Language Learning: The Uber Method

I was having a conversation with my good friend Dr. Ben Penglase in, of all things, a California style burrito restaurant in Brazil.  Ben is an Anthropologist and examining how California beach, surf, skate, and ska music culture migrated all the way to the south of Brazil and culminated in a restaurant called Moochachos is likely more in his realm of expertise than mine.  But on this particular night I brought up to him what I have been jokingly calling The Uber Method of language learning.

According to the Uber country list, the service is currently operating in over 80 different countries.  The Uber Method of language learning is simple.  Once you have reached an intermediate level of language mastery, meaning you can string together basic sentences in the present tense, you are prepared to start engaging your Uber drivers in conversation every chance you get.  When else are you stuck in a very confined space with a native speaker of your target language who literally has to speak with you?

Taking an Uber to the beach? Find out where the drive is from, why they’re driving Uber, and if they have any tips for you!

In my experience, this works particularly well with Brazilians.  It seems that almost all the Brazilians I have encountered have a cultural necessity to engage in conversation with a person in a confined space and that can be a good or bad thing.  Take an elevator for example.  On my way to class Mondays and Wednesdays I have to take an elevator at about 8:30 AM to the top floor of fairly tall building.  Early morning encounters in your target language are the worst.  Your brain has barely started working in your native language and you find yourself trying to avoid interacting out of sheer anxiety.  Only here, this seems to be impossible.  You will be asked about the weather, the weekend, what a nice morning it is, where you’re headed, how classes are, or where you’re from if you cannot mask your accent well enough.  I brought this up to one of my Brazilian professors and they laughed but agreed.  For many Brazilians it’s almost seen as rude in such situations to not say something.

For learning your language via Uber, this is an excellent cultural trait.  If you are in a capital city, as I am in Florianópolis, you have the added benefit of meeting many drivers who are from different parts of the country.  This gives you access to different accents, different political view points, different generational views, and to a lesser extent different economic backgrounds.  I point out that last note, because Ben pointed it out to me.  To drive Uber you have to meet certain requirements like very basically owning a car and not-so-basically owning a fairly new car.  This necessitates that the driver be at least middle-class of some stripe and limits your interaction with other socio-economic groups, if that is your aim.  Despite this, I have found the other advantages to be invaluable.

Why are hearing different accents and political views so important?  Because, as I described in a previous post, Brazil is huge.  Knowing the different accents and what regions they come from is intrinsic to the Brazilian Portuguese experience and hearing all these interesting ways to speak Portuguese is half the fun.  And as a second, or third, or whatever, language learner you get to choose which accent you prefer to use.  How cool is that?  As far politics, Brazilians are not shy about sharing their views.  Listening to what they have to say can really increase your knowledge of the regional concerns that exist in a country and it also serves to deepen your vocabulary in your target language.

Given that Uber operates in so many countries , the service provides an excellent dual service to the language learner.  Of course this has some limits.  Maybe you’re in a city that doesn’t have Uber operations.  Maybe the public transportation is better or significantly cheaper and this can vary by situation.  The Uber Method, as I see it, is never wasting an opportunity to practice and learn when and if you do use Uber abroad, which I highly recommend.  Don’t let your language level or anxiety get the best of you.  Try it out!

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Just how big is Brazil?

How big is Brazil?  In a word, enormous.  It is easily the largest country in Latin America but also one of the largest countries in the world.  Only Canada, China, Russia, and the United States are larger in terms of land mass and the US only counts if we include Alaska and Hawaii.  Here are some awesome overlay maps to get a sense of scale:

MAPfrappe Google Maps Mashup - Brazil vs United States
Source: Brazil: five centuries of change / Thomas E. Skidmore. — 2nd ed. (2010)

The equator runs through the very north of Brazil so for many northern areas there are essentially no seasons, it’s just hot.  The rest of Brazil is of course in the Southern Hemisphere so all of the seasons are in reverse to what we have in the US.  Winter here is from May to September and currently we are getting close to beginning Summer which goes from December to March.  Hurricanes and earthquakes do not exist in Brazil but other natural threats like drought and flooding are constant concerns.

In the US being from the Northeast is nothing like being from the South.  And being from the Southwest is nothing like being from the Midwest.  Similarly, Brazilians identify with five major regions a person might be from that influence their upbringing, their accent, their economic opportunities, and general identity.  Here’s another map to illustrate those regions:

Source: Brazil: five centuries of change / Thomas E. Skidmore. — 2nd ed. (2010)

The North and Center-West regions are predictably least populated.  The North contains much of the Amazon which is essentially impenetrable to large scale human settlement and the Center-West is a dry region making settlement difficult.  Despite this, Brazil has utilized swathes of land in Mato Grosso for large scale soybean production which is Brazil’s top export by far.  As with many nations the points of commerce are concentrated in the coastal areas.  In particular, the Southeast and South regions are the economic drivers in the country.

I am living and studying in Florianópolis which is the capital of the state of Santa Catarina in the South region.  It follows due to proximity that most of the Brazilians I have met come from Rio Grande do Sul, other parts of Santa Catarina, Paraná, the state and city of São Paulo, and Rio de Janeiro.  To a lesser extent I have also met individuals from Minas Gerais and Bahia.  The Northeast has been experiencing economic decline since the nineteenth century.  Unfortunately there aren’t many signs of improvement on the horizon for that region so many Brazilians from the area migrate to other parts of Brazil for work.  In the South, the Brazilians I have spoken to tell me that Rio Grande do Sul is in a bit of an economic decline as well.  The capital city Porto Alegre is generally considered to be a bit dangerous and many people from Rio Grande do Sul, called gaúchos (ga-oo-shows), have relocated to Santa Catarina citing safety concerns and the better availability of work.

As in the United States there is an incredible amount of variety in the spoken accent of people from various parts of Brazil.  The accent of people from Rio Grande do Sul, for instance, is surprisingly easy for Spanish speakers to understand.  Portuguese and Spanish are technically close in structure and vocabulary but in practice spoken Brazilian Portuguese sounds almost nothing like spoken Spanish.  People from Rio de Janeiro were more difficult for me to understand.  They have a very specific carioca accent tied to the area and city of Rio de Janeiro.  Think of a really strong New Yorker accent in US English, and you might get an equivalent idea of how recognizable of an accent it is here.  Also, Brazilians in coastal states very much distinguish between those who grew up in cities on the coast and those who grew up in the interior.  Interior cities are generally thought of as more rural, less modern, with less economy, resources and education.  And there is a specifically interior accent as well where words like porta (door) and lar (home) use an “r” sound surprisingly very much like a normal American English speaker would pronounce them.

Owing to its size, Brazil contains an astounding amount of diversity among its people, places, and language.  Thankfully Florianópolis is very much a destination city for international travelers as well as migrating Brazilians.  This has provided me with a good sampling of regional cultural and language differences to study and learn from.  My budget unfortunately will not allow for a lot of travel within Brazil during my time here.  But I hope to bring more interesting bits of information as I come across them in my day to day situations here.

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