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.
That’s the complete opposite of my experience. I can think of only 2 or 3 instances where someone did not speak any English in important situations. I don’t think it’s a myth here where I live.
Yes, I can understand if you’re out of the major cities with tourists or expat populations, I can see that would be true. But here? I met someone who has lived here 11 years and doesn’t speak Portuguese. My neighbors have been here 3 years and don’t speak more than 3 words. It’s not that hard to imagine that being true.
I mean, the post says several times that we’re talking about outside of Lisbon and the Algarve or that the stories we have are only our own. So yes, I’m sure that where ever “here” is for you is working fine for people with limited English, but that’s exactly the distinction we were making here. I guess we have a ways to go in the writing-clarity department. 😀
John. I truly enjoyed your very accurate deprecation of the realities of coming to a country where your primary language is not the one spoken. It is our responsibility to maneuver both the culture and language challenges. An additional option that David and I use is hiring an interpreter for those situations that are critical. Enjoy you Ramble very much.
Oo, an actual translator! Maria I’m going to admit total novice-hood here and admit that the thought had never even crossed my mind; dang that’s a good idea. I’ll need to suss one out now so there won’t be a scramble when the time comes and we really need them!
I’m so glad you’re enjoying the read; you’ve written a lot less than us and we’re getting a lot from you, too. Almost seems unfair. 😀
Living in a foreign land required some familiarity with the language, culture and customs. As to your statement about high school French, I took three years of it, and possessed just rudimentary skills, certainly not enough to speak confidently. 10 years after high school, I found myself in the Air Force living in Belgium. I lived far enough from my work that I was essentially in a 100% French speaking environment outside of work. I was forced to immerse in the language to survive. It was amazing how quickly the high school French came back, and I developed the ability to understand the spoken language without having to translate it into English in my head. That, to me, is when you have truly begun to master the language to a level where you have some ability to function in that society (English is my second language, so having learned it as a child helped tremendously). I’m currently starting the process of learning Portuguese. The biggest challenge is the pronunciation and how quickly Portuguese people speak. I listen to Portuguese radio and watch online language videos and news broadcasts trying to understand as much as I can. I totally believe in the immersion method of sink or swim as far as language goes. We are starting the process of thinking about theD7 visa, still about a couple years from actually doing it. But reading your blog gives me more confidence we can do this.
Aw, Lisa and I are both so honored when we hear that we’re actually helping anyone, thank you! Since there’s no money involved here, we get paid in admiration heheheheehhe
I agree about the language immersion. I use the MemRise app (this is not necessarily an endorsement, there are plenty of tools out there, but I do like it) and it has pronunciation modules where you speak into the mic, it is uploaded, and they assess how you are doing. I would have the *hardest* time with those modules when I was getting started in the US. I didn’t really even notice until just a few days ago, but I basically never fail a single prompt in those modules anymore – being here and absorbing the language every single day, even when I don’t understand it, is clearly benefiting me! I even get told ” fala muito bem!” on a regular basis. . . which to be clear, is not a good thing. When people hear that my accent isn’t terrible they assume my *grammar* must be pretty far along as well, which it most assuredly is not! Lisa has advised me to screw up a little more on purpose just to set the expectations lower 😀