Thursday, January 24, 2013

It's Hard To Get Good Help These Days

According to this article from Forbes, middle class Brazilian families who may have previously enjoyed the services of a maid may not be in a position to continue to do so. Changes in labor laws, increased job opportunities for women who formerly had no options except domestic service, and the resulting changes in supply and demand have led to a fairly hefty increase in the cost of hiring a maid in Brazil.  

As the author points out, until fairly recently, middle class families of relatively modest means could afford to have a maid at least a couple days a week if they wanted one, and those with higher incomes could have live-in help.

For most North Americans, having a regular maid (not just a cleaning woman who comes in for an afternoon once a week), is something for the wealthy and even then, generally from a bygone era. How many families in the United States have someone to do the food shopping, prepare their meals, clean up afterwards, launder and fold clothes, and keep the place neat and tidy all the time? Very few, at least based on my experience, but apparently this has been more common in Brazil. 

Seu Jorge - The Life Aquatic: Studio Sessions

In his role in the film "The Life Aquatic," which I haven't seen, Seu Jorge sang several David Bowie songs in Portuguese, accompanied only by his guitar. While this album doesn't include the identical recordings found on the movie's soundtrack, it does add more songs. At least that's what I have been able to piece together from descriptions and reviews online.

The idea of Seu Jorge singing David Bowie seems sort of unusual at first, and I guess it is unusual, but it's also very effective. Seu Jorge's voice is immediately recognizable, at least it is once you've heard it, and he sings very naturally, effortlessly, and with a sort of self-assurance that makes you think that these songs could have been written just for him. 

Depending on the song, his voice ranges from his usual deep register to a higher one, not a falsetto but still pretty high for him. He does a great job with all the songs, but my favorites are the ones where he sticks to the lower end of his range. When his voice really shoots up into the stratosphere, it's a lot less mellow than what we're used to with Seu Jorge.

Standout tracks are "Rebel Rebel"...


and "Starman," where he ventures into the higher range but without straining his voice. 

I've been listening to this album on Spotify, which unfortunately doesn't include two tracks that are on the CD and also on iTunes: "Team Zissou" and "Space Oddity." Unfortunately, iTunes only offers them as part of the entire album, but they're available on YouTube.

Based on the iTunes 90-second sound samples for these tracks, "Team Zissou" is good but not essential, but "Space Oddity" is a must-have. 

Hearing him sing "Esse é o grande controle da Major Tom, Me diz se você vêm" makes you feel that you're hearing the song for the first time...and in a way, you are. 

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Another Negative Outlook On Brazil's Economy

In what has become a rather disturbing recent trend, there's yet another article about Brazil's economic prospects. 

The author acknowledges that even with its lower GDP projection, Brazil is still well ahead of Europe and the US, both of which have negative or very slow economic growth. 

However, she points out that Brazil faces increased competition from other emerging economies, and also mentions the well-known problem of the cost of doing business in Brazil, a theme that comes up in any discussion of the country's economic future.

Why Is It So Hard to Find This Amazing Album?

I wish I had an answer to that question, but it's not the first time I've had to dig around a bit to find a classic Brazilian album from the 1960's or 1970's. (I ended up ordering my copy of "Tropicália Ou Panis Et Circensis" from CDJapan).

João Bosco - "Caça à Raposa"

This album, Bosco's third, appeared in 1975. I first came across it on Estadão's list of the 30 best Brazilian records of all time. 

Finding the album itself proved to be more difficult. It's not available as a CD from Amazon (including Amazon UK), and I couldn't find it on my old standby, CDJapan, which often has (expensive) re-issues of other hard-to-find Brazilian music.  

Digital download isn't any better, as neither Amazon nor iTunes offers the entire album, though iTunes does have the song "Kid Cavaquinho," one of the best tracks, as part of a samba and pagode compilation.  

João Bosco's own website does offer a short sampling of each track, but the best place I have found so far is Spotify, which has the entire album. If you aren't currently enjoying Spotify's ad-supported free service, it's worth registering just to hear this album. (Note: Spotify has different rules and services for different countries, and I'm only basing my recommendation on what's currently available in the US).

Bosco's voice has a natural sound, perfectly suited to the music he sings. His voice is as smooth and mellow as Raul Seixas' is raspy and plaintive, but he shares Seixas' diverse approach, with songs that range from slow and gentle to fast and upbeat. Similar to Seixas' "Krig-ha, Bandolo!," the songs on "Caça à Raposa" are arranged in an order that seems just right, and again like Seixas, the songs are short, with the longest one at 3:41. The entire album is only about 35 minutes, and it goes by very fast. 

Since there's not a bad song on the album, the best way to hear it is all the way through, but if you aren't able to register for Spotify, sample or download "Kid Cavaquinho" on iTunes to get an idea of what one of his faster songs sounds like. Or you can hear it on YouTube:

Other favorites are "O Mestre-Sala Dos Mares," another relatively fast song...

 and "Dois Prá lá, Dois Prá Cá," for a more traditional, laid-back sound.

João Bosco has had a long and very prolific career, and has recorded some of the songs from the original 1975 album in live performance, sometimes along with other singers. Those versions are also very good in their own right, but I'm sort of a purist when it comes to hearing an album the way it was originally recorded.  

Whatever you do, do not be put off by the fact that the album isn't easy to find. This is one that's worth tracking down, even if you have to search through YouTube results to find the original versions. Trust me on this.

Cколько зим, сколько лет

Loosely translated, that's a Russian expression that means it's been a while, as in it's been a long time since my last post. 

Why would I use a Russian saying on a blog about Brazilian Portuguese? Well, I've been spending part of the time that I have *not* been devoting to this blog attempting to re-acquire a certain skill level in Russian, a language which I studied for several years in college. Here's how it happened:

After I finished all three levels of the Pimsleur Brazilian Portuguese program, I continued with my study of Portuguese, using some of the other learning materials that I've written about in my posts about the language. It soon struck me that my skills in Brazilian Portuguese, however limited they may be (and they *are* limited), were nonetheless superior to my skills in languages that I had actually studied in university courses, with a teacher, for grades and credit.  

I'm not blaming anyone for this, but from what I have heard from other Americans who have studied foreign languages in school or at the university level, this is not an uncommon situation. The perception (accurate, as it turns out) that Americans suffer from a foreign language deficit has always interested me, and I have written a post about it here. 

But I digress. The good news is that once I realized that I had acquired a higher level of conversational ability in Brazilian Portuguese, studying on my own, I decided to see how difficult it would be to re-ignite my abilities in languages I had studied formally.  

I started with Spanish, for several reasons, the first being its many similarities to Portuguese.  Of course, those surface similarities had caused me a great deal of difficulty when I started learning Portuguese, mainly due to the challenging differences in pronunciation. But once I had made it past a certain point, my knowledge of Spanish was quite helpful.  

I had to unlearn some things as I worked my way through Spanish audio lessons. All those Portuguese nasals that I had worked so hard to conquer had to be left aside as I repeated phrases and sentences in Spanish. I also realized that the intonation for questions is quite different in the two languages. In Portuguese, the voice tends to rise on the next-to-last word or syllable in the sentence. For example, in the question "Você entende?" (Do you understand?), the voice rises on the syllable "-en-" right before the "-de" at the end. In Spanish, the question would be "¿Entiende?" (or the familiar form "¿Entiendes?") and the voice rises on the final syllable, as in English.  

But I was very pleasantly surprised with how quickly Spanish was coming back to me. I had figured that much of what I had learned in the past was irretrievably lost and that I would have to start at base one. 

After I finished all of the Spanish lessons, I decided to see if I could resurrect my Russian. This was going to be harder, because it had been much longer since I had used Russian, and it shares little in common with Portuguese aside from the fact that both are Indo-European languages.  At least, so I thought.  Imagine my surprise when I realized that I was hearing a similar intonation pattern for Russian questions as I had heard for Portuguese!  Using the same example of the question "Do you understand?", the Cyrillic looks like this: "Bы понимаете?", which is "Vy ponimayetye?" when transliterated (I'm not following the exact, official rules of transliteration) or in my own phonetic rendition, "Vy puh-nee-my-uh-tyuh?". In this sentence, the voice rises quite dramatically on the syllable "my", even more than in Portuguese.  The first fews times I heard native speakers asking questions in Russian, it sounded as if they were interrogating someone in a darkened room somewhere in the KGB headquarters. I even found an item online that explained that speakers of English sometimes think that a Russian is being rude when asking a question, simply because of the intonation.  

All of this is exactly the sort of thing that I love about learning a foreign language. You are not just learning a new set of letters and pronunciations, you're learning about the culture, and even about the way that people think. 

Like many Americans, I grew up thinking that languages like French or Italian were inherently more pleasant to the ear or even more romantic (in the amorous, not the linguistic sense of the word) than a language like German, with its (to my obviously biassed ears) harsher consonants and clipped diction.  I know that sounds naive, and it was, but I also know that I'm not alone. Think about the way that foreigners are portrayed in American films or TV shows. If you want a character to be a bad guy, just give him a German accent, and the job is done. If you want him to be a lover, have him speak with a French or Italian accent. On a darker note, if you want him to be a humble laborer or the downright slow-witted type, slap a Mexican accent on him, have him wear a sombrero, and the message will get through. This last stereotype is gradually giving way in the face of the huge influx of Latino immigrants to the US, but it still crops up.

Meanwhile, even though I'm currently focusing my language learning on Russian, I am by no means done with Brazilian Portuguese. In fact, my obsession with Brazilian music continues to grow, and I am finding that Brazilian music and movies are adding a lot to my still rudimentary knowledge of Portuguese. As with other languages that I have studied, I am able to read Portuguese with a higher level of fluency than I can speak or understand it when it's spoken, but even when reading, I'm amazed at the number of words, phrases, and especially idioms that I do not know and cannot figure out on my own.  But I'm not giving up! 

Why Americans Don't Speak Foreign Languages

It seems to me that Americans have a bigger struggle with foreign languages than people from most other countries, even if we have studied a foreign language in school. I can't count the number of times I have heard people say something like, "I took three years of French in college, but I don't remember a word," or "I studied German for a few years, but I could never really *speak* it enough to carry on a real conversation." And usually, these people got good grades and even enjoyed their professors and their courses, so it wasn't a question of them not doing the work.

Why is this? 

I suspect there are several factors at work. (Also take a look at this article from 2010 which covers some of the same territory, but which I read after I wrote my own thoughts about the subject). 

First of all, with languages, as with many areas of study, if you do not use it, you will lose it. In the US, you don't really have many opportunities to converse in a foreign language unless you are studying it in a classroom setting. So even if you do acquire a decent level of conversation skills, you will lose them over time unless you go out of your way to maintain them.  

Reading in the language will help you to keep your skills, but it's not the same thing as hearing and speaking the language. Foreigners learning English have more opportunities to be exposed to the spoken language, because of the widespread popularity of music, TV shows, and films from the US and other English-speaking countries. 

Second, foreign language instruction in other countries usually begins at a much earlier age than here in the US. From what I understand, it often begins in elementary school, while in the US, courses are not generally offered until middle school. While there has been a move toward making some study in a foreign language a requirement for graduation from high school, this isn't yet a national standard.

Third, time constraints require teachers and professors to focus more on reading and writing than on speaking and listening. When I studied languages at school, the first year was spent on learning (not necessarily mastering) the pronunciation, acquiring a basic vocabulary, and then an incredible amount of time on grammar. 

Don't get me wrong, I like grammar as much as the next person, in fact probably more. I am as much as visual learner as an auditory one, so I need to *see* the structure of the language by looking at things like verb conjugations, or in the case of Russian and other inflected languages, noun and adjective declensions. This sort of thing also appeals to my highly structured (some might say rigid) mind frame.

The second and third years of language study usually consisted of even more grammar, along with a major emphasis on the literature of the language we were studying. They would start us out with special anthologies geared specifically toward native speakers of English, with handy glossaries and if we were lucky, side-by-side translations or word lists keyed directly to the page we were reading. These books also usually contained long lists of questions about the text to check our comprehension, and we'd be required to write complete sentence answers to them.  That part wasn't as much fun. Sometimes, we'd discuss the literary selection in class, but that is not the sort of spoken language practice that prepares you to order lunch in a restaurant or ask where the nearest ATM is. It also does not prepare you to be able to quickly understand what a native speaker is saying.

Finally, we would be set loose on the genuine article: books or stories written in the language and published in the mother country, without any teaching notes or other aids as we plowed our way through, with only a dictionary at our sides. We would be expected to write long essays about what we had read, in the form of literary interpretations modeled on what you would do in an English or American literature course. We might be asked to write about how the author's life experiences were reflected in his or her writing, or to compare two different works by the same author, or to compare two works by two different authors, and so on. Again, there's nothing wrong with any of this, but in my case, I ended up being able to write a fairly long paper in a foreign language about the intricacies of a particular work of literature, yet unable to carry on much more than a basic conversation. Your passive vocabulary (words that you've looked up in a dictionary when writing an essay) may be pretty good, but your active vocabulary probably leveled out some time during the first or second year of instruction. 

One underlying question with all of this is why does foreign language instruction seem to be such a low priority in the United States? The obvious answer is that Americans do not learn a foreign language because we do not *have* to learn one. It's possible to travel all over the world with no knowledge of another language except English, armed at most with a phrasebook. 

Finally, there is this question: Is this necessarily even a problem? I believe that it is, because in an increasingly competitive global economy, American students are going to be at a disadvantage. Perhaps even more important, we tend to have a better understanding of a country, its people and its culture, if we have had some exposure to their language.  

But don't just take my word for it. This recent article from Forbes states that "in a shrinking world this (language deficit) reality constitutes a threat to our national security," and goes on to say that only "18% of Americans report speaking a language other than English, while 53% of Europeans (and increasing numbers in other parts of the world) can converse in a second language."

Assuming that the 18% figure includes people from bilingual homes, the number of Americans who have learned a foreign language in school would be even lower.  

As long as I'm standing on the "Learn a Foreign Language Now!" soapbox, here's another link to an article whose title is "Why Your Next CEO Shouldn't Be American." Hint: it has to do with our language deficit, and includes this interesting note: "research shows that we behave more rationally when we think in another language." Why? "The researchers think that the foreign language creates greater cognitive and emotional distance from our hard-wired biases."

Now I can point to research to prove that I'm more rational than my monolingual friends and family members. I'm sure they'll be very impressed.