Why I Chose Portuguese

When people ask me “why Portuguese?” I have an embarrassingly simple answer: because I couldn’t sign up in time for Spanish 101 in freshman year, thanks to a low lottery number on class registration day.

Fast forward a decade later and most of my career has been shaped by the curious fact that I, a Malaysian national, speak Portuguese. Conducting fieldwork for my thesis on Bolsa Familia, Brazil’s conditional cash transfer program, helped me land a stint at the UNDP in Brazil after graduation. My fluency in Portuguese convinced Princeton in Latin America that I could thrive as the first Brazil-based fellow at Endeavor, a nonprofit focused on high-impact entrepreneurship. At the World Bank, where I currently work, I know the doors are open for me to engage with governments not only in East Asia, but also in Brazil and Lusophone Africa.

But beyond that, speaking Portuguese has become part of who I am. No matter which country I am in (currently Indonesia), I listen to Brazilian talk shows and obscure Portuguese music. I think in Portuguese at times, seek to speak Portuguese whenever I can, keep learning new words and phrases, and self-correct my usage of those pesky gendered nouns. Today, it’s difficult for me to imagine my life without speaking Portuguese – and, like learning how to play the piano or riding a bicycle, I know it’s a gift that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

By Pui Shen Yoong
School in Brazil: Belo Horizonte, Fall 2010