Letrário’s Interview with Mirjeta Koka-Schunk

Mira, as she likes to be called, was born and raised in Albania. As a young woman Mira started to work for a German microfinance consulting and investment company. She then worked in various countries in Africa and Asia. Somewhere along the way, she married her husband Luis, a half German and half Spanish man. As a couple, they have lived in Germany, Greece and Spain, but, in 2011, Luis was offered a position in Lisbon, Portugal, and, ever since, Mira’s family (two young sons included) has been living near Lisbon. 

In this interview, we tried to understand what life is like in a family with such a blend of cultures, and how they have adapted to living in Portugal and to the Portuguese language.

  1. Can you tell us a little bit about you and your family (ages, nationalities, languages spoken, jobs…)?

Well, we have my husband Luis; he is half German and half Spanish, raised in Germany. Although he speaks both languages fluently, along with English, of course.

I have two sons and a stepdaughter from Luis’ previous marriage. Her name is Valentina and she is now 18 years old. She has always spent holidays and weekends with us, but last year she spent six months in Portugal attending an American School, to improve her English. But Valentina also speaks very well in Spanish.

Jonas, our older son, is 10 years old and was born in Germany. We moved to Madrid when he was 18 months old and then to Portugal when he was three and a half.

Our youngest, Lucas, is now seven. He was born in Spain and was six months old when we moved to Portugal.

Finally, there is me, Mira; I was born and raised in Albania by my Albanian parents and I’ve lived and worked in many different places.

When you move so much and you have so many different cultures and languages involved in your daily life, it’s very important to create a family culture of your own, especially when there are kids involved. What we do is we choose what we like from all the traditions we encounter and then we create our own. It makes us unique in a way!

  1. So, since you are Albanian, the children’s dad is half German and half Spanish, and you are all living in Portugal, what is the family language?

German, no doubt. I also speak in Albanian to my children; I’ve always done it, but German is where we all meet as a family.

  1. Do you consider your sons to be bilingual? What are their two main languages?

Jonas definitely is; he speaks German and Albanian. But English as well now, because of school. So maybe he is trilingual.

  1. When did they start speaking? The reason for asking is that some people say that kids who are exposed to two or more languages at a very young age will start to speak later, and sometimes mix their languages up. Did this happen to your children?

Yes, especially Jonas. He started speaking very late. This really had an impact on him and the way he related to other children. Until the age of three, he spoke very few words. For Lucas it was easier; he had a brother, and, at home, I started to speak German, instead of only Albanian, and that was when German became our family language.

  1. Do your boys speak Portuguese? What sort of relationship do they have with the language?

Lucas, our youngest, attended a Portuguese kindergarten for two and a half years. His first language in school was Portuguese, and because of that he understands it perfectly. He still has Portuguese classes and he has been integrated with the native Portuguese-speaking students. 

Jonas, our oldest, who is now in year five, is also in a class with native speakers. Of course, he makes some mistakes, but he’s pretty good. I would say he is almost fluent in Portuguese, as he even writes his own stories in Portuguese.

  1. What is the strangest Portuguese expression you’ve ever heard? Do you have an interesting story about it you would like to share?

I don’t recall any interesting story, but there is one expression that I still think is weird, even today: “Logo a seguir” – “Immediately after”. To me, it feels like it should mean something related to later, and not “right away”, which is what it actually means.

  1. And we know you speak Portuguese. Was it hard to learn? Did you have classes?

I started learning Portuguese in Mozambique. And yes, it was hard. To begin with, I thought Portuguese was a kind of a distorted Spanish. But that was only at the beginning, probably because I had learned Spanish before.

But right now I feel like it’s the other way around. For example, I’m reading a Spanish book, but in my head I’m reading it in Portuguese. So now I definitely feel more comfortable with Portuguese than with Spanish. 

I did take a few lessons when I came to live here. And I still do, but only one class every two weeks. But I can tell you that I get nervous when I can’t get the right structure. Normally people don’t correct me, or worse, they speak Spanish or English to me.

One of the things I’ve noticed is that there are no audio books in Portuguese. It would be a big help if there were.

  1. On a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being very easy and 10 very hard) where would you put the Portuguese language?

I would put it at 5 or 6. Whereas German would be 10. German really took me longer to learn and it is definitely a harder language than Portuguese, at least for me, who started learning Latin languages before.

  1. Speaking a language is one thing, but reading and writing is an entirely different story. Do you read and write in Portuguese as well?

I read in Portuguese, yes. I’m not sure why, but I read more translated books in Portuguese than original Portuguese books. It seems easier to me. Original books in Portuguese tend to use more complex words and expressions and it’s harder for me. 

Writing is more complicated for me. I try to write about everyday things, with my Portuguese teacher, because it’s easier for me. I know I make mistakes, but it’s ok; I’m not a professional.

  1. Are there any similarities between Albanian and Portuguese? Any “almost” common words?

I don’t really recall any similarities between the two languages, but maybe a few words which come from Latin.

  1. Have you ever dreamt in Portuguese?

I don’t think so. I think most of the time in English or Albanian. But I must say that when I recall dreams I only remember pictures and emotions, not words; so no languages, I assume.

  1. Did you use an automatic translation tool when you came to live here? Which one was it and was it useful? On what occasions?

I did, yes – mostly Google Translate. I only used it to translate words and expressions. But once I translated a long document about art, and after that I had to translate it all by myself. 

  1. Have you ever needed a professional translation agency in your private or professional life, especially while living in Portugal? In what circumstances?

Professionally, I don’t remember, but in my personal life, yes, often; whenever I need a translation of an official/legal document (school reports, authorisations). And two years ago, I had a medical issue and needed to have all the medical reports translated from Portuguese into German. I then had to get help from a professional translation agency.

  1. If you have a big and important document to translate into another language you know, do you do it yourself or do you ask for professional help? 

I would contact an agency, since I’m not a translator. I know I wouldn’t do it well enough, so I would use an agency to have the quality I would want it to have.