Where is Portugal?(?)

You can be forgiven for not being able to locate Portugal on a map, but only if you've passed through the US educational system.

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Portugal is in Europe, and the capital of Portugal is Lisbon. (The language spoken in Portugal is Portuguese, and yes, I’m confident you can learn if you want to.) But Americans are notoriously bad at geography. If Portugal is not already on their travel radar, some Americans (read: many) may not be able to find it on a map. This lack of geographic knowledge can lead non-Americans to think of us as arrogant about our own country, ignorant about other countries, or both. And it doesn’t help that when asked where we’re from, Americans also have a reputation for telling people outside the US that we’re from a particular American city or state — as if the entire globe knows where Kalamazoo, Michigan is.
But this US-centrism stems from the fact that our educational system does not prioritize geography, so many Americans are left with only a vague idea of where most countries on the planet are actually located. (This includes the United States.) According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the average eighth-grade geography score is below proficiency level, which hasn’t changed much in the last twenty years. Having attended a number of US elementary and high schools of varying quality, I took my first geography class only in college, so I can attest to this deficiency.
Piecing together what geographic, historical, and language knowledge they have collected over the years, Americans who cannot answer the question “where is Portugal located” or “what continent is Portugal in” — excluding, of course, the well-informed readers of this website — will make an educated guess. And they tend to fall back on two standard answers, Spain or Brazil, for reasons that make those guesses seem at least somewhat understandable.

Spain

Portugal is located on the Iberian Peninsula, in southern Europe. It shares the peninsula with its much larger neighbor, Spain. A passing glance at a map might create some confusion between the Iberian Peninsula itself and Spain as a part of it, since Portugal occupies a comparatively smaller slice.
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Iberian Peninsula
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Spain
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Portugal
If you have a hazy mental map of Iberia, you might be inclined to guess that Portugal is a part of Spain. Portugal was briefly annexed by Spain in the 16th century, and the two countries share a long competitive history, particularly during the age of exploration. They even endured 20th century dictatorships over roughly the same time period. But they’ve been separate countries for a very long time.

Brazil

Brazil has the largest population of Portuguese speakers in the world. If you’re an American who has either heard Portuguese spoken, or know someone who speaks Portuguese, it was most likely Brazilian Portuguese, not European or Continental Portuguese (i.e., Portuguese as spoken in Portugal). For this reason, the first association you might make between the Portuguese language and “Portugal” may very well be Brazil. There are about 215 million people in Brazil, compared to only about 10 million in Portugal, so there is a certain logic to it. (Sidebar: I studied abroad in Argentina and someone once asked me if Argentina was in Brazil, so Brazil must occupy a pretty mystical geographic status in the mind of the average American.)
Granted, Brazil was a former colony of Portugal, and the reason Portuguese is spoken in Brazil today is because of this colonization. Although the Portuguese are generally humble about their country’s international presence relative to their Brazilian counterparts, you may come across some Portuguese who believe that Brazilians speak “Brazilian” and who are still piqued that Portugal agreed to assume the Brazilian spelling of certain Portuguese words in an international agreement back in 1990 among all Portuguese-speaking countries. In sum, Brazil is a decent guess about where Portugal is, but won’t score you any points in Portugal.

The Role of Immigration

It’s worth noting that there are not very many Portuguese immigrants to the United States as compared to the top two countries of origin: Mexico and China. As a result, Americans have fewer opportunities to learn about Portugal from Portuguese immigrants like they can do with other immigrant communities. (Although Americans being Americans, your Great Uncle Bob may believe that people from Mexico are “Spanish” but that’s a subject for another post.) Come visit Portugal so you can serve as an ambassador of this amazing, non-Spanish, non-Brazilian country!
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