When the Locals Respond in English…

conversation in PortugueseOne comment we hear from many of our members is that they are having trouble finding opportunities to practice conversation in Portuguese out in the real world. They get off to a great start: eagerly working through the units, doing regular reviews, memorizing verb conjugations, and spending time studying Shorties and Podcasts. Then, when they work up the courage to speak Portuguese, they are completely crushed to hear the listener respond in English.

Many wonder if they said something wrong and feel too embarrassed to try to continue the conversation in Portuguese. They immediately switch to English and remain stuck in this pattern of learning Portuguese quietly at home, but not putting it into use. They start to feel discouraged that they can’t integrate more into Portuguese life.

If this sounds like you, don’t worry! We have some suggestions that will help you get past this barrier.

Be Insistent

It all starts with advocating for yourself. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. There may be situations in which it’s not possible for someone to patiently work through a conversation with you. Most of the time, however, people will be happy to help and appreciate you putting in the effort. All you have to do is ask!

Pode falar em português comigo, por favor? Play normal audio Can you speak to me in Portuguese, please?

First, let the listener know that you are trying to improve. They may think they are doing you a favour by speaking in English, so just politely tell them why you want to use Portuguese:

Estou a aprender a língua e preciso praticar Play normal audio I'm learning the language and I need to practice

If you’re worried you’re not making sense, you could even ask:

Consegue compreender-me? Play normal audio Can you understand me?

Managing Communication Breakdowns Without Switching to English

When you run into a tricky part of the conversation, it can be helpful to the listener to tell them what exactly you didn’t understand. Take the sentence below, for example.

A minha avó tem muitas agulhas de coser paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio My grandmother has many sewing needles

Let’s say you didn’t understand “agulhas de coser”. You could ask a question to make it clear which part of the sentence you missed:

A tua avó tem o quê? Play normal audio Your grandmother has what?

Or, similarly, you could repeat the part of the phrase you heard with a questioning tone, leaving the rest to be filled in by the listener:

A tua avó tem muitas...? Play normal audio Your grandmother has many...?

If they repeat the part you missed, but you still don’t know what it means, you could ask:

Não entendi, pode explicar? Play normal audio I didn't understand, can you explain?

O que significa? Play normal audio What does it mean?

Sometimes, however, you may not catch much of anything and need the person to repeat or speak more slowly:

Pode repetir, por favor? paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Can you repeat (that) , please? Pode falar mais devagar, por favor? paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Can you speak more slowly, please?

If you are trying to say something specific, but don’t have the vocabulary, you could ask something like:

Como se diz isso em português? paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio How do you say that in Portuguese?

You can replace the word isso with a word you want to translate. And, of course, don’t forget to be patient and polite:

Obrigado pela explicação Play normal audio Thank you for the explanation (male speaker)

Obrigada por me ajudar a praticar! paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Thank you for helping me practice (female speaker) Obrigada pela ajuda paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Thank you for the help(female speaker)

Putting it All Together

In this article from Tomorrow magazine, Lena Strang writes about her experience building Portuguese conversation skills even when she kept getting a response in English. Inspired by Lena’s article, we put together a goofy video to show you an example of how to politely manage a situation in which a local keeps responding in English:

Build Conversational Confidence

Of course, all of these tips are much easier said than done. Until you have the skills to sustain a conversation in Portuguese, it can be daunting to ask for Portuguese when you know you’re going to struggle.

Keep learning! The more comfortable you feel with your Portuguese skills, the easier it is to manage whatever comes up in conversation. In the beginning, it’s okay to start small and stick to some basic greetings and phrases. Over time you can gradually add to your skills. The best way to do that is by continuing to challenge yourself in real conversations. There are even some shortcuts to help simplify your approach!

As you progress, you’ll notice more of the nuances of the language, such as the common colloquial expressions, as well as pronunciation quirks, including regional accent differences and how the ends of words often sound like they are “swallowed”.

Immerse Yourself

Lastly, try exploring other parts of Portugal. In more tourism-focused areas, getting a default English response is quite common. By traveling to other areas of the country, or even just going off the beaten path a bit, you can expect to hold more conversations in Portuguese. Don’t shy away from experiences like this that will help you feel more immersed in both the language and culture of Portugal.


  • Hello, some of the phrases on this page do not have the speaker icon so I can hear them properly pronounced.

    • Sorry about that! We record in batches, so often we go ahead and publish the articles with just the written example phrases and then add audio to them later. But don’t worry, these are on the list to be recorded. 🙂

  • Wonderful that you address this. This happens to me a lot too, and I do use these phrases above and others to convince people to speak Portuguese with me, and they are quite happy to, normally. It is a bit slower for them, communicating in my Portuguese instead of their excellent English, so at the end I say ‘Muito obrigada pela sua paciência,’ which I hope is correct. Sometimes people also answer me in French. (Never in Spanish however!). The fact that this is such a common problem just goes to show what brilliant linguists the Portuguese are. This won’t happen in most European countries! I do notice that people are pleased when foreigners make an effort to speak Portuguese, and I am only sorry that so relatively few can be ‘arsed’ to do so. I have witnessed some really shocking linguistic rudeness. I wonder how townspeople manage to keep their temper at all sometimes. But they seem to be unfailingly polite. I find this topic quite painful, actually. It motivates me to learn more. Thanks for your help with that, Rui and Joel.

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