HomeNews & Views Ask Away: 5 Questions for a Future MD Who Speaks Portuguese, Cape Verdean Kriolu & Spanish

Ask Away: 5 Questions for a Future MD Who Speaks Portuguese, Cape Verdean Kriolu & Spanish


We’re asking students, teachers, and counselors five questions on how languages play a role in shaping personal and professional success… 

Meet Jacinta—a future physician and Fulbright Fellow who completed a double major in Africana Studies and Health & Human Biology at Brown University. 

1. You’re spending 2018 on a Fulbright Research Fellowship in Brazil studying Zika. Could you tell us how you chose the program and what your background in Portuguese was?

In college I took Portuguese language courses until the highest level offered, and I took a Portuguese literature course my senior year.  I love traveling and learning new languages. I always wanted to study abroad during college, but I didn’t have the space in my academic schedule to spend time abroad and also write a thesis and finish my pre-med requirements before graduation.

I told myself that I would spend a year abroad after college to make up for it.

I learned about Fulbright early on in college when I was researching international funding opportunities.  The Fulbright research program felt perfect for me because it offers lots of flexibility and independence to pursue my interests, while also providing generous funding to live in a city of my choice for 10 months.

Jacinta sitting on a ledge with skyline behind

2. Your project aims to “explore the social context of the Zika epidemic in Brazil’s northeast region through the lens of personal narrative and oral preservation of memory.”
How much of your work is done in Portuguese and what do you think would be different about your trip without knowledge of Portuguese? How does what you’ve accomplished so far compare to your expectations for the project?

The entirety of my project is conducted in Brazilian Portuguese. Without fluency in Portuguese, my project would not be possible.  I intentionally designed my research to rely heavily on communication and relationships, because I knew that would be the best way for me to immerse myself in the language and to reach new levels of fluency.

I also felt that if I was going to spend almost a year of my life in a foreign country, it’s important that I spend the majority of my time creating opportunities to build relationships with the people I work with.

Qualitative methodsprimarily interview-based researchhas created those sorts of opportunities for me. Without proficiency in Portuguese, I would be spending the majority of my time developing basic language skills, which would limit my contributions to the research communities that I’m a part of.

Jacinta standing with a Fulbright bannerI’ve actually been able to accomplish more than what I was expecting, mostly because of the support I’ve received from the group of Brazilian researchers I collaborate with.

I came to Brazil expecting to conduct qualitative interviews with caretakers who were affected by the Zika epidemic in 2016.  Now, in addition to that, I’ve been able to start some audiovisual projects (a short documentary film and podcast episode) to document the work that local researchers, health professionals, and leaders in the local health system are doing to understand the social consequences of Zika and to support affected families.

My goal now is to document the experience of caretakers (which involves in-depth interviews and family photo shoots) and to understand how the primary care system in Salvador is changing to address the new social challenges that microcephaly has created for families across the city.

3. What has been your biggest challenge with language learning?

The biggest challenge of my experience with language immersion as been overcoming my fear of making mistakes when I speak.

My parents are immigrants from Cabo Verde, Africa, and they struggled to learn English in their late adolescence.  My parents still have accents when they speak English, even though they’ve lived in the US for more than 30 years, and I’ve seen how my mom’s insecurities around her English have held her back from pursuing certain career paths or taking on opportunities.  While motivated by completely different reasons, my experience living in another country on a Fulbright grant has given me my first real glimpse into my parents’ struggle with English living in the United States.

It’s extremely frustrating, anxiety inducing, and sometimes humiliating, not being able to communicate because of a language barrier.  It took me a long time to overcome my personal insecurities around my Portuguese—not pronouncing words perfectly, or not knowing the most correct way to communicate a thought.  I feared that people would judge me or make fun of me for how I spoke, and that kept me from speaking up in meetings, or asking for help.

It wasn’t until I stopped comparing my Portuguese to native speakers’ and began to celebrate my ability to just speak and successfully communicate my thoughts that I finally began to feel more comfortable.

4. Do your future career goals involve Portuguese?

Given the growing ethnic and language diversity of the US population, I believe that it is essential for healthcare professionals to have proficiency in a foreign language.

Jacinta leaning on a ship's railing at seaI began to study Portuguese in college because I imagined that someday as a physician I would be taking care of Portuguese-speaking patients (Providence and Boston have significant Cape Verdean, Brazilian, Azorean immigrant populations), and I also had a strong interest in doing global health work in the Portuguese-speaking diaspora (Brazil and Portuguese-speaking countries in Africa).

I believe that it is important as a future physician that I can listen as my patients communicate about their experiences with disease in their own language.  It will only improve the quality of care I can deliver.  I also studied Spanish for six years before college and learning Portuguese has helped my Spanish comprehension.  I want to focus on gaining fluency in Spanish since there is a considerable Spanish-speaking population in the United States, and thus a high demand for Spanish-speaking physicians and healthcare providers.

5. What advice do you have for other STEM students who are interested in making a second language part of their professional plans?

My advice is to do it! 

students speaking on a panelEspecially for those planning to go into human health-related fields or research.  I think many people avoid studying a language because it’s difficult, and for professionals in STEM fields, it can be especially hard to find time to dedicate to language learning.  But I think it is a skill that everyone should prioritize.  For people in other countries, learning English is often essential to the advancement of professional careers.

For example, I’m currently taking a masters-level course on Social Epidemiology at my host institution in Brazil, and the majority of the readings are in English because most of the global research is published in English and not translated.  As native English speakers in the US, we tend to take for granted the amount of power that comes with knowing English.  We don’t need to learn another language to advance in our careers, to pass a class, or to get quality medical care.  For me, language learning is an important first step towards understanding the other side of this power imbalance.

I also believe that language learning makes you a more compassionate person.

It allows you to connect with people across differences and it creates opportunities for personal reflection and growth, which will inevitably make your contributions more valuable in the workplace.

BONUS QUESTION: Do you have any funny stories about using your Portuguese in Brazil?

For the first few months of my time abroad, I struggled to use the bus system in my city because it doesn’t run on a reliable schedule.  The only sure way to know which buses go where at what times is by asking people on the street. For the longest time, I struggled to find the courage to just ask a stranger for help in Portuguese, so instead I pretended like I knew what I was doing.  I got lost almost every time I took the bus in the beginning.

city skylineThe worst was one evening when I was trying to go home from a friend’s house who only lives a few neighborhoods over from me.  I had never taken the bus from that area and I knew I needed help, but I was too embarrassed to ask.  Long story short, I got on the wrong bus and ended up on the outskirts of Salvador at 10pm.  My phone died along the way, so I couldn’t even call a friend for help.  What should have been a quick 15 minute bus ride home turned into a 4 hour round-trip to a part of town I had never even heard of.  After that I found a way to swallow my pride and ask for help when navigating the bus system.


Are you interested in Portuguese language scholarships, university programs, or more student testimonials? Visit our Lead with Portuguese page to learn more. Seeking Federal, Private Sector, or University funding to make your study abroad or research dreams a reality?  Check out our Grants and Scholarships page for information on available opportunities.

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