How Did I Get On With My Portuguese In Portugal?

My trip to Lisbon over Christmas was only my second time in a Portuguese speaking country. I spent a couple of weeks in Madeira about seven years ago, but I didn’t know a word of Portuguese back then, and my knowledge of Spanish, at that point, was pitiful. In short, I understood sod all and was 100% reliant on English.

This time, though, it was a different story. My Portuguese is still pretty basic where speaking and listening comprehension are concerned, but advanced in terms of reading comprehension, because I’m fluent in Spanish by now.

Surprisingly, it felt like there was no real language barrier at all, at least not for the purpose of touristy pursuits. My Portuguese stretches far enough to ask for directions, opening hours, prices, to order food, communicate with bus and taxi drivers etc.

For any more complex issues, the good people of Lisbon (at least those I encountered) understood Spanish perfectly well, and they had no qualms about replying to me in Spanish. I was quite amazed by this. In Spain, hardly anyone speaks Portuguese, despite so much shared history and Portugal being a neighbouring country. The Portuguese do not dub foreign films, which may be one of the reasons why  English is also widely spoken. However, as I was in the company of a Spanish friend, I hardly used any English at all during that week.

...and they totally did :)

…and they totally did 🙂

Portuguese and Spanish vocabulary overlap to a significant extent, and so, if you speak Spanish, it will get you quite far when it comes to deciphering written information. However, Portuguese has a habit of contracting articles and prepositions, which is a great cause of confusion to the uninitiated, even if they do happen to speak another closely-related Romance language like Spanish or Italian. But once you’ve cracked the contractions, reading Portuguese is (almost) plain sailing.

To briefly illustrate: the ubiquitous Portuguese word “no” does not mean “no” as it does in Spanish (and in English), but it is a contraction of the preposition “em” (in/on/at) and the masculine definite article “o”. The word “pelo”, which means “hair” in Spanish 😉 is a contraction of the preposition “por” (by/through/for) and “o”. So, knowing how Portuguese contractions work – and you will find these peppered throughout every sentence – instantly unlocks a whole new dimension of comprehension.

The language aspect of my trip was certainly very satisfying. I was assimilating new vocabulary quite effortlessly just by reading the signs and advertising around me, and at no point did I feel uncomfortable or panicky when the need to communicate arose. (I do get a bit anxious about these things… silly, I know, but that’s how it is).

Listening to people’s conversations in the street and on public transport was much more tricky, though. Spoken Portuguese (and especially that of Portugal) is difficult to understand, as pronunciation differs markedly from what you see in writing. Thanks to my patient Portuguese teacher back home, who is from Lisbon, I was able to catch bits, entire sentences on occasions, but I can’t say that I was able to follow in detail what folk were chattering on about. Not that I expected to, at this stage. I was reminded that I had the very same problem with my Spanish a couple of years ago, and it made me realise how far I’ve come since then.

Spanish and Portuguese may be lexically very similar, but there are plenty of "false friends: "Borrachas", which means rubber/eraser in English, are "drunk women" to a Spanish speaker ;-)

Spanish and Portuguese may be lexically very similar, but there are plenty of “false friends: “Borrachas”, which means rubber/eraser in English, are “drunk women” to a Spanish speaker 😉

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55 thoughts on “How Did I Get On With My Portuguese In Portugal?

  1. Debbie

    Sounds like great progress, you must have been very pleased. My Portuguese comes from the BBC Get By course and extends only to counting to 10 and ordering cakes, coffee and beer! so the bit about contractions was very interesting. With your new found love of pasteis de nata and a reasonable understanding of the language, is a move to Lisbon looking more likely?

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Not really… my progress feels ploddingly slow… it’s so frustrating I want to kick things. So, any little reminder that I am, in fact, making a bit of headway is like a wee ray of light.

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  2. pollyheath

    That’s amazing, congratulations! I love the feeling of finally unlocking a language — even just to the extent where taxi drivers don’t look at your like you’re totally crazy when you give them directions.

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      1. pollyheath

        The trip in the ‘stan is sadly over, but it was a lot of fun. Romantic, no. Fun, yes. So my kind of honeymoon 🙂

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  3. Language Boat

    Yay! That sounds like great success! What’s funny is that this evening I was having tea with a couple of Taiwanese people who grew up in Brazil. They were speaking Portuguese and I spoke Spanish and we were able to understand each other and hold a conversation. Now if only that were true with Chinese and English…

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  4. Karolyn Cooper

    Parabens! (Is that the right word? I just googled it). I’m so impressed at the way you are conquering these languages. Will you be blogging in German, Spanish and Portuguese soon? Lady of the Pasteis?

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      It is, well googled 🙂
      Not planning on that… not for a long time… if ever. But you never know, if inspiration and motivation happen to strike… you’ll be among the first to know!

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  5. Andean

    People think because I understand Spanish, I should understand Portuguese. !No es verdad!

    Ahh, hmm… a store for “drunk women” and accessories? LOL

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  6. freebutfun

    You are doing well!
    I’ll always remember how we went with my brother to a cafe in Lisbon: I ordered in English a cup of tea and got a cappuccino, my brother used his Spanish to order a flat white and got a fraction of an espresso 😉 But we had a great time!

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      1. freebutfun

        Almost the same as latte but with less milk (as far as I know), but I am sure even latte would have been pretty much closer to what he tried to order 🙂 Good on ya, is the Brazilian vocabulary your next challenge then?!

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      2. ladyofthecakes Post author

        I see… it’s all so complicated nowadays!
        I started off with a Brazilian teacher, now I’ve got Portuguese one… so I’ve been mixing things up already… no idea what I’m saying half the time 😉
        I think I’ve got my hands full, challenge-wise, at the mo!

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  7. יונתן קסר

    I’d meant to ask after how you did linguistically while you were over there, but had figured (and apparently rightly so!) that you’d let us know eventually.

    So… encouragement to kick it up a notch on Duo? 🙂

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Well, that’s about it. I’m not really counting Portuguese yet as a language I speak, it’ll be several more years till I get it to a serviceable level. I’m more of a quality than a quantity person…

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  8. Anna

    Innnteresting. My fluent Spanish was no help in Lisbon and I was totally lost off the beaten path. At my resort in Algarve, nobody spoke Spanish either, but everyone spoke fluent English and – go figure – German. I’m very impressed by your progress though! Now move to Lisbon so I can come visit 🙂

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  9. anabbloggin

    ‘Pêlo’ (with the ‘ê’ and pronounced exactly the same way as ‘Pelo’ also means hair in Portuguese. We also have a tendency to make ‘Pelo’ shorter when we speak by saying ‘P’lo’.

    I’m glad you enjoyed your experience and that it was easy for you to communicate with is. Contrary to some countries a lot of people pride themselves in ‘mastering’ at least one more language and put aside the ‘language pride thing’ to help a tourist out.

    One thing that always got to me here, is that when I help a Spaniard out, they always thank me with ‘gracias’, I think it would be nice to get an ‘obrigado’ (‘obrigada’ if you are a woman thanking someone). Our languages are indeed really similar, and a tiny effort really makes a difference. I love it when an English speaker, or any other speaker makes the effort to thank me in my language, and I try to do the same when I am abroad.

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Hello there! Well, I’ll certainly remember the hair thing now, thanks for that 🙂
      And I tried very hard to get as many ‘obridgadas’ in as possible. Look forward to my next visit to Portugal!
      Thanks for chipping in.

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  10. barbedwords

    Your language skills and dedication impress me muitíssimo… I’m almost half-way through my stay in Italy and I think knowing this seems to be dampening my enthusiasm for improving my Italian. But at least if I come back on holiday, I can order a coffee and cornetto with the best of ’em!

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  11. Kim G

    I laughed at the sign of the “Borrachas,” instantly making the Spanish connection in my head, LOL… I’ve found that I’m able to read Portuguese, at least so far as to be able to get the drift. But I wasn’t consciously aware of the contractions. Do you know of any handy list of them somewhere on the internet? If not, no worries.

    Saludos,

    Kim G
    Boston, MA
    Where we’ve thought that perhaps Portuguese should be our next language. So sexy!

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