I have always noticed that Brazilians have a certain aversion to English. A certain tendency to switch to Portuguese whenever the majority is Brazilian, a severe reluctance to make a comment directed towards a Brazilian using English, even if the comment is in the context of an English conversation with people from all over the world, etc. Of course, many other nationalities act similarly, but I’ve been living in Romania for a bit over a year now and things are quite different, to the point that it’s really hard to dismiss this attitude as something normal. Though I haven’t had much contact with other Brazilians personally in this period, I still have a lot of contact online, mainly through Facebook, and the more time passes by, the more my impressions are confirmed and even reinforced. And I’m not counting those who don’t know English well, I mean people who speak quite fluently, who have lived abroad, etc. Why is it so?
I studied French in Canada for two months. Brazilians always spoke Portuguese whenever there weren’t more than two or three foreigners in the group. There were quite many Brazilians. It was the first time I travelled alone and I somewhat inevitably ended up hanging out with them quite often. I’m not that good at making conversation so the fact that there was always an excluded, quiet foreigner next to me was a good opportunity to interact with people from different cultures and speak another language in a natural, non-didactic context.
A few years later I did an exchange in Sweden. I was lucky this time to be housed in a neighborhood where there was no other Brazilian student. Still I met a few Brazilians who were always hanging out together and often excluded foreigners with their use of Portuguese, though there were of course those who didn’t. By then I already had a skeptical attitude towards hanging out with any Brazilian abroad, but I still wouldn’t think of it as a national problem. After all, we’re no worse than the French, for example (sorry if you’re French, you know it’s true!). So that comforted me for a while.
Besides occasionally excluding foreigners in other countries, there’s the whole phenomenon of Brazilians online. I guess I would say it started on Orkut, when Brazilians flooded the social network before it was even translated to Portuguese.
Not only did Brazilians fill in their profiles and created communities in Portuguese, which is normal and expected, but they also started creating Portuguese topics in language neutral or English communities. So widespread was the phenomenon that the tensions between Brazilians and other users started to build up. According to a Reuters article published at the time[ref]It’s hard to find original stuff from 2004 on the internet nowadays. This excerpt was taken from a Slashdot discussion about the article : Language Tempest At Orkut[/ref]:
Tammy Soldaat, a Canadian, got a sample of Brazilian wrath recently when she posted a message asking whether her community site on body piercing should be exclusive to people who speak English.
Brazilian Orkut users quickly labeled her a “nazi” and “xenophobe.”
“After that I understood why everyone is complaining about these people, why they’re being called the ‘plague of Orkut,”‘ she said in a site called “Crazy Brazilian Invasion.”
*OBS: I was devastated after spending half an hour looking for a screenshot of the “WTF A Crazy Brazilian Invasion” community to no avail, if anybody find one please send me!!
More recently Brazilians became a topic again in the gaming community, after flooding massively multi-player online games with Portuguese messages and harassing other users to the point of creating virtual wars between them and the non-Portuguese speaking players.
In other parts of the world, such as in Sweden, a gamer can get internationally famous because of a non-pretentious but English-language YouTube Channel gone viral. And don’t tell me Swedes speak better English. I’m sure there are more Brazilians who are fluent speakers of English than there are Swedes at all in the world.
I’m not a gamer, but I do use social media. Facebook is a more modern social network than Orkut, with more sophisticated language settings and a more unique experience for each user based on how they use the website. Besides, the population of Brazilians there is not so disproportionally large as it was in Google’s first social network. But the attitude doesn’t seem to have changed. No matter what I post on Facebook in English, if a Brazilian is the first to post, it is almost always in Portuguese. Maybe even if there are already comments in English. It’s actually probably weird for them that I write in English in the first place “just because I’m abroad”. I have friends on Facebook who are intelligent, open-minded people and who, in spite of living abroad, post overwhelmingly in Portuguese. Some are active Facebook users living in other countries and I honestly can’t remember seeing any post by them in English. Ever.
It could be different
As I mentioned, if I contrast the Brazilian behavior with that of Romanians the phenomenon becomes even more apparent. At least in Cluj-Napoca, where I live. Of course the context is different. The country is much smaller, there’s a lot more linguistic diversity in the vicinity, etc, but still, it gives me a glimpse of how reality could look like, and it’s inspiring. The first times I went out people where always careful and spoke English with me. And most importantly: even among themselves. Online I’ve seen discussion threads in English where all participants were Romanian. My first job interviews were also all in English, and nobody even cared too much about how good my Romanian was. Yes, a lot of people in Brazil simply can’t speak English even if they wanted to, plus, IT outsourcing is not common. But still, it is incredible for me to think of how this is absolutely unimaginable in Brazil on so many levels.
So why are Brazilians such non-international people? Why do they always form a Brazilian-only club and refuse to come out or let foreigners in?
“It sounds pedantic”
One of the things that saddens me the most about this attitude is that fear of sounding pedantic is one of the most probable reasons behind it. Anti-intellectualism is doing very well in Brazil, I’ve actually written a whole post about it. It seems people prefer to look ignorant than to look pedantic. It’s not rare to be called “gay” or something of the kind if you pronounce an English word using English pronunciation rules instead of the local ones, an attitude disturbingly similar to that depicted in the movie Idiocracy. I tried to find a video to illustrate how we pronounce English words and I didn’t really find any. Luckily enough, however, I did find one named “10 English Words Usually MISpronounced by Brazilians“. The first comment?
“Seems socially acceptable to me”
Am I a pretentious asshole if I suggest that making comments in Portuguese to me in an international conversation is actually rude to the others? If I say that it’s disconcerting to post something in English in order to include as many people as possible and then get a whole discussion thread in Portuguese where no foreigner feels welcome to participate? I do post in Portuguese occasionally when the topic is related to Brazil, but by writing in Portuguese about neutral topics I exclude a lot more people than I exclude if I post in English. If you don’t know enough English to make a comment, that’s fine. But if you speak perfect English, as most of the people I interact with on Facebook do, I would say it’s impolite.
“It makes it seem that I think I’m better than Brazilians and that I’m a gringo kiss ass”
This is in the category of pedantism, but I thought it deserved it’s own section. It would usually sound like a rather insane argument to me, but the recent incident with Brazilian musician Ed Motta may illustrate why the gringo kiss ass is such a vivid character in the mind of many Brazilians. I don’t know the details, but the story began with the musician posting on Facebook that he was only going to speak English in his next international tour and that Brazilians shouldn’t expect him to speak Portuguese. It developed when Brazilians started questioning his attitude (what a surprise) and it ended with him posting aggressively critical posts ridiculing Brazilian immigrants, using derogatory regional slur against uneducated, provincial Brazilians from small cities, and complaining about Brazil with openly elitist and arrogant language.
But however hard he may have made things with his unjustifiably aggressive speech and obscene lack of diplomacy, there was a lot of truth to what he said when he complained about Brazilian immigrants who go to concerts of Brazilian artists and scream to them in Portuguese and otherwise act as if they had never left the country. And in the aftermath of the scandal it’s easy to find comments from Brazilians saying he’s elitist simply for not speaking Portuguese “while artists from other countries speak their own languages” (which is not true at all). This reveals that the expectations of many Brazilians are also not fair. Showing interest for other cultures doesn’t have to mean you don’t value yours. On the contrary. Dialogue is a two-way process, and by engaging in one not only do you get an insight into the culture of your interlocutor but also provide an insight into yours. While Brazil may not be a rich and developed country, other countries have a lot to learn from its unique history and social conditions. But we also have a lot to learn from them. Responding to incidents of arrogance and “anti-Brazilianism” with pride and self-centeredness is immature and unconstructive.
I have asked more questions than given answers in this text and I invite fellow Brazilians and others to discuss and try to figure out why this is the case. All I can say is that it is the age of globalization and multiculturalism and it’s about time we leave our Brazilian-only club and start interacting with people from other regions. Again, we are not the only nationality who acts like this, and the sheer magnitude of our population may be partly responsible for us sometimes being in evidence. But having been able to witness a certain variety of behaviors across different cultures, I can confidently say it could be better. Living in a bubble keeps our minds narrow and our worldviews biased. Much of what we take for granted as universal truths about human nature turn out to be culturally malleable characteristics with great variation across borders. Come out, take a look outside. It’s worth it.