In the baggage: language and dreams

“This post by Marcelle Esteves reads like a dream: the personal narrative moves fast from one scene to another while simultaneously triggering sensorial reactions: we can clearly visualize the memories described in the post, we can hear languages spoken by people from different points on the planet, we can smell sweet scents, we can taste delicious foods. In the middle of all this explosion of experiences, we are invited to consider an offshoot of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (the one that suggests that our thoughts and actions are influenced by the language we speak). In Marcelle’s post, the question becomes, “Do the languages we speak influence our dreams?”

Denise Santos
Buzios, June 2020. Source: Marcelle Esteves ©

“Don’t be pushed around by the fears in your mind. Be led by the dreams in your heart.” (Roy T. Bennett, The Light in the Heart)

The fireworks on a clear sky in Buzios on December 31st announced the beginning of a new year. Buzios is a coastal town situated north of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It used to be a fishing village until the 1960s but now it has upscaled to a highly well sought-after resort destination sprinkled with boutiques, exquisite restaurants and many quiet spots of preserved nature. Most importantly, it is where my reset button resides.

As usual, we headed to the beach, hugged and kissed each other as a gesture of wishing the best of luck for the new year, while watching the pyrotechnic show that happens every year and gathers crowds on the beaches of Brazil.

Oblivious to the challenges that the new year was about to present, I jumped the seven waves, while making seven wishes for the year to come. A tradition amongst people who spend New Year’s eve on the beaches there. 

I wished for the usual: health, peace, protection, love, and also for my dream to return to the UK to materialize. At this point in time, our lives were pretty well established in Sao Paulo, so this dream was nothing but a wishful thought.

As I headed home, the TV showed a retrospective of big events from the previous year, and in between the news, something about a virus that could be potentially dangerous for the world population being detected in a faraway country. Little did we know that this threat would shape our lives forever. 2020 has gifted us with the opportunity to know how strong, resilient and adaptive we could be. 

I dreamed in English for the first time that very night in Buzios. Throughout my life I heard folks saying that you are only truly fluent in a language when you start dreaming in that language.  That had never occurred to me until that night. I dreamed that I was sitting outside a thatched cottage somewhere in the UK, eating a medialuna and drinking an acai drink. I was watching the kids playing with the dog at a far distance, and because they were wearing thongs (flip flops) I thought they could trip over, so I commanded:

“Go and put your sneakers on.” 

A silly dream, yet, so revealing. See, dreams are powerful things. Through dreams one can live an entire different life. One that you can be inspired, encouraged, or empowered to make decisions that usually do not come easily when we are awake and engulfed in our routine lives. Vincent van Gogh, for instance, once said, “I dream my painting and then I paint my dream.” If I may humbly relate to that, I also come up with many ideas for the stories I write while I am dreaming. 

My dream that night made me realise a couple of things. First, and foremost, that we should always pursue our dreams, even when they seem distant and not feasible. Second, that we become a little bit of everything we see and experience.  Even my diet is highly influenced by the places where I lived.  I used to have medialunas for breakfast often while living in Argentina. Acai is my favourite dessert in Brazil. Hence the reason why they staged in my dream.

Cooking a blend of Australian, Brazilian, and Argentinian dishes that once made part of our daily diet is not a foreign concept to us.  Through our meals together we talk about fond memories of the time we experienced another way of living and seeing the world. There is beauty even in our challenging experiences.  I guess this is why it is addictive.  So, in my dream that night I used the words thongs and sneakers, as opposed to flip-flops or trainers. This, I believe, might have something to do with the fact that we have experienced, for an extended period of time, English language in its Australian and American versions. A potpourri of languages travelled to my sleeping mind that day.

As I was preparing for a university lecture in Brazil a couple of years ago, I came across an insightful talk broadcast online by the University of California, Berkley: Dreaming in Different Tongues: Languages  and the way we think. A very knowledgeable cognitive scientist, Lera Boroditsky, provided many insights on how the languages we speak influence  our thoughts and actions. (and our dreams, I believe!) 

In that talk, she drew on examples from empirical evidence, based on extensive research on different languages, to suggest that  languages indeed shape our thoughts.  She described how some people are better at orienting themselves than others, probably due to the way in which their language is structured. For instance, in some aboriginal languages in the North of Australia (e.g. Pormpuraaw), in order to say hello, they ask each other which way they are going, and the answer is generally, 

“Southeast, or north west in the far distance, what about you?” 

You have to have a pretty good sense of directions in order to do that, or else it would impact your ability to communicate past greetings. So, kids aged 5 could point to a cardinal point if asked with no hesitation whatsoever.

This actually brings a smile on my face as I think of myself as a well educated person but at the same time clueless on directions.  For instance, since last month I have resumed driving on the right side of the car, and the left side of the street through narrow roads of this beautiful village I live at, using a nav app. When roads are closed due to road works and traffic is diverted, I completely lose my bearings and end up in different boroughs altogether.  I got lost so many times that I believe my mind imprinted the wrong directions somehow.

Arborfield Green UK, October 2020. Source: Marcelle Esteves ©

My attention to details on roads distracts me from my route.  The novelty is overwhelming. I never cease to admire the differences in vegetation, architecture, landscape, and even the animals that I see on the roads.  It is not uncommon to  see stray dogs, cats, horses and cows on roads  while driving on in Brazil.  While in Australia, one can regularly see kangaroos, wallabies, cockatoos and if you are lucky, some koalas.  Plenty of alligator snapping turtles crossing the roads  in Florida, and seals along the coast on the Pacific Coastal Highway from San Francisco to San Diego.  Most recently, I am encountering deer and badger signs around where I live.  And I am pretty sure I saw a fox near the garbage bin one day.  I am also in awe with the autumn blooming of apple trees, alyssum, aquilegia, begonias and pansies I see on my way.  I guess I only ever have memories of planting roses and daisies and orchids while living in Brazil.  Whenever I thought of gardening, I always had my references back to Argentina. 

Organge trees, La Lucila, Argentina, 2013. Source: Marcelle Esteves ©

There, I could smell jasmine or inhale the zest of orange trees that can be seen in many streets of Buenos Aires.  The strong smell of jasmine that is both refreshing and fulfilling is what makes me remember the words enredadera, arbol, and arbusto in the Spanish language that I am yet to master one day. It was when I lived in Buenos Aires that I started planting and raised my awareness of different ways to live a more sustainable life.

It was a perfect place to slow down, and, ironically, I could never tell the time while living there.  Let us just say that maths has never been my forte. But, suppose that it is 2:45 and someone asks you to tell the time. Telling time in Spanish requires solving an equation. If the minute hand is past six, but before the twelve, you need to use menos and then round the hour hand to the next hour and then subtract the minutes:

Son las tres menos quince ( or menos  un cuarto). 

The concept of time for Portuguese and English speakers is bodily centered. That is to say, we speak of the past as in what is behind us, and the future what is ahead (of us). I can even picture myself gesturing that pointing in another direction in my conversations. However, the concept of time is not the same for every language. For instance, I read in an article recently that for a remote Papua New Guinea tribe time flows uphill towards the river source. It is a nice way to think of time, being in the direction of the water, the source of life, a symbol of rebirth. 

Other languages structure their grammar in a way that in order to speak grammatically correctly, instead of using  tenses, you  would need to alter the verb for gender (Russian, for instance) or to indicate whether you have heard the information, witnessed it, read about it or just inferred it (Turkish).  I can only imagine the different things you pay attention to just to be able to communicate in those different languages.

Consider for example when my daughter asks, “Can I have a sleepover at a friend’s house?” She does not need to say if it is a female friend, or a male friend in English. However, in Portuguese she would need to specify the friend’s gender, at which point I would be more inclined to say yes or no.  As she is bilingual, I can guarantee she will be exchanging languages for many purposes, according to what she wants to convey. That, in essence, changes the way people think, and is fascinating to observe.  

I have always been thrilled with the diversity of languages, and our infinite ability to adapt to exceptional circumstances. I guess this was an asset that helped me through the many changes in life. Professionally, it shaped my expertise and directed me to experiment with other paths in my career.  After working as a teacher of English as a foreign language, I worked as a teacher of English as an additional language in international school environments with children and co-workers coming from an array of backgrounds and speaking several different languages.  With language awareness one can benefit not only from developing intercultural knowledge, but also to become more acceptant and creative in your approaches to teaching and learning.

Meeting people of different ages and backgrounds taught me to make a more precise needs analysis when it comes to designing individual language/educational plans.  It equipped me with the ability to cater for the diversity in the classrooms.  Once the asset-based mindset is established, teaching and learning is empowered.

Personally, this attitude of embracing differences and this hunger to learn more about the world, helped me  while moving from Brazil back to the UK  in the midst of a pandemic.

From packing a house and handing over keys, flights being cancelled, Visa Facilitation Services global offices interrupting  consular services,  new housing and school for my children pending in the middle of this, I found refuge again in Buzios, where I spent a long winter quarantine in summer clothes while I waited for everything to come together. 

There were fears, there were many uncertainties, but there was the belief that only through changes we can grow.

Marcelle started her career as a teacher of English in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She moved to the UK in 2001 to pursue a dream to complete a master’s course at the University of Reading. She ended up staying for some  extra years and learned a lot while working as a secondary teacher at comprehensive schools in Birmingham, Farnborough and Slough. She returned to Brazil where she joined the international  baccalaureate school system in Rio and Sao Paulo. She moved to Australia and Argentina  in the following years with her three children now aged 29, 14 and 11. At international schools she worked in both Primary and Secondary sectors, teaching English and supporting special educational needs children to achieve their potential at school. Marcelle is  thrilled to be back in the UK, where she intends to settle with her family. She currently writes ELT material for bilingual programmes in Brazil, enjoys her teatime catching up with old friends, and continues to dream.

24 thoughts on “In the baggage: language and dreams”

  1. Marcelle, great teacher, great person!
    Sensitive, generous, competent, great professional.
    I am privileged to be your friend!

  2. Outstanding narrative. In times when even heavy readers can no longer stick to long texts, Marcelle gripped me through the text from beginning to end. Very sensitive, heartful and inspiring. Wish her all the best in England.

  3. Wow Marcelle,
    What a poignant, insightful text, your storytelling takes the reader with you, so much voice…Hoping to read more texts from you! Thanks

  4. Wonderful text, Marcelle. I was thrilled to read about your experience in so many different places. Have to confess that a couple of the Australian animals are completely strange to me. But, on the pther hand, the way you describe your feelings for Búzios, I couldn’t agree more. Congratulations my dearest friend. Your writing really captures our attention. Hope you settle in England now, at least for a great while. Beijos querida

  5. Lindo texto. Parece que estamos vivendo cada cena, cada sentimento descrito. E fica o ensinamento que a vida, os lugares e experiências que temos, influencia nossos sonhos e nossas realizações.

  6. My week was peppered with encouragement messages by those of you who took the time to read this post and write a message here. I am truly grateful for this.
    As Denise noted, let’s all dream on!

    • Thank you, Marcelle, for giving us such a vivid, insightful account of part of your life history. Your words are inspiring, and I hope we can all see you here again in the future. 🙂 Many thanks indeed, Denise

  7. Hi Marcelle! I want to let you know that we finally finished making the musical “Annie”! I want to send you information on how to access it, or you can go to Graded’s Instagram page and you’ll see the Annie post there, near the top. Say hello to everyone and I hope you get a chance to watch the show. It will be on Friday, May 28 and Sunday May 30.


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