Sometimes, the Brazilian part of BJJ can become a barrier. The language barrier, more than once over the years, left me hearing Portuguese and wishing I spoke the language. I get confused for a Brazilian pretty often: dark skin, dark hair, speaks English with an accent and practices BJJ? Has to be Brazilian. It wasn’t until I was a purple belt that I actually started studying it. While I am not writing a book in Portuguese anytime soon, I can hold short conversations now, specially if they involve BJJ, asking for directions, or ordering food.
I understand learning Portuguese may not seem that important for most BJJ players, but it comes in handy more than you think. I originally became interested in learning Portuguese while training in a gym in Newark, NJ. Our instructor had move from Brazil only a few months earlier, and Newark has a Portuguese and Brazilian population. Ferry Street, for example, is often referred to as little Portugal, so sometimes my friend Andrew and I were the only ones that didn’t speak Portuguese in a class of 25 students. And our instructor was still working on learning English, so while he would mostly teach in English every so often he would revert back to Portuguese to break down a technique. No one really minded, well, except the two of us sujeta brazo?
The year I trained there I picked up lots of Portuguese. I worked on it and was able to keep up with everything that was said on the mat and the locker room. After I left, I continued with studyiong, and it has come in handy.
I was at World’s a few years ago, and Andrew was fighting a Brazilian. Andrew was taking him down repeatedly and working on passing non-stop. As he was working on passing the kid taps and says he can’t breathe. Juiz stops the match, calls the medics, and ten minutes goes by and he restarts the match! My friend is completely thrown off thinking he had won and later he gets caught in a loop choke. As I try to talk to the ref to make my case he responded with “Sorry no English. I responded, “No problema eu phalo portugues!” While I was not able to change the ridiculous call, I was at least able to argue my case.
Another time, I was refereeing a match and a coach argued about my call. I politely explained why his student didn’t get points after the match. He continued to argue. Then proceeded to call a friend over and tell him how much of an idiot I was and some other colorful language. Me telling him “eu entendo que você está dizendo” was met with a flurry of apologies. ("I understand what you were saying.")
I have dreamt about a trip to Brazil since I started training, and I hope to make it there soon. While I understand plenty of people speak English, being able to communicate locals in their language is a great feeling.
So if you have been thinking about learning Portuguese but are not sure how here is what I would recommend:
Get Duolingo. I wish I had this app when I learned to speak English and Portuguese. Things would have been much easier. A few minutes of practice on your phone a day and it will help you immensely to build your vocabulary and understand how grammar works in your chosen language.
Watch videos in Portuguese. Look through your DVDs at home. You may have some of your favorite movies spoken in Portuguese. Set the subtitles and start training yourself to listen to Portuguese. YouTube channels like bjjhacks has awesome content in Portuguese with English subtitles as well.
Start reading as soon as possible. Gracie Mag Brazil and Tatame.br are awesome resources. You already love reading about BJJ so this will make studying BJJ even more immersive.
Start speaking as soon as possible. We can all be very self-conscious when learning a language. We don’t want to sound like Tarzan, but people are always willing to help. You are trying to learn their language, which is often a big compliment! Find a native speaker in your gym or school and try to talk to him or her for a few minutes every day. If talking face to face is not possible text or call someone.
Have you learned to speak Portuguese or another second language? Share your tips! I’m sure the rest of Panda Nation would appreciate it, and I’m always up for learning as well!