Portugal Problems

I’ve been in Lisbon, Portugal for less than 48 hours and I’m already frustrated.

IMG_1570The problem is the language. I speak Spanish, which is extraordinarily similar to written Portuguese, but my Spanish background doesn’t actually help me communicate with anyone here. The pronunciation is so different: s sounds like sh, h sounds like y, and o sounds like u. Plus, while both languages are Latin-based, their vocabularies are different enough that I can’t assume that any given noun in Spanish will be the same word in Portuguese.

The good news, of course, is that most Western Europeans (especially in tourist areas) speak at least some English, and hand gestures and pointing go a long way. That is, as long as they expect you to be asking for whatever word you’re surely mangling. My family has already confused a taxi driver by asking him to simply drive by the Tower of Belem so we could see it rather than dropping us off there. And when we tried to ask for tap water at dinner instead of bottled water, our waitress was completely mystified.

Luckily, Portugal is incredible in its architecture, its food, and its scenery, so I’ll forgive the country for causing me so much linguistic frustration.

11 thoughts on “Portugal Problems

  1. Don’t expect tap water anyplace. I haven’t visited Portugal, but my experience with water in Europe is you have your choice of carbonated or not, but it’s all bottled.


    • I know, they don’t drink tap water in Europe! Doesn’t mean we’re going to stop asking for it. It’s perfectly fine, and there’s no reason to pay for it. It does earn us strange looks though.


  2. I had the same problem when I visited Brazil last year. I thought I would be able to get by with my Spanish alone, but it proved to be a lot more complicated at first. If you’re there for a while, you’ll pick it up in no time!


    • We’re only here for a few more days, but so far I’ve picked up how to say hello and thank you, which are important! We’re doing things that are touristy, so mostly people will speak English with us.


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  4. While Portugal isn’t necessarily on my bucket list, I don’t doubt it’s a beautiful place. Linguistically, yeah, I don’t think people are well prepared for it. Everyone, for the most part, (myself included) believes/believed that a Spanish background will be helpful in a Portuguese speaking territory. Not so much, since the two aren’t mutually understandable. Like, they could make out more from Spanish speakers then the reverse. I forget why though.


    • It’s gorgeous, and I’ve been wanting to go for years. I think they can understand Spanish better than the other way around because of the sound difference: Spanish has crisper sounds, whereas Portuguese has a lot more “sh”/”zh” (like the s in usual) sounds so it sounds much more slurred. I could be making that up, but that’s my interpretation.


  5. I think it takes time to “tune in” to the sound system of any given language — to actually hear what they’re saying.

    But in terms of the communication going the other way…I’d read that a lot of Portuguese understand Spanish — is this not true?

    I hadn’t had any particular expectations regarding Lisbon, and thought it was a really beautiful and charming city!


    • That’s true, it takes awhile to adjust to the sounds. Unfortunately I won’t be here long enough to get there.
      I think more Portuguese understand Spanish than the other way around! Then again, I’m not basing this off any facts or specific observations, simply a general perception. The Portuguese do have a fair amount of animosity towards the Spanish though (old history dies hard), so they’re more responsive if I speak English instead of speaking Spanish.


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