Do You Speak English?

"do-you-speak-english"Learning another language is generally something that us Brits do not do all that well.  I mean there are plenty of nationalities who seem to find it no problem to chat away in four languages at once, however being born British seems to mean that we are most often born with the “unable to learn even how to do a dodgy foreign accent well” gene.

Luckily for us Brits we have managed to get by with being unable to learn a language by simply becoming great teachers of English (I am sure the world domination of the English language has nothing to do with a couple of other countries also speaking a version of English at all).

What makes it worse for expats in the Algarve is that it turns out that Portuguese is actually a pretty tricky language to get to grips with.  It reads like a sort of strange Spanish but it sounds like a sort of strange Russian and any Brit from south of the border will have considerable trouble getting their tongue around some of the more guttural sounds.  What is worse is that even if you can pronounce the words, you are in danger of drowning the person you are talking to in spittle.

Portuguese isn’t like French, thanks to ‘allo ‘allo we can all do the weird policeman accent, nor is it like Spanish – my thanks go to Antonio Banderas at this point for that one.  To be honest if you ask any expat who lives in Portugal to put on a Portuguese accent they would be hard pressed to come up with anything better than the general pigeon English foreigner voice.

So where does this leave us linguistically challenged Brits?  Well it turns out we have a couple of options:

  1. Learn the language – This does not mean necessarily attending classes as I know many people who five years down the line are still unable to make it past the first response in a conversation.
  2. Shout – Adopt the classic talking more slowly and more loudly approach in the vain hope that someone will eventually understand you
  3. Pretend – Spend your life nodding and saying “uh-huh” which covers all possible questions and outcomes
  4. Live in the Algarve – The land where everyone from shelf stacker to CEO speaks English so you never have to even attempt to speak the language – EVER.

Most people I know who live abroad do at least pretend to be learning the language with the classic “I understand more than I can say” being used as the easiest cover for never picking up a text book, watching any local television or ever having spoken to a Portuguese person before except when it is at a checkout.

The shouting option is luckily reserved usually for those who come on holiday briefly who, after they establish that Portuguese is not actually the same as Spanish, then proceed to do the shouting more slowly and more loudly until someone comes along to translate thing.

Strangely, the pretend option is actually the most popular of all for many expat long term residents.  It is not uncommon to come out of a coffee shop with six cheese and ham croissants, a birthday cake and a loaf of hard bread because said expat was too embarrassed to admit that all they wanted was a cup of coffee and a piece of toast but had been entirely misunderstood and didn’t want to look like they couldn’t speak Portuguese.  There are also many cases (far more than you could ever imagine) of people successfully pretending to speak Portuguese for months, even years at a time, by simply avoiding eye contact and copying when others nod or laugh in a room.

Being British means that everyone speaks your language though and the Portuguese learnt a long time ago the benefits of watching Lord of the Rings on repeat until they spoke Ye Olde English well enough to be able to increase their tips, make another sale or lure an unsuspecting lady down to the beach with the offer of a bottle of wine under the stars.

There is no obligation to learn the local language but to be honest it does have its advantages…and if the thought of the cheap wine on the beach isn’t enough to make you want to learn the language, then just think how much weight you will put on eating all those cakes you never ordered (while the guy in the café laughs in the back at you being too British to say the order was wrong).

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