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Languages for Expats in Portugal

Author: Jim Newham
Submitted: September 2015

Portuguese is the sole official language in Portugal. It is the first language of a large majority of the population and is spoken by almost everyone. Around a third of the population are fluent in English as a second language, and French is spoken by about a quarter of the population.

In the Algarve and other major tourist areas, there are many English-speaking expats. In such areas, you may be able to get by indefinitely with only basic Portuguese. In other areas, however, there is a much stronger incentive to learn the language. Furthermore, the longer you stay in Portugal, the more likely it is you’ll find yourself in a situation where fluency is required. Murphy’s Law decrees that this will be some tricky situation – for example, your washing machine has broken down and you can’t find a plumber who speaks English.

Besides, many institutions require you to write in Portuguese, and often the information you need to get through everyday life is only available in the local language. Hence, if you are serious about staying in Portugal long-term, becoming fluent in Portuguese is worth the effort.

Portuguese is closely related to several other European languages, including French, Italian and Spanish. Portuguese is particularly similar to Spanish, especially true on paper, though the languages are still more or less mutually intelligible when spoken. In fact, the Portuguese understand Spanish much better than vice versa. Nevertheless, it is not advisable to attempt to speak Spanish to the Portuguese; quite justifiably, they consider this rude and arrogant.

English speakers will find many familiar words in Portuguese, though most of them are advanced vocabulary. For speakers of other languages, learning to speak, read and write Portuguese should still not present any serious difficulties. Understanding spoken Portuguese is likely to be more of a problem, as native speakers tend to drop single sounds or even whole syllables when speaking normally. To overcome this, you should listen to Portuguese whenever you can, using real-life conversations, TV, radio, podcasts, films, etc., and you will find that listening comprehension will start to come.

If you have previously learnt Brazilian Portuguese or another national variety of the language, it will only take a little effort to adapt. Apart from some differences in vocabulary and pronunciation and some minor spelling differences, varieties of Portuguese are very similar. There are plenty of learning materials in European Portuguese, so you should seek these out wherever possible. Once you know standard Portuguese, you should be able to make yourself understood throughout the country.

The best way to learn a language by far is to surround yourself with native speakers. Your current author can personally testify to this, having been thrown right in the deep end in China back in 2002. When you are in this ‘sink or swim’ situation, you learn because you have to. Fortunately, unlike the Chinese, the Portuguese will normally appreciate your efforts to speak their language rather than laugh at them. Remember also that there are other ways to learn than just by speaking. If there is no-one else around, you can still try to read Portuguese, for example on adverts, signs, even product labels.

To help boost your skills further, you may want to take up a language course. Portuguese language courses are widely available on the internet as distance learning projects and can enable individuals to achieve the necessary standard. The BBC Languages website offers free courses in Portuguese and provides useful information about the language. Meanwhile, Open Culture lists a number of websites that offer Portuguese language tuition.

Once an individual has gained a basic knowledge of the language, another way to improve on this is to participate in language exchange sessions. Language exchange can be carried out in meetings or over the internet. It usually involves between two and four people speaking in their mother tongue for half of the session and during the other half using the language they are learning. Some expat websites offer opportunities for language exchange, as does My Language Exchange, which offers free membership and provides opportunities for exchanges in Portuguese and 114 other languages.




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