Talkative. Shy. Sarcastic. Witty. Timid. Smart. Awkward. Funny. Mean. Caring. Thoughtful. Genuine. Extroverted. Outgoing. You can tell a lot from what a person says and how they say it. The words they use and the way they communicate. Their body language and expressions. We infer a lot about someone's personality from their language. You form an impression based on what you hear and how you interact.
So what happens when you can't say much? Or anything at all? When I first visited Brazil it was "smile, nod and try to look interesting." The connections I made with people here were basically limited to those who could speak English. It is very easy to forget someone who doesn't say anything.
I wonder how I came across in my early trips to Brazil when my Portuguese was non-existent? Different personality traits can come across when you can't communicate. Proud. Dumb. Introverted. Insecure. When I first started at boarding school many people thought I was snobby because I was so quiet, while in reality I was extremely shy and often intimidated by others.
So as I find myself trying to integrate into a new culture with a new language, I sometimes feel like the Facebook icon - just a featureless face, a blank canvas. I am still learning the basics of Portuguese - the phrases that all newcomers learn, the standard questions and responses. While this is all very helpful and necessary, it also feels very robotic and cliché. It is hard to really express who I am in this new language. I am able to communicate, yes, but do I really come across? Because my language feels so limited, what people can understand and know about me is also limited.
I remember having a conversation with some Brazilian friends who speak both English and Portuguese and lamenting how the "formal" Portuguese I was learning in my classes seemed so far removed from the Portuguese I heard spoken all around me. I guess this is the case in all languages - what often distinguishes the native speakers is their use of idiom, those phrases that are used so often and are so hard to translate. I find it extremely humorous that the words idiom and idiot are so similar sounding; if you don't use an idiom right, you can sound like an idiot! Of course, most people are encouraging and helpful and appreciate your efforts to speak their language.
So I press on, making mistakes daily and slowly coming closer to feeling like speaking Portuguese will one day come naturally to me and people will be able to see the full picture of who I am.