Portuguese in Portugal

Can you get by in Portugal speaking only English? Most likely. Should you learn Portuguese anyway if you plan to spend any serious amount of time here? Most definitely. Here are three reasons why.

Last Updated:
Portuguese in Portugal
Europeans are pretty good at learning a second (or third) language: 65% are fluent in a language other than their native tongue.  Americans, on the other hand, are much less likely to be bilingual: according to the US Census, about 20% of Americans speak a language other than English at home, though this is probably under-counting people who’ve learned a second language but speak it only at work or when traveling.  Unfortunately, since English is the lingua franca of the globe, Americans have less immediate need to pick up another language.  Something similar goes for the British, 35% of whom are bilingual, less than half of their European counterparts.
In Portugal, about 70% of the population speaks a foreign language, and the most common one is English.  Not only that, Portugal ranks number 9 in the top 13 countries worldwide with “very high proficiency” in English, according to Education First’s English Proficiency Index (EPI).  To put that in perspective, Spain comes in at 33 in the EPI, only “moderate proficiency” in English.  Now, I used to work for the Spanish government, and God Bless Spain with their lively people and amazing food, but by and large, I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here in saying that the average Spaniard’s English leaves something to be desired.  The Portuguese will tell you it’s because many foreign films distributed in Spain are dubbed into Spanish – almost a quarter of American movies are — whereas in Portugal they are left in the original language, with Portuguese subtitles. (During the Salazar dictatorship, subtitles could be easily altered to fit the political will of the regime.)  This gives the Portuguese an advantage in English.
Weekend at Bernies
“Weekend at Bernie’s” (1989), US
Este muerto esta muy vivo
“Este muerto está muy vivo” (This dead guy is really alive), Spain
All of this is to say that if you’re traveling to Portugal as a tourist, and you don’t even know what language they speak in Portugal (as I’ve pointed out, some Americans don’t even know where it is), you will be fine with English.  In hotels, restaurants, and in major urban areas, especially if you are talking to younger adults and/or those in the professional classes, you don’t need to stumble through the six words of Portuguese you memorized from your Lonely Planet travel guide on the plane ride over.  However, if you want to buy delicious cerejas de Fundão, or cherries from the Fundão region of Portugal, from a little old lady at a fruit stand, or fresh baked bread at a local padaria, or bakery, not in a tourist strip, you may end up pointing and miming your way through the conversation. 
However, if you will be in Portugal for an extended period of time, or are planning to relocate here permanently, the rest of this post is for you.  Without learning Portuguese, you will miss out on essential aspects of Portuguese culture and society and your experience here will not be as amazing as it can and should be.  I spoke Spanish before I spoke Portuguese, and I studied Japanese, Chinese, and French when I was younger, so below I share three critical elements I have come to understand about foreign languages, and that might be helpful for you to keep in mind when learning Portuguese.  Fluency is a journey, so buckle in for the ride.

It’s All in Your Head

Many people ask questions like “how hard is it to learn Portuguese.”  This stems from the idea that there is an objective measure of a language’s difficulty, which people often think of in terms of the number of words it has.  But this isn’t necessarily the right way to think about language learning because you don’t need to know all the words in a language to speak it fluently.  The average American adult knows about 42,000 English words by the time they turn 20, however, there are  470,000 words in Webster’s dictionary. Obviously, most of these are not used very often.  In fact, if you were learning English as a second language, and only learned around 800-1,000 “word families” – a group of words with the same root, such as “ack” which includes back, hack, pack, etc. – you could understand about 75% of what you hear on a day-to-day basis.  So, it doesn’t really matter all that much if one language has way more words in it than another for determining whether you can communicate reasonably well in it as a non-native speaker.
Just take a look at babies.  No matter what the first language they learn is, all babies begin to speak at about the same time.  If, say, Japanese were “hard” to learn and French were “easy” to learn, we would expect to see Japanese babies beginning to speak way later than French babies, but we don’t.  This means it isn’t more difficult for a baby to learn Japanese than for a baby to learn French, starting from zero.
But you, dear reader, are not starting from zero.  What separates you learning to speak Portuguese from a Portuguese baby doesn’t have very much to do with the architecture of the language, but rather your fear of embarrassment about sounding like a three-year-old on a good day.
Here’s the thing: you will sound like a three-year-old, at the beginning.  Maybe not even that good.  Your job is to get Zen about this, and not let your adult expectations get in the way of your child-like learning.   To pronounce Portuguese words in something even remotely approaching a decent-enough accent that a native Portuguese speaker can understand will force your mouth and tongue into what feel like exaggerated contortions, which is strange and uncomfortable.  Exaggerate anyway, and eventually it will feel natural.  You will want to express yourself faster than your brain can produce the words you memorized from your vocabulary flashcards, which is frustrating.  Speak slowly anyway, and eventually your verbal expression will catch up with your oral comprehension.  And even if you master these challenges, someone will hear that you are a beginner in Portuguese and switch to English trying to be helpful, which saps your confidence.  Continue in Portuguese anyway, and eventually this will happen less and less as your language skills get stronger and stronger.  You can do all this if you accept that learning a language is a series of trials and errors, laugh off the small stuff, and let yourself feel proud of your small, daily victories.
Also, take heart in the fact that no one is judging your Portuguese as much as you are.  As a rule, people usually appreciate the fact that you are trying to speak their language.  Except maybe Parisians.  They are flatly uninterested in our dodgy French.  Just ask David Sedaris.

If You’ve Learned One Foreign Language, You Can Learn Another More Easily

For those of you who already speak a second a language, picking up a third will be easier than picking up the second, and there’s research to back that up.  In my personal experience, this is because there are various soft skills in language learning that you won’t necessarily be taught in a language class, but since they aren’t tied to the particular language itself, the skills are transferable from one language to another. 
For example, when you are learning a foreign language, you have to figure out how to listen to what someone is saying in chunks or phrases and then process the chunks/phrases for meaning when that person takes a breadth.  If you try to listen to the words singly and process them for meaning one by one, you are going too slow and won’t be ready for the next thing they say.  You also need to figure out how to use context to fill in the holes for words you didn’t quite understand from the speaker so that you can piece together the gist of what they’re saying when you’ve only understood 80% of it, but at the same time not rely on context too much to make easy assumptions about the message the person is trying to convey.  (Just because you’re in a restaurant doesn’t mean you’re talking about food, right?)  You will get the knack of this after learning your first language, and can apply it with more ease in learning your second.
People often ask how similar Spanish and Portuguese are, and it is true that learning a language with a similar grammar structure to your own can be helpful.  Spanish and Portuguese are both Romance languages derived from Latin, but this does not mean that in Portugal you can just speak Spanish with a few Portuguese words thrown in there and call it a day.  (I’m looking at you, Spain.)  I’ve heard more than one Portuguese person tell me that they can understand someone talking in Spanish but a Spanish speaker cannot understand them talking in Portuguese.  That’s because someone’s accent, slang, use of local terminology for things, and a host of other factors besides “lexical similarity” as linguists call it will determine how easily you can follow what someone is saying, even if they are speaking a language similar to one you already speak.  One of the languages most similar to English is Dutch, and I have never, ever understood a single thing a Dutch person has said.  Unless they are speaking to me in English.

When in Rome…

I may not win friends and influence people with the following statement, but I’m going to risk it anyway: if you’re planning to move to Portugal, and unless you have some sort of physical, mental, or economic difficulty, it is your responsibility to make an honest effort to learn the language of the country you’ve relocated to.  I’ve seen a lot of YouTubers making Americans feel better about moving to Portugal by telling them they don’t ever need to learn Portuguese, and I fundamentally disagree with this.  The Portuguese have opened up their country to you, and you should not expect them to cater to you even further by obliging them to speak to you in English.  Sure, a lot of people here will want to show off their English fluency, and that’s ok.  But we Americans (and anybody else who moves here and hasn’t learned Portuguese) owe it to our adopted country to at least butcher our way through a coffee order in Portuguese at a neighborhood café, which, as I’ve talked about before, is an important part of Portuguese culture.
You are not “too old” to learn a second language and Portuguese is not “too hard” for you to learn it.  Just take it step by step.  Besides, you will never really understand Portugal without speaking Portuguese.  If you can only read an English menu, it will be more difficult to order all the delicious Portuguese foods whose clunky translations to English never make them sound very appetizing.  If you can’t talk to the fruit seller in Portuguese, you might not get the ripest fruits or pick the best melão, Portuguese melon, and everybody has their pet theory on how to tell when they’re ready to eat.  English-language Portuguese newspapers are the Readers Digest of journalism.  The list goes on and on. 
Even if you only come here for the weather, you’ll stay here for the people.  Get to know them by learning their language.  I have great faith in your abilities.
[Update: I was recently in a store where a truly hapless American was talking to the salesclerk in their best high school Spanish.  The clerk responded in Portuguese – because, again, Spanish is a different language – and the American did not understand the response.  I was embarrassed by osmosis, so please don’t do this.  If you don’t speak Portuguese, stick with English unless Spanish is your native language.  And then expect that the Portuguese will speak to you in……wait for it……Portuguese.]
cropped Favicon

Copying of An American in Portugal site content has been disabled.