Olá! Tudo bem? …NOW what?

Overcoming Conversation Hurdles in European Portuguese

Perhaps you’ve lived in Portugal for some time or spend prolonged periods here for holidays. You’ve acquired some basic vocabulary and want to try to communicate in the language. All well and good, but how do you take the next steps to becoming conversational in Portuguese?

How do you sustain a conversation beyond the cheery Bom dia Good morning and Tudo bem? What's up?, How are you?, Is everything going well?

What tends to follow are a few more smiles, possibly a torrent of words you don’t understand, and after an awkward silence, the conversation ends. Many of us have been there and know the frustration.

Starting a Conversation in European Portuguese

  • 👵 Bom dia! Tudo bem? Good morning! Is everything going well?
    • 👨‍🦰 Bom dia! Tudo bem, obrigado. E consigo? Good morning! Everything's fine, thank you. And with you? or
    • 👩‍🦱 Bom dia! Tudo bem, obrigada. E consigo? Good morning! Everything's fine, thank you. And with you?

This a great way to greet someone or to begin a basic conversation. (But keep in mind that Portuguese greetings vary depending on the time of day!) Now we just need to expand on this little by little to communicate in a variety of settings.

Be Prepared

A useful approach is to prepare yourself and have some vocabulary and phrases ready. If you go to a café or restaurant and know what you are going to order, write it down and practice beforehand:

Dois cafés com leite e dois pasteis de nata, por favor Two coffees and two custard tarts, please

The same goes when you visit the post office or the bank. Look up the vocabulary you need. After you’ve done this a few times you may start to remember what to say, but it’s useful to have your checklist handy.

Have Some Go-to Phrases Ready

How do you deal with the impromptu interactions that you can’t really prepare for beforehand? You can still have a few conversation gambits ready. After greeting your neighbour, you could comment about the weather, make a positive remark about their house, how nice their garden looks, or perhaps an enquiry about their family if it’s appropriate. And pronto… you will have engaged in conversations!

Here are a few simple comments to get you started:

Isso são excelentes notícias! That's great news! Espero que esteja tudo bem I hope everything is fine Há muito tempo que não o via! Long time no see! Hoje está calor, não está? It's hot today, isn't it? Parece que vem lá chuva Seems like it's going to rain O seu fim de semana foi bom? Was your weekend good? Gosto muito do que fez com o seu jardim I really like what you did with your garden Já sabe para onde vai de férias? Do you know where you're going on holiday yet?

Use Portuguese Filler Words

Filler words like pronto there you go, that's it, so are useful for giving yourself thinking time when you are speaking. It can also be used in the sense of: “all right” or “ready?” If you listen carefully, native Portuguese speakers use fillers like these regularly when they pause or search for words. They add colour and flavour and make speakers sound more authentic.

Pois Yeah, indeed, so, well is probably the most useful little filler. In order to acknowledge what someone else is saying, you can interject a pois, or pois é so it is, that's right, to show you are listening and agreeing.

Pois, eu vi logo que isso ia acontecer Yeah, I knew right away that was going to happen
Pois, de facto é uma situação complicada Yeah, it's a complicated situation

Similar to the use of the word “so” in English, Portuguese people often start their sentences with the adverb  Então So, Well

Então, como é que tens andado? So, how have you been?
Então... O que se passou foi o seguinte: ... Well... What happened was: ...

When you are trying to explain something in different ways, you could say:

  • Ora bem Let’s see, Right or just Bem Well
  • Ou seja In other words
  • Não é? Isn't it?, Right?, Yeah? (often used at the end of a sentence)

These fillers don’t carry much meaning, but can be useful for maintaining the flow of the conversation and adding pauses when searching for the right word.

Asking for Clarification

Try to pick out the keywords in the conversation you are hearing and don’t hesitate to ask people to repeat or speak more slowly.

Pode falar mais devagar, por favor? Can you speak more slowly, please? Não percebi, desculpe I didn't understand, sorry Podia repetir? Could you repeat that?

In case you completely missed what someone said to you, you can simply say:

Diga? Come again?, Literally - Say?

Don’t worry about making mistakes. The main thing is to try to make oneself understood and gain confidence in the process as you work toward becoming conversational in Portuguese.

Imitate What You Hear

A very good way to improve your speaking is to listen to native speakers, imitate their accent, the rhythm of speech, and tone of voice. Our Shorties are one way to get frequent practice, including transcriptions of the dialogues for extra support. It may be useful to record your own speech as a comparison and keep working on your pronunciation.

Pois… falar a língua local é bom, não é? Well... speaking the local language is nice, isn't it?

–written by Lena Strang, adapted from her article in Tomorrow Magazine

Continue working on your European Portuguese conversation skills with a Practice Portuguese membership (or click here to read more about the program)

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