Here we are: another university term of feigned confidence is drawing to a close. I’m officially done with exams, and semester break is holding me in its warm embrace. You know what that means: time to celebrate my freedom from the clutches of education by giving an unsolicited account of my intellectual progress!

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I feel free as a bird, can’t you tell? (Source)

Something felt different this term. As exam season was looming, not only time for revising (or, depending on your perspective, rehearsing) was scarce, but at times I also felt that I had somehow misplaced the script: I’d forgotten how to study.

So do you, like, just stare at your notes for a little while, desperately hoping that the information will magically imprint itself on your cerebral faculties?
Isn’t it a waste of time to compile a bunch of vocab you should have absorbed over the course of the semester just because you feel guilty for being so forgetful when there’s all that grammar to worry about?
Can you summarize encyclopaedic articles about socio-political changes in Victorian England to the extent of misconstruing them and still expect to spew out an accurate explanation in the exam?

Luckily, I did have a pretty good run with exams. This is partly because I took Portuguese and Yiddish on the side, and language course credits are little more than participation trophies as the grades are not included in your academic record.

I do take languages seriously, though. I hope to attain a decent level of conversational Portuguese by next year. Trouble is — blame it on a lack of either practice or neuroplasticity — I’ve been struggling with the oral component of that course. I’ve talked about this before: in-class conversations in Portuguese make me panic, even if I’m only faced with a casual question about my weekend plans.


I think schools should spend less time telling students what to study and more time showing them how to go about it. I’ll give you an example. Latin is a language I’ve never considered myself proficient in, but the subject taught me what the study of languages is all about. I started English in grade 5 as well, but Latin was the first language I studied rather than learned. Plus, it had the kind of inflectional complexity that I would later be reminded of when reiterating those mind-numbing conjugation mantras so typical of a studious student’s pre-exam preoccupations.

Eu sei, você sabe, nós sabemos, vocês sabem. Eu soube, você soube, nós soubemos, vocês souberam.

And so forth.

I may not be that polyglot type of person who can strike up a friendship with virtually any foreigner, but I have a soft spot for the magic you can witness your brain performing when what sounded like random mumbles and stumbles of a frantic tongue just a month ago is slowly beginning to morph into  meaning. That said, any language will retain a sense of mystery to you, even after the fact. Most words I encounter in my Portuguese classes shed light on family resemblances with French, English, and Latin. But at the same time they are often enveloped in cryptic semantics.

One such word is pena. It’s a feminine noun with a feminine ending, nothing out of the ordinary. What amazes me about it is the various meanings it can have depending on the context. In the expression “cumprir uma pena” it means punishment, which is mirrored by the English verb “penalize”. If you say something like “Eu tenho pena”, however, it takes on the meaning of pity or some other mental anguish. The exclamation “Que pena!”, for instance, translates to “What a pity!”. Some etymological cognates from the same Greek root as pena include the English “pain” or the German “peinlich” (for “embarrassing”). Being a Romance language, though, Old Portuguese didn’t derive the noun directly from Ancient Greek but via Latin, which is where two distinct etymological lines converge: poena (from Greek; see above) and penna/pinna — a proto-Italic word meaning “feather” or “quill”. The contemporary Portuguese pena combines these phonetic cousins to signify “punishment”, “pity”, or “feather”. If that isn’t some poetic piece of linguistic trivia, I don’t know what is.

Part of what fascinates me about this polysemy is that the two semantic branches of pena almost seem diametrically opposed. “Punishment” and “pity” evoke heaviness, a mental burden, whereas “feather” carries a sentiment of relief and liberty. What’s more, feathers provide a protective shield with which to fend off elemental adversaries.


That reminds me of an animated short film called “Das Geheimnis des Herrn Schmidt” (“Mr Schmidt’s Secret”). It was part of an episode of Janoschs Traumstunde, a German TV series I grew up with. (If you understand German, I urge you to watch it; for those who don’t — and lazy Germans — I’ve summarized the plot below.)

The film is about an immigrant from Czechoslovakia who has rented a squalid one-room apartment in a small German river town directly beneath one Mr Schmidt, an enigmatic figure who silently treads upon the town’s cobblestone streets eluding every greeting and keeping his hands in his coat pockets at all times.

Mr Wrwratil, the immigrant, is unemployed and lonely, and when his reluctant attempts to reach out to Mr Schmidt fail, he starts to investigate his background and follow him around, which eventually leads to the startling discovery that Mr Schmidt has inhabited the town for at least 400 years. It now occurs to Mr Wrwratil that his neighbour has the exact appearance and gait of a raven — he even has ravens for visitors at his windowsill.

Confounded by this revelation, Mr Wrwratil decides to move out of his apartment and return to rural Czechoslovakia, where he is less isolated. Back home, he comes across a raven trudging around the countryside and eating from a farmer’s plate. When Mr Wrwratil enquires whether the bird belonged to him, the farmer laughs and kindly informs him, like the townspeople before, that the elusive figure has been known to generations of locals. The raven is called Josef and visits the village from time to time, whenever he feels like it. Going up to a nearby cottage, Mr Wrwratil takes note of a sign at the door that reads “Schmidt”. On the way to his own house, Mr Wrwratil crosses paths with the raven, who greets him with a nod and walks on. At the end, Mr Wrwratil reflects,

If someone harbours the secret of being a bird, then they can live in two places: both here and there. Yes, that must be it.

Despite its omission of the language barrier and xenophobia, this Kafkaesque children’s story makes for a pretty nuanced depiction of the immigrant experience. It’s a pity we live in a world where moving abroad has to entail wrapping your plumage in some nut-brown cloak of conformity so as not to arouse suspicion. Either way, it’s up to you whether those feathers you wear underneath will grow to be a burden; just don’t deny yourself the right to use them.

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