and consequently in their culture and knowledge as well.

Therefore, aside from every day and social use, I went on to reduce the use of Portuguese language and replace it with another language, usually English, when the aim was some kind of research or to expand and deepen the field of knowledge. For years, I only reminded myself of searching the Internet in Portuguese language when I felt I had run out of resources based on English and, depending on the theme, also on a third additional language. Over time, this known but not always immediately perceived limitation of knowledge gets revealed, and one may become able to see that too much – many texts, books, authors -, very important knowledge, edifying information, innovative technology – a whole lot of “good things” in the world does not exist in Portuguese language. Hence, natives of the Brazilian insular continent who “find English language difficult” have no access to all of this, nor will it fall on their lap.

Those who have been awarded Portuguese as their mother language in a country with the size – and with the brutal colonial history – of Brazil, also have won antolhos. “Antolhos” are blinders, those pieces of leather that are placed on the head of donkeys, mules and horses, with two lateral flaps that obstruct the eyes of the beast and narrow their vision, leading it to see strictly what is immediately in front of it. They do not let it see any further, lesser in a wider angle.

It remains as our individual task to decide whether we will wear the blinders, and keep on with the monolingual laziness on our immense tropical island, or we will stop beating around the bush and overcome the limitations brought on by our ungrateful and Jurassic mother language.