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Author's profile photo MaryKay Grueneberg

Language Barriers Become Bonds


When I first found out I was selected for the SAP Social Sabbatical team headed to Brazil, a lot of things went through my mind. I wondered about the culture, customs, professional etiquette, food, but foremost on my mind was the language. I wondered if anyone there would speak English and I wondered if I’d be able to learn enough Brazilian Portuguese to communicate with my clients.

The majority of the members of team Guaiba are bi-lingual and some are multi-lingual. None of us, however, spoke Portuguese before we arrived here. In preparation, we shared some basic vocabulary lists, but we knew that would not get us too far. Initially, the goal was to “get by.” Upon arriving here, we all quickly realized that learning the language is about more than just making our lives easier while we are here. We felt that it was important to show respect to our hosts and our clients by making more than a cursory attempt at speaking their language. So, we all tried very hard to learn Portuguese.

We all use different methods; some use mobile translation apps, some have Portuguese phrase books, and others use Google Translate. About half of the team got together and hired a language teacher to walk us through basic phrases and vocabulary. Juliana is our incredible Portuguese teacher and our new friend.


In one way or another, by the end of our second week, we were all enjoying small victories like figuring out how much the laundry costs and ordering at a restaurant and actually getting what we wanted!


This past weekend, Annette Bazin and I went on a road trip to Gramado. With the help of our contacts here, we arranged for bus tickets and had a list of “things to do and see” in hand. We were told that since Gramado is a tourist town, there would be plenty of people who spoke English. We were told wrong. We did not find a single person in the town that spoke English (other than a tourist here and there), including the employees at the Tourist Information Center! We did find one employee at the hotel who spoke some English and was a big help to us. In return, Annette introduced the desk staff to Google Translate, which made them extremely happy! It was a successful weekend: we were able to get where we wanted to go, see what we wanted to see, and we even changed our bus ticket reservations, all with just the Portuguese we learned in these few weeks!


The members of Team Guaiba have not been the only ones learning new things. Our clients that knew little or no English before we arrived have tried hard to learn some English as well. They have all tried to make us feel welcome and comfortable and they knew that learning English would help. So the locals try. We try. In the end, a language barrier became a bond. Helping each other through the language learning curve has been an exercise in collaboration and cooperation with our clients and hosts. Bonding at its best!

SpeakPortuguese.jpgFollow #TeamGuaiba on Twitter! @MKGee

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