I heard a story on NPR last week about Brazil.1 Whenever I hear a news story about Brazil, I get interested for obvious reasons: I am half Brazilian, I lived in Brazil for two years as a young adult, I speak fluent Portuguese, and I minored in Latin American studies in college. But this post isn’t about the subject matter of the NPR story, but rather about some common linguistic mistakes made by the reporter. Whenever the reported said any word in Portuguese, he made a point to not use standard American English pronunciations of the word. But he didn’t use the correct Portuguese pronunciation either. Instead, he pronounced every Portuguese word he said as if it were Spanish. Even though he spoke unaccented English, it was clear to me from hearing his pronunciation of Portugese that he as a native Spanish speaker, and obviously had a poor command (if any) of Portuguese. This was confirmed to me when, at the the end of the report, he signed off with a clearly Hispanic name, Juan Forero. A quick check of his bio revealed that he is originally from Columbia.2
Aside from grating on my ears and stoking my pet peeve with people who assume that Portuguese and Spanish are identical and interchangeable (they’re not, for example, Brazilian Portuguese has a whole slew of vowel sounds not found in Spanish), the reporter’s habit of trying to inject foreign pronunciations into his English was a bad habit that far too many people intentionally adopt as if it were a virtue. I can think of several reasons people develop this practice: 1) national/linguistic pride – some bilingual people think that it is an insult to their native language or culture to adopt foreign pronunciations of words from their native language, even when they are using those words while speaking another language; 2) cultural sensitivity: some people think that, in order to show respect for other languages and cultures, they must pronounce words from a foreign culture or language using a pronunciation correct for a speaker of that foreign language, even when they are using those words while speaking a separate language.
There are several reasons why it is a bad idea to incorporate foreign pronunciations into your speech:
This is the biggest reason, in my mind, to avoid mixing foreign pronunciations (or foreign words) into your native language conversation is that it interferes with language learning. My personal experience with many American English speakers in Brazil who were learning Portuguese was that the people who never learned to speak Portuguese very well would usually quickly develop two bad habits: 1) they would mix up words from the two languages (for example, getting in the habit of using Portuguese nouns when speaking English, even though there was a perfectly good English equivalent available – saying arroz e feijão to refer to Brazilian-style rice and beans, for example), and 2) when they were speaking English, they would try to pronounce Portuguese words with a Portuguese accent, and when they were speaking Portuguese, they would pronounce English words with their native American accents.
The pattern of poor language learners not separating the two languages became clearest to me when I met one particular American who could speak Portuguese with a near-native level of fluency (most Brazilians couldn’t tell that he was American); whenever this guy would speak English, though, he would pronounce any occasional Portuguese word in the conversation (such as proper nouns or words that didn’t have an English equivalent) with the worst American accent you could imagine. I finally realized that part of his ability to speak Portuguese so well came from strictly separating the two languages in his mind.
The people who were constantly mixing pronunciations almost never gained a very high level of Portuguese language fluency. They spoke Portuguese with thick American accents, generally had a poor vocabulary, and were frequently unable to fully express themselves in Portuguese. My theory is that their mixing of languages interfered with their brain’s ability to learn and fully integrate the new pronunciations, vocabulary, and grammar.
This first reason for not mixing languages, however, doesn’t apply to people who learned to speak multiple languages as a child – children’s brains have an amazing capacity to learn languages that is lost with the start of adolescence.
The purpose of language is to communicate. A speaker who uses foreign pronunciations from a language that is not understood by the speaker’s listeners is defeating the whole purpose of using language. When someone uses foreign pronunciations, they just cause decreased understanding and comprehension; it just increases the risk that a listener won’t understand the speaker’s words. It can also make the listener afraid to talk to you. My mom (who has lived in the United States since before I was born) used to pronounce her first name with the correct Brazilian pronunciation (and would sometimes correct people when they messed up). It just made people afraid to talk to my mom or to say her name, because they were afraid of “getting it wrong.” Years ago, she switched to using an anglicized pronunciation of her name, and it has made life easier for her and everyone else too.
Respect for Listeners
If you’re speaking one language to a group of people, switching into another language not understood by your listeners shows a lack of respect and cultural sensitivity for your listeners. It is a form of cultural and linguistic imperialism, demonstrating disdain for the language you are speaking, and trying to impose new cultural and linguistic norms on your listeners without their consent.
It Leads to Errors
Often, people who try to adopt foreign pronunciations get it terribly wrong. Juan Forero’s errors in rhat NPR story are a perfect example. Alex Trebek from from the TV game show Jeopardy is another – he tries to pronounce Portuguese words correctly, but ends up with some weird pseudo-French pronunciation that is completely wrong. Juan Forero’s and Alex Trebek’s mistakes are worse than just using an anglicized pronunciation. By giving listeners the wrong idea about how those words are pronounced, their mispronunciations actually perpetuate mistakes and cultural misunderstanding.