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I'm about to go on a trip to Portugal, not knowing any Portuguese. I was planning to learn all the basics (yes, no, hello, goodbye, thank you, etc) but in a slightly more complicated situation it's useful to fall back to a different language.

I have a decent level of Spanish and I heard that most people in Portugal understand it.

However, a friend of mine (Brazilian who visited Portugal several times) claims that falling back to Spanish will be considered extremely rude, even if I try to be polite about it.

On the other hand, the Wikitravel page on Porto says:

If you speak in Spanish to a local, you will be largely understood and as a rule they will freely converse with you, but from time to time, more so with the older generation, you may be politely reminded that you are in Portugal and the native language is Portuguese.

Which one is right?

If it helps, I'll be travelling mainly via Porto and Lisbon, possibly stopping at one or two smaller towns on the way.

  • 4
    Any reason not to simply stick to English? – JonathanReez Sep 19 '16 at 12:57
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    For many people in Portugal Spanish will be easier than English. – Willeke Sep 19 '16 at 13:07
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    The French are notoriously rude to tourists, but in my experience if you can manage a few basic phrases and "Do you speak English?" (also, "my tickets are demagnetized") in French, they are happy to help. Mostly they are happy to see someone who came to France to actually experience French culture. Walk up to someone immediately speaking English and you'll be ignored. Language is a huge part of culture and national identity. Acknowledge that, and you'll be welcomed. Ignore the local culture, language, and national identity and you'll probably offend at least a few people. – Phil Frost Sep 19 '16 at 13:37
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    @RodrigodeAzevedo That sounds answer-worthy to me! – Andrey Sep 19 '16 at 15:07
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    in my experience (totally not based on data) the Portuguese are amongst the best at English in Europe. Not too far behind North Europeans even. Its shocking how many Portuguese have perfect native sounding accents. – the other one Sep 20 '16 at 13:47
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I am Portuguese. I don't like having to speak Spanish in my own country.

Why? Spanish is just too close to Portuguese. When I speak English, I think in English and then I speak in English. When I speak Spanish, I think in Portuguese, roughly translate from Portuguese to Spanish, and then attempt to speak in Spanish. In other words, speaking Spanish requires much more mental effort, due to real-time translation going on in the background. I am much more comfortable speaking English. I suspect I am far from being the only one.

If you want to be polite, greet people in Portuguese, then ask them in English if they speak English. If they don't, ask them if they speak Spanish. Even if they don't speak Spanish, all Portuguese speak Portuñol and know how to distort Portuguese until it can be understood by someone who speaks Spanish. Most young, urban, educated Portuguese people speak some English. Older, urban, educated Portuguese people tend to speak French better than English.

  • Thanks Rodrigo! I've picked your answer since I think the perspective of a local counts a lot more for this question. I'm curious, is there any variation between big cities and smaller towns? Is addressing people in Spanish more or less of a problem? – Andrey Sep 20 '16 at 10:17
  • Thanks. Better put that in my list of phrases to learn before going then. – Andrey Sep 20 '16 at 10:42
7

I was recently in Lisbon with a friend who was born and partly raised in Latin America. He generally addressed waiters and the like in Spanish; they generally responded in English. (Everyone else in or group was speaking English, and we spoke English with each other.) Nobody seemed to take offense.

Common sense seems to suggest that one offer to speak whichever language the other prefers.

6

I speak some Spanish, and when I was in Porto, was trying to find a particular shop. We came across some policemen, and from past experience I tend to be a little wary of offending or drawing attention to myself around them. However, they could see we were retracting steps and came up, friendly, speaking in Portuguese.

While they're similar, I can't really follow Portuguese, and tried, as well as hand gestures, but failed. I then asked in Portuguese if he spoke English, and he looked a bit embarrassed and said no. So I tried asking if he spoke Spanish, and he said 'a little'. Perfect! We conversed a few lines, got some directions, and both parties were happy - we got help, and he helped someone.

Now the key here is probably the initial attempt to speak in the local language first. Trying to work with that doesn't immediately put them on the back foot. You're in their home.

Failing that, I tried to keep some comfort - I speak English natively, and it's a fairly common second language so asked about that.

THEN, I tried to look for common ground. (Hilariously this failed in Belgium where a shop owner and I tried in 6 different languages, each time hitting one that the other person didn't know). This is when it's suitable to do.

If you wanted a shorter, way, learning to say "I'm sorry, my Portuguese is poor, do you perhaps speak any English or Spanish?" would not be too much of a stretch, and is still polite to ask in their language first.

To the heart of your question - are there issues? Yes, not everyone will understand you, and secondly, many people feel uncomfortable when not addressed in their natural language, they're on the back foot.

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    I ended up having a similar encounter with a ticket salesperson at the Porto train station. He was slightly embarassed at not knowing English, and then I asked "Portuñol?". His face lit up and then we just threw Spanish and Portuguese words at each other until I had my ticket. – Andrey Dec 16 '16 at 12:29
2

This is my experience from five days in Porto last week:

Portuguese is very similar to Spanish and reasonably similar to other Romance languages. With a good level of Spanish, you should get a good grasp of Portuguese, and nearly all Portuguese people we met seemed to understand Spanish. Probably the fact that there is a lot of Spanish tourists in Porto has given everybody in any public facing position some exposure to Spanish and even supermarket employees in not very touristic areas understand some Spanish.

On the other hand, most people answered to us in Portuguese and that lead to some reasonably efficient bilingual conversations. I'd say they didn't speak fast to us, and maybe they tended to use a simple Portuguese.

I agree that trying to speak the local language is the best thing to do as a tourist and it's part of the fun and interest of travel. However, I must admit that I couldn't find any practical difference on the reactions to my intents at Portuguese (actually a mix of Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan and imagination) compared to my spouse's ones in plain Spanish. I even recall one instance when my carefully crafted Portuguese query at the ticket office in Sao Bento station ("Quatro pessoas a Guimarães") was simply answered in Spanish ("Ida y vuelta?") to my disappointment.

In the end, I'd say the people we met were very kind - some of them, kind far beyond their expected professional kindness - and that eases understanding a lot, in addition to similarity of languages.

-4

Everyone we talked to in the Algarve (many UK retirees) spoke at least rudimentary English. I can't vouch for the rest of the country, but I would suggestusing, after the usual polite excusal, whichever of Spanish or English you speak better.

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    Plus, I imagine a place like the Algarve will be quite different from the rest of the country. – Andrey Sep 20 '16 at 10:19

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