Sometime ago I had a student from Brazil. The thought of teaching someone who lived in that part the world excited me. I had never met a Brazilian person all my life until then; although I’m a big fan of Joao Gilberto and bossa nova.  I knew little of Brazilian Portuguese (I still do) and was wont to think that if I spoke Spanish (which I do on a level slightly above functional) we would  get along fine.  When our review began,  it turned out I was grossly mistaken. My student M did not sound remotely Latin American. I heard a lot  ZH and CH sounds, which I quickly associated with Continental European phonetics. Later in the review, I got to learn that  M was of German ancestry.  There is in fact a big German-Brazilian population living  in Rio Grande Do Sul.          

As it happened,  I  began by asking her if she was familiar with  English language proficiency tests. She said she was not; although she had just finished a short course in English about a month ago. I walked her through the communications skills being tested by many of these tests. I  showed  her my own PTE scorecard. We discussed the overall score as well as the macro and enabling communication skills scores, particularly oral fluency, grammar, pronunciation, written discourse.   I asked her questions  on common issues in spoken English such as accent and intonation.  She was able to clearly answer all these in her own peculiar way.  I told her that as a matter of rule, I never focus on “errors” at first. I touch on these only when I wrap up the lesson: Even so, I label it as “points for improvement”. I  clearly stated that if these things were done correctly, my student’s English would become easier to understand anywhere else in the world. 

Points  for Improvement    

I made M read aloud paragraphs to evaluate her pronunciation. She had a thick “European” accent which recalled French or German. Of course, she spoke Portuguese back home, but  it was a kind of Portuguese  laced with German intonation  since her family circle was German. I noted that some vowel sounds weren’t clear in a “standard” kind of way.  We did a “drill” to get the vowel sounds right. 

For medial and terminal consonant sounds, M’ s Portuguese inflection got  in the way (I sort of sensed a couple of familiar sounding Hispanic flat As in her verbs).  Even if close to 80% of the Portuguese lexicon is identical with Spanish, they are not sounded off the same in speech. To an ear that’s trained to hear only English,   connected speech (liaison) would be a serious issue here. I had that during  my  conversation with M.  What made up for those  little jolts were her melodic intonation.  

After  four  sessions,  M learned how to polish her  bumps and edges. Previously  I told her to work on her “thick” accent (to at least soften it by enunciating the vowel sounds stronger);  if she couldn’t  avoid fillers, then she had to replace the aahmms  and uhhmms with “furthermore”, “moreover”,  “clearly”, “what this means is” and a number of common parenthetical expressions.

I told her to watch more English language TV documentaries, if not do karaoke with popular English language songs (something she was not entirely familiar with). A few months later, she flew to Australia to visit her sister.  She would have liked to stay longer and immerse herself in the language more, but family and work duties beckoned her home. At least, she said, she was able to get the feel of English from the Land Down Under.