Sunday, October 30, 2011

Bouncy Mouse

I know, I know, I'm so behind on blog posts. I have like, 5 that I want to get up this week, including the details of Mary's visit, an..."enlightening" anti-abortion flyer that Alexandre received and saved especially for me and you, fine readers, and also a post with more fun grammar stuff.

But really quick I just have to tell you guys about this game that Alexandre has on his cell phone. It's called Bouncy Mouse and it cracks me up! It's so sickeningly cute and it looks like it's meant for toddlers, but Alexandre insists that it actually is a challenging game. (I couldn't get past the first level. My fingers are too fat for touch screens. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.)

The point of the game is to launch this adorably adorable mouse-in-the-shape-of-a-ball around a Mario-Bros.-looking level until you get to the end of the maze thing. But along the way, you pick up cheese and avoid bees (...? a common enemy of the mouse?) until you successfully reach the cat at the end of the level.

But just look at this thing!
Look at that little face!

When you beat a level, the mouse makes this RIDICULOUS little squealing sound. The more points you've garnered, the longer the mouse squeals.  Alexandre and I have started making this sound during conversations. We use it to mean "yay!" or "that is exactly what I wanted!" You can hear a short version at the end of this video:

Isn't it hilarious?!?!

But by far, the best part of the game is that the mouse seems to win hats when he accomplishes certain cheese-collecting tasks. We're not sure if all of the prizes are hats, because Alexandre has only won one so far. 
Well, according to this picture, some other prizes (a.k.a. 'secrets,' a.k.a. 'a bad collocation translation from Chinese to English') include another hat and maracas. But look at that! A ball-shaped mouse in a sombrero!! 


I dare you to get through this video without at least chuckling to yourself a little bit: 

So much cheese! So much bouncing! Rainbows coming out of the mouse's tail!!!!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Your Bilingual Brain: Nerdy Hour #2

This is going to be one of those nerdy posts about linguistics. Go ahead and skip it if they bore you (though you may be missing out!).

So I know I said I'd try to do these Nerdy Hour posts every week, but they require more time than I imagined, so clearly that didn't happen. I also said I'd be researching ESL-related topics for us to discuss, but I decided to look into something more relevant for us foreigners living abroad rather than for our students.

You see, when my friend Mary was here visiting last week, I realized just how much Portuguese is affecting my English. There were countless times when I couldn't remember an English word, or when I used the wrong word, or when I used some weird Portuguese-based grammar.

Instead of getting too embarrassed about it, I decided to research why the heck my brain is letting Portuguese run the show so often. I remember learning in college that when students start to learn a new language, they'll temporarily "turn off" their first language (a.k.a. Language 1, or L1). This process, called inhibition, was proven by studying word recall in students just after they got out of their foreign language classes. After an hour or two of Spanish class, it was harder for the English speaking students to remember English words. But I never learned anything about the long-term effects of L2 fluency on the L1.

So for my research, the terms I used to find articles were "language immersion" "effects on L1" and "L1 inhibition." I found some interesting stuff. The short story is that learning a second language changes the way your brain is organized, so sometimes you can't remember where you put things!

First, I learned from this article that you can learn things from a new language using two methods:

1. Associating the new word or grammar with the L1 word or grammar (pure language translation)
2. Associating the new word or grammar with the more abstract concepts that represent them in your brain

As you become more fluent in a L2, you start using method 2 a lot more. Basically, you stop relying on your first language for translations, and start associating new words and info with concepts. This is important because language information is stored in one part of your brain, while ideas and abstract concepts are stored in another. So as you become more fluent, you start "saving new information" to a different part of your brain.

Some really amazingly fun and awesome neurolinguists decided to study exactly how and where this happens in the brain. In their study, they made some helpful conclusions:

*There are 2 distinct parts of your brain: parts for each language.
*There are also communal regions of your brain that are shared and activated by both languages. (I think this refers to the concept regions that the other article talked about.)
*There are more parts of the brain that are for your L1 than for your L2.
*A lot of these L1 regions are set at a very young age. They don't change and your L2 cannot affect them. It's as if your brain marks off part of itself just for your first language.
*In bilingual kids, the regions that are distinct in adults overlap. Basically, bilingual kids have fewer distinct parts, and fewer regions reserved for only the L1.
*The older the participants were when they learned their second language, the more variety the researchers found in which parts of their brain they used to "store" the L2. So basically, when you're younger, you use predictable parts of the brain to store your L2. But the older you are when you start learning, the more "creative" your brain has to be to save the new language information.

So I combined the information from these two studies and thought of a helpful metaphor. You see, I think that we can imagine our brains as a series of buckets. We've got a bucket for our L1 (English, for most of you), and a bucket for our L2 (Portuguese, for most of you). At first, when you start out learning your second language, it's easy to keep the buckets organized. Sometimes you have to cover up your L1 bucket so the contents don't confuse you. As you start seeing connections between the languages and start understanding words and ideas as abstract concepts rather than just words, you start throwing things into a giant mixed bucket.
Kids are great at keeping their buckets big and organized. But for us, as adults, after a while, that shared concept bucket can get pretty disorganized. So sometimes you have to frantically search around inside it for something (See my little stick figure, frantically searching? :). That's when you forget a word. Sometimes you pull out the wrong thing on accident (like "the beach was filled of people"). But all in all, these mistakes are a testament to your fluency in the new language. Don't despair. All of that searching and organizing makes you as a bilingual better and faster at solving problems, paying attention to things, and resolving conflicts. So next time you say some funny thing in your native language that's clearly the result of your second language, feel better knowing that this little slip-up means you're making your brain more awesome and more complex.

I think there's another factor that causes us to make mistakes in our first language, especially for those of us married to people who speak English as a second language, and for those of us who teach English. It's simple: You hear consistently different English all day! You're essentially hearing a different dialect of English. Imagine if you were an American who moved to England. After a couple of years, you'd certainly start to pick up lots of British slang and even some British grammar preferences. I'm arguing that the same thing happens to us, who hear "Brazilian English" all day. If you hear people use the verb "to combine" instead of "to schedule" 50+ times, you might, eventually, start to say it, too.

So yay, your turn! Is your second language messing up your first language? Any funny mistakes you've made? Comment away!

EDIT: Here's some more proof!

Monday, October 17, 2011

A Beautiful Moment

Guess what guys? I'm pregnant!

No, I'm not, just kidding. It's just that two other bloggers announced their pregnancies this week and I wanted to make you all gasp at the possible coincidence. Haha. :) :) Congrats to Nina and Meredith!

OK, but the real post today is a little about my last week, which was super great because my friend Mary came to visit from the US (hence my disappearance from the internet world). I'll write the full post once I've got all of her pictures, but I just wanted to tell you all about a nice morning Mary and I shared while she was here.

I hope Mary doesn't mind me telling you a little bit about her. When she was seventeen, two years before we met in our literature classes at Berkeley, she had a skiing accident that caused a lot of damages to her back and everything below, mainly her spine and her feet. The road to recovery has been long, and Mary's still on it, but she's the most adaptable and resilient person I've ever met. She's one of those rare people who learns a lesson in optimism from a serious trauma, who realizes the value in making the most of life and who really does put that idea into every one of their actions and decisions.

Mary and I spent a few days of her trip at the in-laws' beach house. On our last day there, the weather was cool; the sky was cloudy and it was raining just a bit. But Mary came down the stairs in her bathing suit and a dress and had decided that she wanted to go swimming in the ocean anyway. I was feeling cold and lazy but wasn't going to say no to her polite enthusiasm.

Mary's step is still a bit slow, so we took our time walking down to the water. When we go to the shore, we left our towels and dresses on the sand to be made muddy by the drizzle. We stepped into the water tentatively. I thought it chilly; Mary, traveling here from her new home in Oregon, rejoiced in the ocean's relative warmth. After only a minute or two of wading, she was ready to dive right in. I held back a bit, futilely wiping the raindrops off my glasses and mentally preparing myself for the rush of chilly water reaching my abdomen.

And there, in the choppy ocean, in the inseparable spray, was Mary: a mermaid, a dolphin, a woman celebrating life. She wasn't one to waste an opportunity: it was her last chance on the trip to swim in the open ocean of the tropical Atlantic, and she wasn't going to pass it up. While I frowned at the frigid splashing, she said thank you to the sea and the sky for their union; she said thank you to her muscles and her bones for theirs; and she swam.

I couldn't help but be inspired. My dear friend showed me the beauty of the moment. I gave in, held onto my glasses, and went under. We frolicked like a pair of otters, and happily tired ourselves out. When we walked home in our bathing suits, in the rain, it didn't matter that we were wet or that our clothes were wet or that our towels were wet because it was just water and water makes life cleaner and smoother and the day was gray but gorgeous.

Thanks for being great, my friend!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


So my gnat-like personality causes me to leave a lot stories unresolved here on my blog. I tell you about something crazy that happened and how I'm not sure how I'm going to handle it, but then I never tell you the conclusion, even though so many people leave me so many helpful comments with advice. Since I've got some free time tonight, I thought I'd fill you guys in.

The horribly embarrassing aerobics gym class: I've kept up with the gym (and even started running, can you believe it?), but I never did go back to that class. The main reason was because the gym membership was half the price without it. But it was also because the people in the regular workout room (the place with the treadmills and bikes and weights) are way cooler and more down-to-earth than the gym bunnies in the hardcore "look at my sexy body" aerobics class. I've been able to go at my own pace and therefore I've felt more successful and I've more or less made it into a routine.

The crazy Mormon guy: The younger boys from the church eventually did call me and ask me when I was available to come back and observe their basic classes. I mentioned the encounter with their boss and asked if they'd heard about it. The boy on the phone informed me that he had, in fact, heard about it, and then told me, "yeah, Steve felt really bad about it, but then he said you could come back only if you agreed to stick to the basic classes." This conversation annoyed me. They made it sound like they were doing ME a favor by "allowing" me to volunteer. So I effectively "broke up with them" and said it just wasn't gonna work out and good luck. Too bad. No more attempts at volunteering through religious organizations.

That crazy one-day maid who took all day: She had only planned to come that one day because of her surgery, and she never called to ask to come back, and we never called her. I've been keeping up with the cooking and cleaning; I talked Alexandre into helping more (a miracle!), and a lot of the translation work dropped off, so it's been working out OK. I'm guessing that she decided that our apartment was too much work and blamed the apartment rather than her own abilities for the delay.

That crazy Anti-American guy at the gym: Luckily, I haven't seen him since that fateful day, since he usually goes to the gym late at night. Alexandre has run into him a couple of times since that day, and both times, the guy tried to pick fights with him, even though Alexandre told him that he was my HUSBAND, that he's been to the US and that he's MARRIED to an American. My conclusion is that crazy gym guy is a very angry and unhappy man and his "perpetual irritation," as Alexandre describes it, is much bigger than some hatred for the US. So now I just kind of feel sorry for him.

My students on Skype: This has worked out really well. I have a handful of my students from our former town on Skype, and it definitely saves me when bill paying time rolls around. There are a lot of benefits, like the fact that they already have the material and that we've already developed a rapport; there's also the benefit that I don't have to clean my house or take a shower before classes start. Haha. The only problem is that the internet tends to cut out a lot, and I'm not sure if it's because of my internet connection or theirs or both. So I think when we move in January for Alexandre's residency, it'll be worth it to invest in a higher-speed internet.

My Portuguese teacher: After receiving so many generous offers from people (thanks, everyone!) I did end up finding a teacher, and we had our first classes last week. It's a fun challenge to teach someone so advanced, and it's really satisfying to have someone sit with me for a WHOLE hour each week to talk about my questions about Portuguese grammar. It seems promising so far! :D

I think that's everything that I've left unfinished. I hope this post was more hopeful and interesting and less self-indulgent. Have a good night!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Museum Day with Alexandre

So Mr. Alexandre, who has been working like a crazyperson, finally had a WHOLE day off today and promised we could do whatever I wanted. So we went to check out historical downtown Santos, which has a bunch of museums and old buildings and stuff. When I told people I was moving to the Baixada Santista, everyone told me to go see the trolley cars and museums over there.

So, OK. Sunday is not the best day to go to the historical downtown area of Santos. All the commercial buildings are closed, and it's right up against the backside of the port, so that means it was just us, a couple of fellow wandering tourists, and crack addicts. Not ideal. But we didn't know it was like that until we got there.

Our first stop was the Museu do Café, or the Coffee Museum. If you don't live under a rock, you know that Brazil is one of the world's largest exporters of coffee, and that Brazil has a huge coffee culture. Mm-mm. The museum is housed in what was once the Edifício da Bolsa Oficial de Café, which I guess we can translate as the Coffee Stock Exchange Building. Basically, it was the big beautiful building next to the Port of Santos, the largest port in Latin America, where coffee traders and brokers met to do their buying and selling.

the old-timey trading floor, with chairs for the brokers from each brand or strand or whatever
The museum focused on the history of coffee trade in Brazil and how coffee was harvested, made, and exported before modern methods were used. So there were lots of paintings of Santos when it was first founded (you can see one in the background of the picture above), and lots of rudimentary tools that slaves had to use out on the coffee plantations.

If you're really interested in the historical facts (Ray), you can find them online, or you probably already know them. So I'll show you the fun stuff, like the high-quality translations:

Oh, the perils of cheap dictionaries with one-word translations

680 millions of dollars in revenues!!!
(haha, I know this is just a small and common mistake, but it's still entertaining)

There was also a man trying to carry really heavy coffee all by himself, so I had to help him out:
The poor guy's been at it for like, 100 years

And then Alexandre decided to personify him:

And here's a picture showing when the canals in Santos were inaugurated, and how the streets around them are absolutely not made for modern-day cars (hence torturous driving experiences whenever we try to drive in that damn place):
See the horse buggies on the left? That space today is now supposed to be for 2 lanes of cars. Except people use 1 of the lanes to park, and then buses take over and push you into the driving-turned-parking lane, and motorcycles cut in between. The same thing happens going in the other direction on the other side. It's madness! I say we go back to the horses.
And here's a cool map of Brazil made out of non-roasted coffee beans:

And here's me, pouting because Alexandre insisted on taking a picture OF me instead of WITH me:
next to me is a cool old building that was converted into a nightclub, and behind me is part of the Port of Santos

And here's me and Alexandre together, and I'm happier because my pouting worked:

Before leaving the coffee museum, we drank obligatory espressos in the museum's café. They tasted like overpriced Brazilian espressos.

Our next planned stop was a place called Monte Serrat, which has a sort of tram car that goes up a mountain, akin to that teleférica that I went to with Samia a couple of weeks ago, except this one is on the ground. But on our way there, we stumbled upon another old-building-turned museum. This one was dedicated to the engineer Saturnino de Brito, who designed all the canals and sewer systems in Santos. Turns out the port used to be this nasty cesspool. You see, Santos is technically an island, connected to the mainland only by a system of swamps and rivers. All the different people coming to the island, whether to dock or to live, brought and died from lots of diseases, like yellow fever and cholera. Anyhoo, this engineer guy realized that a huge part of the problem was the fact that people were crapping everywhere and leaving their rotten food in the streets and all that. So he put in some canals and some sewer systems. 

The focus of the building-turned-museum was on a new partnership between Japan and Brazil called Onda Limpa (Clean Wave), in which Japan is helping the Sao Paulo coast clean up its crap better. The guide in the museum showed us this fancy light board. It had a map of the coast and the different projects that Onda Linda is developing, and where the water's being treated, and where it's going to go. (Here's the website about it.) Anyway, it was cool stuff! It's really going to modernize the region.

If I had to put this museum's theme into words, they would be "the ongoing struggle between nature, government, and citizens who don't give a shit about, well, their shit." It was basically a history of how the environment makes living down here difficult, about how the people don't care about the environment or about making a mess, and how the government is always trying to combat the two challenges. A pretty government-friendly message, if you ask me. But it was interesting information (who knew there was so much to know about a city's drainage system?), the guide really knew his stuff, the building was pretty, and best of all, it was free!

So that enlightening tour took much longer than expected, and it was well into lunchtime by the time we got to the little trolley car thing at Monte Serrat.

It looked cute and all, but it was freakin' 20 reais a person to go up! We figured that money would be better spent on food. So we stole a picture from the bottom (you can see the top from the bottom anyway -- not that exciting) and went to find a restaurant.

Since most everything in the downtown area was closed (too bad! there seemed to be some promising vegetarian and por kilo places), we drove down toward the beach and found a friendly little Italian place. Our chatting with the waiter revealed that this Monte Serrat business is not actually THE famous Santos trolley, and that there is apparently another bonde, or cable car, that the city is known for. Whoops. 

We'll have to save that cable car trip for another day, because by the time lunch was over, it was pouring down rain and we were pooped (get it? pooped? after a visit to the sewer museum? har har). So we made the trip home.

What a fun little date! I can't wait 'till Alexandre's work schedule eases up a bit so we can have more of these.

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