On Learning Portuguese

Or why you should learn the language when you move somewhere.

Aside from not quite understanding why anyone would move to a foreign country and not make the effort to learn the language, in Portugal my experience suggests that depending on other people’s grasp of the English language may not be your best bet.

This doesn’t refer to social chats over a beer, because in that context, any words or bits of language that allow an approximate exchange are fair game!

Two other exceptions:

First, if you’re in Lisbon or Porto, it’s a different story because even if you want to speak Portuguese, there is a 90% chance that the person in front of you will switch to Spanish or English or French when you try. Not the most helpful of places to be when trying to learn the language. It is also more likely that whoever you are speaking to does, in fact, speak English if not fluently then damn close.

Second, in the Algarve, I have heard – all hearsay because I have yet to go that far South – that there are so many English speakers that almost everyone operates in English by default.

That leaves, well, the rest of the country.

My experience is focused on the Center, that large area between Lisbon and Porto but inland. We have been based near Guarda (fun facts: it’s the highest city in Portugal and a mere 20min from the Spanish border) for the better part of five months, and I have to say it’s a wonderful place to learn Portuguese. Everyone seems appreciative of our efforts, and the patience most demonstrate is exemplary.

This doesn’t mean people don’t also speak English or French. They do, and often quite well. But it seems to me that there is a paradox whereby if you’re in a technical conversation with someone – a government employee, a lawyer or solicitor, an architect, or anyone that’s not a buddy you’re sharing a beer with – your best bet in my experience is in fact to stick to Portuguese. If you bring in English or French, it’s as though the content of the conversation runs double the risk of being diluted twice over.

In other words, you’re simplifying your English and using basic Portuguese, and the other person is simplifying their mother tongue and using approximate English terms to convey their message because odds are they don’t speak English fluently.

Do you remember that game of “telephone”? Where sitting around a table or in a circle, one person comes up with a sentence and whispers it to the person on their left, who repeats it to the next person on their left, and so on until it goes full circle. “I want tea” somehow morphs into “I went to Italy”. No single person did anything wrong but the accumulated effect is a grand misunderstanding.

For the purpose of the game, that’s the whole point and it can be quite entertaining. When it’s about your property, business, or a new life you’re trying to build for yourself… not so good.

You need to understand the basics of Portuguese of course, but that’s also the point: no matter how rushed you are, unless you can find a trustworthy interpreter who speaks English and Portuguese truly fluently – and have a budget to pay them – I recommend sticking to the local language and taking the responsibility on your shoulders in terms of keeping up. Of course, that’s 100% my take on things, and you should find whatever approach works best for you.

If you opt for learning the language… Take intensive lessons, or dive into the deep end with the help of Google Translate (to be trusted with a pinch of salt, and more for individual words than full sentences as far as I can tell).

If nothing else, you will gain the respect of the locals around you. More likely, you will avoid misunderstandings that can have legal implications and in the medium to long term make your life much more complicated than it needs to be.

And hey! You will have a new language to add to your list of life skills.

Boa sorte.

Does this strike you as true elsewhere? Or have you experienced the opposite? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below!