Once upon a time, a young lesbian from the U.S. met a young lesbian from Brazil. The young lesbian from the U.S. was interested in the language of the young lesbian from Brazil but only managed to learn to say a few basic things in Portuguese. The young lesbians lived happily for about two years before going their separate ways. After the parting, the young (and slightly bitter) lesbian from the U.S. thought to herself, “I am so glad that I never learned to speak Portuguese because I would NEVER have any use for that again!” About a year after that parting, the young lesbian from the U.S. met a young lesbian from Portugal. These two lesbians settled down together, bought a house, had two children and will be celebrating their 13th anniversary next month. Two Portuguese speaking lovers? What were the odds? I have had a relationship to the Portuguese language for the past 16 years but I speak very little. Sure, I can greet people, count to ten and order my own food at restaurants but that’s about it. I always figured that I was an old dog and Portuguese was an awfully big new trick, so, I held out hope for the next generation. Before having children, I could have written pages about our plans to raise our children to be bilingual…why we would do it, how we would do it, how beautiful we would be while doing it, how bright and clever our children would be, how impressive they would be at parties - Funny how having actual children throws a wrench in all those plans you make beforehand. When Miguel was born, Luisa spoke to him in Portuguese and read to him in Portuguese most of the time. We were not living our lives in Portuguese, however. My cute phrases and the fact that I could say “I am cutting an onion” in Portuguese, strangely, added nothing to my son’s experience of the language. Our first trip to Portugal, Miguel was 10 months old and was not yet verbal. Our second trip to Portugal, he was 3 and could understand a significant amount of Portuguese but could speak very little. This summer when we travel to Portugal, he will be 5 and he will understand little and speak even less. Zeca rarely hears Portuguese at home. It is extremely painful for me to write this but our children do not speak or understand Portuguese. I write this knowing that, as painful as it is for me, Luisa’s heart will break when she reads this. Committing these words to paper is like touching a body with no skin…raw and excruciating. We dance around this issue. We make plans to change things, to make Portuguese a priority and then we fall back into our familiar patterns.
It has taken me almost 13 years to feel in my heart what I have always known in my head, that language is not just language. Portuguese is not just Portuguese. It is not just gendered nouns, verb tenses, and nasal sounds. Language is the building block of identity. It is history and culture and personal memory. It is family and comfort. It is the salty sea on a sunny day, the smell of sardines on a hot grill. It is topography and red earth and the way grapes look on the vine. It is about time and place and love and mortality. It is saudade – a word for which there is no English translation, a word that means a type of sadness and longing that I will never truly know, a word that I can understand intellectually but never feel in the depths of my soul. Language is all of those things that cannot be named or measured. Language is not so much the nuts and bolts of communication as it is the means by which we communicate who we are. When we travel to Portugal, at some point during the trip, I cry – not small, tidy tears but huge, gasping, snot-dripping sobs. It is always about language. I cry not because I can’t ask my in-laws to pass me the salt but because I can never be myself, because I don’t have the language to make myself known to them.
Writing this inspires me to learn and to teach my children Portuguese but that feeling is tempered by the fact that I have been inspired before and failed. When Luisa tries to speak to Miguel and he becomes frustrated, he says, “It’s too hard” and I try to explain to him that things that are worthwhile are not always easy, knowing the whole time that I have failed to learn for the exact same reason. It’s too hard to remember things, too hard to make mistakes, too hard to make a fool of yourself and too hard to change. I also know that the easiest thing to do would be to give up completely and I am not ready to do that…not just yet. I will never write the book “10 Easy Steps to Bilingual Children” but I still have hope that, someday, my children will learn to speak Portuguese and, in doing so, will gain a deeper understanding of themselves.