How to Speak Portuguese – Lou’s Ten Portuguese Language Cheats

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Life in Portugal can be tricky enough when you’re trying to negotiate the endless paperwork or identify strange looking cuts of meat in the butcher’s, let alone when you try and work out how to speak Portuguese.

How to speak Portuguese - be prepared to study hard
How to speak Portuguese – be prepared to study hard

The difficulty with learning Portuguese is that what you say and hear doesn’t seem to correspond much with the written language, especially when you live in the Algarve where people have a heavy accent. With accents peppering the words and changing both the sound and the emphasis, Portuguese is a hard language to master. We have been here for nearly 3.5 years now and are still nowhere near fluent, although I do feel that we are learning more every day. In our case it doesn’t help that we both work from home, rather than having jobs where we spend all day with people speaking Portuguese.

If you are moving to Portugal soon or even just holidaying here, here are my top ten (tongue-in-cheek) Portuguese language cheats that will hopefully help you out.

Speak fast

When you are uncertain of what you are saying in another language, it is natural to speak slowly and try to say each word perfectly. If you do this in Portugal, you may well be met with a blank look. Instead, speak as fast as you can, pretending that you are speaking flawless Portuguese. You will have a much better chance of being understood.

Uma imperial
Uma imperial

A beer please!

‘Uma imperial se faz favour.’

This means ‘a small beer please.’ In most bars you will get a lovely, small glass of beer. Given how hot the Portuguese summer is, ordering a succession of small beers means you don’t end up drinking the too-warm second half of a pint. In some touristy areas, even if you ask for an imperial you will be given a pint (‘uma caneca’) anyway, so that the bar can charge you more.

This phrase is often usefully followed by ‘mais uma, se faz favor’ – ‘one more please!’


To say ‘thank you’ in Portuguese, men say ‘obrigado’ and women say ‘obrigada.’ The gender of the person to whom you are speaking does not matter. This is FACT, even though some Portuguese people will try to tell you that’s not how it works.

Can to be this

‘Pode ser isto’ – the literal translation is ‘can to be this,’ but this rather awkward phrase is actually used to mean ‘can I have this,’ so you can use it in shops, cafés, restaurants and anywhere else where you are able to point to the item that you desire.

Pode ser isto - useful for buying all kinds of things
Pode ser isto – useful for buying all kinds of things

If in doubt, smile and nod

When we first moved here, even basic interactions could be a struggle, despite six months of me obsessively playing Portuguese language CDs in the car anytime I drove anywhere before we left England.

There were many times when neighbours, shop assistants and others that I interacted with tried to make pleasant conversation about the weather, football or other random subjects. At first I would freeze in such situations, looking like a rabbit caught in the headlights while my fellow conversationalist painstakingly repeated the sentence in a futile attempt to make me understand. The result was usually an awkward silence while I blushed and felt stupid.

These early struggles allowed me to develop the smile and nod policy. Now when someone speaks to me and I don’t understand them, I don’t panic, I just smile and nod. Astonishingly, 90% of the time this is accepted as an appropriate and satisfactory response on my part. Although I still have no idea what has been said to me, instead of just feeling tongue-tied and stupid, I use my nodding time to replay the sentence in my mind and try to catch the key words that will make it all become clear.

Of course, this policy is far from fail-safe and it is absolutely not to be used when dealing with government officials, lawyers or anyone else where you could be agreeing to something serious without realising it!

Instantly get rid of excess waiters!
Instantly get rid of excess waiters!

Warding off additional waiters

‘Já pedi’ – this means ‘already asked,’ and is a handy phrase for using in bars or cafés where you have already ordered but you spy a second waiter approaching with a notepad and an eager look in his eye.

Write it down

If you need to deal with officials in Portugal who don’t speak English, it’s often helpful to write down your request and take it with you on a piece of paper. That way if you bungle the pronunciation and they look confused, you can just hand over your pre-written request and – provided your handwriting is neat – be understood.

This approach was essential when we were trying to obtain our atestado document to prove that we lived in our village and had to ask two local residents to sign our form (apparently in the village council’s eyes the rental agreement for our apartment was not sufficient proof that we lived there).

I’ve also successfully used this method the first time I ordered a large takeaway and the first time we had to exchange our empty gas bottle – knowing that my grasp of Portuguese was at the time insufficient for these (now mundane) conversations, I took along my trusty piece of paper, which on both occasions saved the day.

Write it down
Write it down

After-dinner conversation

‘A conta, se faz favor.’

In Portugal you are welcome to sit and relax once you have finished your meal in a restaurant. You can enjoy the company of your friends or family and engage in after-dinner conversation, without the staff desperately trying to get you out of the door so that they can turn the table. This is part of what makes dining in Portugal such a pleasant experience. However, for those ready to pay and leave, it can be a little frustrating. If that’s you, use this phrase, which means ‘the bill, please.’ Of course you could also use the internationally recognised mime of writing on your hand!

Have a glass of wine

It’s astonishing how much more confident a glass of wine can make your attempts to speak Portuguese. After three glasses I’m unfailingly convinced that I’m fluent, much to the dismay of my Portuguese friends.

Confidence in a glass!
Confidence in a glass!

And if all else fails…

‘Desculpe, não entendo.’

If all else fails, you can resort to this phrase, which means ‘I’m sorry, I don’t understand.’
Our efforts to speak Portuguese have been overwhelmingly well received. Even when we get in a muddle and mispronounce things or say something silly, the fact that we have tried always goes down well. Even if you have no plans to work out the full intricacies of how to speak Portuguese, a few choice phrases will ensure you stand out and earn you service with a smile wherever you go.
Boa sorte!

If you want to hear more about our adventures with the Portuguese language, why not check out our book: Moving to Portugal

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons, Flickr

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13 Comments - Write a Comment

  1. Hi Lou – good post. My dad lived in Portugal for 15 years and never learnt the language, other than asking for coffees etc. However, he utilised the smiling and nodding technique on an hourly basis and seemed to have lovely long non conversations with other elderly Portuguese in his neighbourhood. I sometimes utilise it myself. My husband is more of the pedantic slow getting the grammar right type of speaker, whilst I just babble along talking nonsense. I will give you two guesses as to who gets the most puzzled looks. 🙂 Saz

  2. Hi Lou, I understand the problem completely. Even after more than 5 years, I still struggle with Portuguese, especially in my village, where my neighbours have a very strong accent that I can’t decipher.

    I usually go with the smile and nod approach but I have to listen carefully for words like ‘hospital’ and ‘doente’ so I’m not grinning like a loon while they’re describing their latest illness.

  3. It sounds like the smile and nod approach is quite a popular one. You dad has shown just how effective it can be Saz! And Julie I know what you mean about listening out for particular words – when used at the wrong time smiling and nodding can cause some serious social faux pas.

  4. I’m trying to learn Portuguese using Michel Thomas cd’s – all very scary!! your article helped lots! I was so embarrassed at not being able to speak any of the language when I visited the Algarve last Summer and, although everyone there seemed to speak excellent English, I only think it’s courteous to try and learn and at least have a go! I’m over again next week and will test what I’ve already learned and the handy couple of expressions you’ve given. I’m sure I’ll be forgiven if I crash and burn!!

  5. Uma imperial (f not m).
    I applaud your effort. The Algarve accent is hard to understand even for a Portuguese. I used the nod myself many times with our southern family friends. Galician and even Spanish are easier to get for a northener than some portuguese accents.

  6. Hi Stuart,
    I completely agree that it is courteous to learn the language of the country you are visiting or moving to. I began learning Portuguese many years ago – just a few useful phrases to use in restaurants and shops when we visited Portugal and Madeira.
    Good luck with using your Portuguese when you come over next week – I am certain that your efforts will be appreciated by those you speak to.
    Best wishes,

  7. Hi Fernando,
    Thank you for the correction – you can see I still have a long way to go! I will update the blog post to ‘uma’ so that future readers aren’t led astray by my poor grammar.
    It’s fascinating to know that we are not alone in our struggles to understand the accent. It is the same in England – strong regional accents can make conversing tricky, even in your native language!
    Best wishes,

  8. Another good tip is to learn the words for I want, I need, I have to etc. Then you can follow these up with verbs in their infinitive form which saves a lot of learning! Michel Thomas is a great way to learn too.

  9. Hi Celia,
    A very good piece of advice, thank you. One of the first phrases I learned to say in Portuguese was ‘I would like this’ which could be accompanied by pointing – simple but effective. Learning ‘I want’ and ‘I need’ were also very useful during the early days.
    I’ve not come across Michel Thomas, but will look into that, thank you.
    Best wishes, Lou

  10. the problem about learning portuguese is the accent..
    the way we say the vowels the consoants….
    if you put a portuguese person saying every sound in the board and record the sound you will get accurated in the accent…

  11. Thanks for the link Ana, that’s really useful 🙂 The accent is something that I really struggle with – I’m getting better but the sounds are so different from English that it is taking a long time!
    Best wishes, Lou

  12. Hi Lou,

    I’m so glad you found my site and shared a link to yours! It will be very helpful for when we visit Portugal.

    If you visit Barcelona, I hope this post from my site will come in handy for you the same way I’m sure yours will for me:

    Numbers 8, 3, and 1 would be particularly useful. 🙂

    Best wishes,


  13. Hi Kimber,

    Thank you for the Barcelona tips. We visit Spain quite often, but have not made it as far as Barcelona yet, so those will come in handy for when we do get there.

    I hope you get to visit Portugal at some point soon 🙂

    Best wishes,


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