Let’s begin by getting the most likely snipe out of the way: nobody should have an expectation of being understood in their native tongue if they are not in a country that shares a national language with your home. In other words, if you are from the United States and speak fluent English, you should absolutely expect to be able to hold conversations in England, or Australia, or even Texas. (ba-dum-dum.) On the flip side, you should absolutely not expect to be able to hold conversations in Portugal, or France, or even Mississippi. (again!) So just holster your pistols there, pardner, and listen to what we are actually talking about.
There is a narrative that we’ve seen on various immigrant/expat forums in the couple of years since we got serious about moving. The gist of it is that, while Portugal’s national language is Portuguese, English-speaking immigrants can take comfort in the fact that English is taught widely in the schools here and the odds are good that you’ll be able to interact with English speakers, particularly amongst the younger generations. We aren’t going to call anybody a liar for saying this, but at a minimum there is probably some important context missing. For example, the two hottest of hot spots for tourism in Portugal can be roughly described as the greater Lisbon metropolitan region and the Algarve. (Yes, other places get tourists, and the Azores are lovely, but these places get the greatest concentration of foreign visitors as far as we can tell.) These also happen to be the areas of Portugal at the top of many immigrants’ wish lists. This means that many immigrants head for the places that have long had economic incentives for Portuguese who speak other languages fluently, particularly English.
However, not everybody moves to Lisbon or Faro. Once you get outside of those areas, the math gets a little trickier. Consider: most of us (speaking to our fellow Americans for the moment, but you can follow along regardless I expect) had a foreign language requirement in high school if not in college as well. Think back to your time in those classes. Did everybody take it seriously? Did they enjoy it? To the best of your recollection, what percentage of students in your let’s-say-French class were able to hold a free form conversation in French (that is, not just able to study the vocabulary for a particular module that week, but actually able to follow along where ever a conversation might go) during Finals Week of your last year in class? Now, ponder your fellow classmates as the years have gone by. What percentage of those people maintained whatever fluency they had, 3 years out from school? 5 years? 10? Now, why would anyone think that the Portuguese are any different from us?
We try not to build conclusions off of anecdotes, but at the least a few counter-examples to the narrative can be useful. So far in about 3 months, the number of interactions we’ve had with Portuguese people from whom we “needed” something and were able to converse with in English has been…. very low. We had two interactions that were really the same thing, twice: when each of us went to the hospital to arrange doctor’s appointments for the first time, the clerk who helped each of us either spoke English or sat next to someone who helped. That’s great. And the occasional restaurant worker has had English. However, the most common tourist in Braga is from Spain. The need for English here is minimal for the vast majority of Portuguese, so it’s a skill that doesn’t get a lot of use. Many of the restaurants we’ve been to have not had an English-speaker in them. (Nothing quite like a Chinese restaurant owner and an American immigrant struggling together in their newly-adopted tongue to try and get a meal ordered.) Nobody spoke English when we went to get internet & phones activated. Likewise when we needed to get a canister of gas to supply our stove. The very friendly electrician down the street who did some work for us didn’t have so much as a “hello” in their bag. Deli counter workers… butchers… dry cleaners… the list goes on and on.
So, why do we bother to write all this, if we acknowledge at the top that we don’t expect to be catered to? Like we said, we’ve seen this narrative a lot in the various immigrant Facebook groups and message boards we’ve been to. “Oh you’ll be fine, the Portuguese speak very good English.” Yeah, some of them do for sure, but your plan “A” for communicating here absolutely should not be to rely on the bilingual graces of your hosts. You should be grateful when somebody throws you a lifeline, but you should be planning on learning the language, post-haste. Not only is it good manners, but it’s just plain necessary to conduct your life in most parts of Portugal.