‘Opa! I didn’t see you there!’

There are things we say without thinking. It’s true. Even when you’re trying your hardest to absorb and adapt to a different culture, your native language can pop its head out without you noticing.

Nine times out of ten it’s when you do something that would normally make you emit a reactionary swear word or exclamation:

  • Sudden pain
  • Sudden fear
  • Overwhelming anger

Your expletive of choice will most likely burst forth in your native language when you cut yourself or stub your toe, for example.

Interesting, your seven-times table won’t come out in a foreign language fluently or without major levels of concentration either. Maths is the linguistic black sheep of this group.

These situations show the true colours of your mother tongue.

Often – quite pleasingly – they slip up those smug people who, having lived in a country for 10 minutes, say ludicrous things like, “My God, I’ve forgotten my native language. I think my [new language] is taking over.”

Ok, I might have been one of them when I was young and foolish. And yes, sometimes a word in the new language does come to the tongue a split-second quicker than the native one, but by and large, it’s just circumstantial – and you’d be kidding yourself to think that it’s somehow usurping your native language.

Acquired foreign languages can definitely usurp and distort each other, but that’s a different story.

However, I have noticed one specific context when I’ve started saying something odd and always in Portuguese.

It’s something Brazilians say when they enter what they think is an empty room and find that someone’s there; it’s ike a contact call, a “hello, stranger!” exclamation which acknowledges the presence of another one of you:


It’s a funny little three-letter word, and certainly wouldn’t be worth putting down on a Scrabble board, but it got me thinking. Why this one?

The Portuguese versions of “ouch”, “bugger” and “7×8 = 56” still require effort to make them sound like I said them effortlessly and in context.

And more interesting, “opa” isn’t just used in this context.

It can also mean, for example:

  • “Hey!” – e.g. someone just stole something from you and you’re shouting after them;
  • “Hang on a second!” – e.g. if you didn’t give someone permission to use something and afterwards you found out they did;
  • “Wow!” – for general astonishment and surprise

But for these uses of “opa”, I’d resort to my native language. I’m sure of it.

But with the “unexpected item in bagging area” use when you meet someone somewhere you don’t expect them to be, I go for the Portuguese.

Why? Probably because I don’t have a version of it in English. Funny, right? It didn’t take anything’s place – it just implanted itself into a vacant space in my grey matter.

More linguistic ramblings no doubt on their way…

2 thoughts on “‘Opa! I didn’t see you there!’

  1. What an interesting read, Ben. I do slip into Lithuanian sometimes when I mean to say things in English. It’s normally words like ‘or’ or ‘look’ at the start of the sentence. I think people don’t notice it though because it’s too quick and I pretend like nothing odd happened. Besides, they probably just think it’s my accent, not an entirely different language. I must say, however, that I do do maths in English, but maybe that’s because I have to do it at work and it’s just something that I’m too used to by now. Talking of words, I think you always go for the word that is immediately available to you. Sometimes it may as well be that the word in your native language just doesn’t do justice because its meaning is too broad. Sometimes it’s because the direct equivalent just doesn’t exist. And sometimes it depends on the context in which you’re used to using a specific language. It’s easy for me to speak in Lithuanian with my friends at home, as long as the conversation is not about work. When I start talking about work or academics, I struggle for words. I never learned these words in Lithuanian and sometimes even if I am aware of a specific word, the English equivalent comes to mind so much quicker. Anyway, a very interesting blog. Look forward to reading more.

  2. Funny, when I was in Barcelona I started to say “ay!” instead of “ow” or “oops,” though I could never really pull off the sudden swearwords either

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