Our car wouldn’t start so I needed a tow to the car repair garage. We have road assistance with our Portuguese car insurance so I called their office to make the request. The phone prompts were all in Portuguese. My language dread was setting in.

Then (be still my beating heart!) an auto-prompt in English came on, “If you’d like to continue in English, please press 9”. I eagerly pressed 9. More prompts – again all in Portuguese (eye roll – "but they said there’d be English!”).

At this point, I shifted my strategy and randomly started pressing buttons to get a real person to answer. Bingo, someone picked up… speaking Portuguese. I whipped out my well-rehearsed phrase: "Eu não falo português. Fala inglês?” [I don't speak Portuguese. Do you speak English?] “No English, I’m sorry,” the speaker said in stilted English … and hung up.

Thank heaven for small favors as this occurred at our home and the car was in our driveway – so I wasn’t stuck out on the road or in a strange parking lot. I took a breath and shook off the futility.

A new tactic needed to be employed. I dialed up a Portuguese friend who speaks fluent English and told him my plight. He easily called the insurance office and smoothly navigated the prompts, talked (in Portuguese) to a real person, and soon a tow truck arrived.

Learning to Expect the Unexpected

Ah yes, another day in the life of an English-speaking immigrant who knows a smattering of Portuguese phrases but little else. I live in the Algarve where almost everybody speaks English and I’m able to glide along with the confidence of getting along – until cornered with a tricky situation. Sometimes I go months without the language issue rearing its pointy little head and then, in rare instances, another challenge can pop up a few days later. It's unpredictable, to say the least.

That’s my personal take – and there are many others who shared their perspectives on whether one needs to learn the language to live happily in Portugal. I’m sharing with you a number of sentiments here from residents around the country. Most report that, other than being in the bigger cities or in the south, it’s dicey to manage without knowing the language:

Natalie put it in very clear terms: “Yes, you need to speak Portuguese if you’re anywhere away from a big city or the Algarve. I live in Tomar, and while many people speak passable English, many don’t. The day-to-day life requires some rudimentary Portuguese.”

Jeff and his wife have lived for 5 years on the Silver Coast, an hour north of Lisbon. Jeff says, “Our experience is that by learning some phrases and showing the locals that we’re trying, we get smiles and quick acceptance.” These two have been ambitious – pursuing language classes for 2 years. Jeff adds an encouraging note for those of us of a certain age, that even in their 70’s, they find Portuguese is getting easier with practice.

Credits: Supplied Image; Author: Becca Williams;

Judy, a former Californian, lives in a small town in Portugal (didn’t say where), and reports she’s not experienced any serious problems not knowing Portuguese. Her superpower though is that she’s become an expert in pantomime, which she says works well. When she does pull out her limited language skills, she says, “The kind and respectful Portuguese seem to appreciate even an attempt at speaking their language. They may chuckle and then let you know that they understand some English or they may summon someone who does.”

Greg, a Brit living in Portugal since 2007, doesn’t speak Portuguese other than the usual greetings but says he’s never had a problem communicating. His experience has been that a Portuguese who doesn’t speak English always manages to find someone who does. Greg concludes, "My excuse for not learning Portuguese is that I'm old and probably lazy and if the Portuguese were not accepting with their genuine friendliness toward foreigners I’d probably be in a pickle!”

Tom, also Brit, living in Portugal for 15 years says, “We spent a lot of time and money over three years trying to learn the language. My wife has a good Portuguese vocabulary. However, few people understand her when she tries to speak Portuguese! I can’t speak much, but I do understand a little if I know the context. We muddle along and get by, but truly regret not being able to converse.”

Susanne along with her husband moved from Colorado to Portugal two years ago and live in the small town of São João das Lampas – about 40 minutes from Lisbon. Susanne says they’ve discovered that Portuguese often say they don't speak English because they feel embarrassed by not speaking it fluently. But when she starts with her limited Portuguese, she notes that, “Folks decide to rescue me by using the English that they know. They’re so very, very kind!”

I’ll leave us with some parting thoughts from Robert. He and his wife are Americans who retired to Portugal in 2019 and live in the north where English is not widely spoken. Robert reminds us with this pearl of wisdom: “As always, with a smile and humility and an attempt to do your best and use some common courtesy terms, the vast majority of Portuguese will go to extremes to assist you.”


Becca Williams is originally from America but is now settling into small town living in Lagos, a seaside town on Portugal’s southern coast. Contact her at AlgarveBecca@gmail.com

Becca Williams