How Language Learning Influenced My Travels

So I was chatting with my sister yesterday, and I mentioned to her how I’ve had the lifelong goal of learning French, Spanish, and Portuguese.

“French? Where did French come from?”

It’s an understandable question looking at my body of work academically and career-wise. But French has always been in my mind, but circumstances pushed it to the back-burner. I started thinking about how language has fueled so much of my travel and academic decisions, and decided I’d share that thought process with y’all.

Let’s start with French.

I’ve wanted to learn French since …. probably since the late 1990s. It’s all thanks to a television show with an amazing soundtrack, called Cowboy Bebop.

Cowboy Bebop is a Japanese animated television series that ran for one season and a movie. It’s a complete story (just so you don’t complain about the one season thing) mainly about a bounty hunter (or ‘Cowboy’) named Spike Spiegel trying to escape his past while also make a living in a dangerous galaxy. This show changed my life in a multitude of ways that I can’t even fathom. I’ll probably go into detail about it some day, if Japan ever comes up again, but in the meantime, have you heard the soundtrack on this show? It’s impeccable. It’s a mishmash of jazz, pop, rock, and a bunch of other genres. It’s a collection as eclectic as the Bebop music the show gets it’s name from. It places the show in a weird timelessness where the music is modern, if not a bit dated, and the show takes place in the future. I’m on a tangent, I can talk about this show for years, let’s get back to the story.

I would read about the show and soundtrack on a bunch of websites and download the music via Kazaa (hey, it was a Japanese anime in the early 2000s, there was no way I was going to be able to get the actual copies!), and found a gem that wasn’t even featured in an episode by the name of Fantasie Sign.

This song, sung by Carla Vallet, is a little French ditty about being forever linked to your lover. I fell head over heels in love with the song, and with the language she was singing in. I even loved the remix, which in a strange twist of fate, relies heavily on a samba influence that would influence the music I would gravitate towards years later.

Barely a year later I was introduced to Stereolab, a super popular yet super niche French band that specialized in a quirky mix of rock music and “avant-pop.” An online store I frequented posted a French playlist, and it included the first song of theirs I heard, Cybele’s Reverie.

It was at this point that I was super certain I would get to high school and study French.

It didn’t work out that way.

Our French teacher was seemingly let go, and I had no choice but to take Spanish.

I resented this for a while. Spanish is cool and all, and Selena made some great Tejano music…

But I didn’t have the exposure to Spanish, and I’ll admit, the exotification of French in my head. To me France was everything suave, everything stylish, everything tasty, everything romantic, everything beautiful. Spanish wasn’t even on my radar.

But being that I’m a G, I put my foot into my Spanish lessons and aced every course. I could belt out a “No Me Ames” karaoke if you gave me the opportunity.

Despite the fact that Spanish came easy to me, I wanted to go to school and study Portuguese. Something had changed while I was in high school, French and Spanish would have to wait, because I discovered Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66.

I own this vinyl and nearly cried when I found it at a local record store, along with a bunch of other bossa nova, samba, and easy listening classics. Ask Alesha! I was beside myself!

I discovered Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66 in a roundabout way, through hip hop. I frequented many music websites in middle and high school, and stumbled up one owned by a man named Todd Kelley. Todd Kelley, a DJ and artist, would create playlists via Radio Blog, a widget you could use to insert playlists into your website. Many of his playlists focused on a single hip hop producer or rapper. One of them was on J Dilla or Jay Dee (who also altered the course of my life, but once again, another story, another time). I doubt Dilla ever met a song that he didn’t see potential in, and the further I dug into the stuff he’s produced, the more often I find Stereolab or a Stan Getz samba. On that playlist was what would become one of my favorite songs in the world, Fingertips by Poe.

The song contained a sample by Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66, their song “Like a Lover.”

Now if there’s anything to know about Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66, it’s that they made their impact mainly by being a cover band. Aside from their great original material, they would also cover popular Brazilian songs in English, and English songs in Portuguese or with a Brazilian flair (see their cover of Wichita Lineman for an example). It was super easy to listen to one of their older songs, or even the recent collaboration Sergio Mendes did with, and then fall down a rabbit hole into another artist’s discography, and another, and another, and another. Before I knew it, I was sitting on a pretty big library of Brazilian Portuguese music, from the old school to the Curumin.

Then somehow, I ended up in a club in Pelourinho, Salvador da Bahia, Brazil singing along to “Sabado a Noite” by Magary Lord.

Seeing this clip is weird, because I saw them perform this song in a very similar setting. It was a really good time, I’m not gonna lie.

Bahia taught me a lot about how language was going to further influence my studies. It was around this time that I became increasingly fascinated by the diversity of blackness in the diaspora, especially when concerning the descendants of slaves whose ancestors crossed the Atlantic. In addition to the struggles we all faced, we all ended up bringing so much of home with us in our languages, dialects, foods, and most obviously, in our music. It’s been a life goal of mine since Brazil to speak French, Spanish, and Portuguese fluently so I can visit all the diaspora in the Americas, and get a head start on where I came from back in Africa.

After that whirlwind, I came back to school and came back to… Spanish.

I ended my Bachelor’s with wonderful grades in Spanish, despite writing in Portuguese on some of my tests (meu mente está confundida às veces).

So in the time since I’ve been out of school, I’ve been practicing speaking Portuguese most weeks. Me and my Lusophone colleagues at work sometimes eat lunch together and chat in Portuguese. My Spanish has taken a major backseat, to the point where if I try to recall it, you’re only going to get garbled PortuSpanish out of me. The French had a moment last year when I went to France and tried to get my mouth to make the French R (it’s a lot like the Portuguese R, but worse!). I ended up learning a lot of food words, which then became trapped in the radio static that is my PortuSpanish. I guess nowadays I speak a mishmash of PortuSpench (Eu gusto muito de comer poulet con arroz!), but I’m working on it.

Sooner or later, one of them is getting tied down.

Maybe sooner than later?

Do you practice any languages? How have they influenced your life?



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