Letrário’s Interview with | Samuel Martins

Samuel_MartinsSamuel Martins is Deputy Director – Strategy, Planning & Management at Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – U.S.A.


How do you think people see you, as a Portuguese person, both at work and in various social settings? Do you think there is a preconceived idea about Portuguese people in the United States? And do the Portuguese who live there have a common opinion about Americans?

We have many different nationalities at the Gates foundation, so being Portuguese is perfectly normal. Being Portuguese has a greater impact in social contexts, but not in a negative way. We are just people from a different country.

Here in the Seattle area, most of the Portuguese immigrants are “first generation” and came here to embark on a different professional challenge (at Amazon or Microsoft, for example). There is a small older community of Portuguese who came here longer ago to work in fishing, but they have now scattered. So, I think there are no preconceived ideas about the Portuguese here. But the United States is a huge and diverse country, so things will undoubtedly be different in other parts of it, particularly on the East coast with its large Portuguese communities.

I don’t think the Portuguese have a common opinion about Americans, but obviously there are characteristics that are very different from the Portuguese culture, both from a professional point of view (e.g. greater efficiency and competitiveness) and from a personal one (e.g. more open but not as close).


What were the strangest things for you in your new life and culture? Were there any hiccups while you were adapting?

From a professional point of view, I initially found it strange that they try to keep time spent in the office to a minimum. In Portugal, it’s normal to take a 15 to 20 minute break for a coffee and a chat, or an hour for lunch. Here, more time at the office is typically seen as meaning “less time for me and my family”. Consequently, less time is usually devoted to social interactions at the office.

I always like to translate some Portuguese sayings and proverbs literally and it doesn’t always turn out for the best! 🙂 I’ve had a few hiccups with that! The last one was at a meeting when I said I wasn’t going to sit at the top of the table so that I wouldn’t have to pay the bill. I only realised I had messed up when people started looking at me in a weird way. 🙂


The Portuguese talk a lot about missing their food, people, and even places or the light. But do they miss speaking Portuguese?

In my case, no, because I always speak Portuguese at home (my wife is Portuguese too). And we have regular get-togethers with other Portuguese people so there are plenty of opportunities to speak our language.

These are all social occasions, however, and I admit that I do miss (and sometimes have difficulty in) speaking more formal or professional Portuguese.


I expect that you’re just as comfortable speaking Portuguese as you are English, but is there anything that you only talk about in Portuguese?

Our family life is all in Portuguese and I would find it hard to switch to English. In a professional context, however, I am already as comfortable with English as I am with Portuguese. I think that’s normal since I’ve been here for five years now.


Do you still dream in Portuguese? And do you still think in Portuguese?

It depends on the context, but I dream and think in both languages depending on the context I happen to be in. For example, I always think in English and work and in Portuguese at home.


Have you ever been in a situation where you spoke in Portuguese because you didn’t want the people around you to understand what you were saying? Can you tell us about it?

I do that fairly regularly. Most recently, it’s when I need my son Afonso to behave himself. 🙂


Have you consciously thought about your children’s linguistic upbringing? Or are you just going to let things happen naturally?

Yes, we’ve had two children here in the United States. We decided from the outset that we would speak to them in Portuguese at home and let them learn English at school. Afonso started kindergarten a few months ago and he already speaks and understands both languages. My wife Cláudia is bilingual too and we have no doubt that this is what’s best for our children.


Have the children started speaking yet? What language did they say their first words in?

Afonso is three and a half and already speaks both languages, as I mentioned. All of his first words were in Portuguese because he has only just recently started kindergarten.

Laura is six months so she’s not talking yet. «She doesn’t talk because she hasn’t got any teeth», as Afonso says.


Have you noticed any difference in the way his language learning has evolved?

I think it depends entirely on the number of hours that children are exposed to each language. Of course, verb conjugation is more complex in Portuguese so we are expecting that part to be learned more slowly.

What we did notice was that Afonso stuttered sometimes during his first few months of exposure to the two languages in parallel. His brain was clearly taking longer to find the right word.

Now he habitually combines the two languages in a single sentence, like he did the other day when he was asking for some milk and he said: «quero “drinkar” leite» («I want to “bebink” milk»). We thought it was hilarious but we know it will all sort itself out in a while.


Has having a child in a foreign country changed your relationship with the land you’re living in?

Yes. I think that, many years from now, we will come back to Seattle (well, perhaps we will still be here) to see where they were born and grew up. We also go on lots of outings hereabouts (mountains, lakes, forests etc.), so we have become very attached to this land, literally!

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