Communication Gap

Not speaking Portuguese hasn’t really been an issue — until now.

One of the biggest worries or anxieties someone might have moving to a new country is the inability to understand or speak the language. Living this reality, I can now fully sympathize with those who have had this experience. Every day involves communicating, seeking, and receiving information. The myriad ways that happens is dizzying when you begin to think about it. There are social and business interactions, articles, emails, texts, news updates, television programming, radio, online reviews, traffic and business signs, menus, websites, mail…this list goes on and on. It’s amazing to think about how much you rely on your ability to read and speak a language in order to smoothly navigate your world.

Won and I knew from personal experience when we visited Portugal prior to our move, as well as anecdotally via YouTube videos, that we would be able to get by without first having learned Portuguese. Our plan was to hire a tutor once we got settled so we could feel more confident in daily life, fit in more seamlessly, and embrace our new country. We were planning to begin our lessons soon. Unfortunately, that has been put off because of the novel coronavirus outbreak, but for now we are keeping up with online lessons available through YouTube.

So far, we’ve managed to muddle through with a lot of patience, creativity, guessing, and relying heavily on our Google Translate apps. Google Translate has helped us decode text messages, engage in online chat sessions, interpret invoices, understand information on packaging, read signs and articles, even communicate spontaneously with people at the beach or on the street who stop to talk to us about Sweet Pea (she’s like a magnet).

The only time Google Translate isn’t an optimal solution is when we have to make a phone call. Recently, we had a problem with our cable. Won called the cable company to let them know and request a service visit, but he didn’t understand the recorded options. And, there was no “To speak with an English-speaking agent, press 2.” His solution? He logged on to their website, opened a chat window and then copied and pasted all the instructions and exchanges with the agent into Google Translate, including his own responses, so he could communicate. He requested an English-speaking service person, but the man who came to fix the problem didn’t speak any English. Oddly enough, Won and he pantomimed the issues and resolutions sufficiently enough so that the problem was resolved. (As soon as the threat of the virus has passed, I’m painting his face white, dressing him in a striped shirt and beret, and plopping him down on the corner to make some extra money.)

Image result for french mime

While that was a win not all situations end so successfully. Last week he wanted to see an orthopedist about persistent knee pain. Unfortunately he never got past the Portuguese only language options at the doctor’s office and when he attempted to press zero multiple times in order to get someone to pick up with the hope that they spoke English, the line would disconnect. Thankfully the pain in his knee resolved spontaneously so he didn’t pursue it. In retrospect this is probably a good thing because now that we are in the midst of this pandemic all non-urgent health needs are being put on the back burner to free up resources to help during this crisis.

And speaking of the current COVID-19 pandemic, not understanding Portuguese has added another level of stress to an already stressful situation. Just like you we are desperate for information. We are searching the web and watching any and all available English-language stations like CNN and Sky News out of the UK which provides European updates.

This is all good and helpful from a macro scale, but what we really want is local information. That’s where we run into a few challenges. We have been checking the US Embassy website which has been useful from a country perspective and to learn what the government is doing, but not at the city/town level and certainly not for daily updates. For that, we have to watch the local Lisbon news station which has been providing 24-hour coverage and, of course, it’s all in Portuguese. Regardless, last night we decided to tune in to see what we could learn. We sat there with our laptops and kept pausing it constantly to translate the words that we were written on the screen. Not optimal, but it got us some basic information. Here’s a screen shot of some of the news coverage we see:

We have also been relying heavily on articles intended for Portuguese citizens, but which have been auto-translated into English by Google. The interesting thing is that these are straight word for word translations so the syntax, grammar, sentence structure and even the words being used are lacking the nuances intended and we are lacking the cultural knowledge and understanding that Portuguese citizens take for granted. As an example, updates from the government use very formal language which isn’t typically how people speak these days so it requires some level of interpretation and we’re hoping we are interpreting it correctly. Of course there is no way for us to confirm it. We haven’t been here long enough to establish a friendship with someone close by in order to validate our understanding and with the current lock down and self-isolation directive, its not like we can go knocking on our neighbor’s doors to see if they can help.

It’s not very hard to feel out of the loop. Last night at 10PM, we heard people clapping, yelling and whistling, cymbals being crashed together and horns honking. We opened our windows to see people hanging out of their windows all around us making the noise. We were totally confused and had no idea how to figure out what was going on. It lasted for about five minutes. When it was over, we scratched our heads, chalked it up to quarantine craziness, and went back to translating what we were seeing on TV. About 30 minutes later, a news report provided the answer. Apparently, a text message had gone out earlier in the day via mobile phone in the Lisbon area. The message asked people to acknowledge the “heroes in the health industry” who are working tirelessly to address and mitigate this health crisis by opening their windows, clapping and making noise at 10PM. We wish we had known!! We would have heartily and happily joined in!!

This pandemic has highlighted and reinforced how important it is to learn the language of your home country as quickly as possible. Until we do, we are grateful to Google Translate which is ensuring we are not completely isolated – at least from information. Like everyone should be doing, we are staying home and minimizing our exposure to others. Please do your part to #helpflattenthecurve.

As of this writing, Portugal has recorded 245 active cases, but no deaths. I’m praying it stays that way. I would like to share the following resource with you that I am checking on a constant basis. It’s called Worldometer Coronavirus COVID-19. If the link is broken, copy and past the following URL into your internet browser: It is an amazing resource that summarizes how the pandemic is impacting the world. Be sure to scroll down past the main numbers to the country-level chart for more detailed information.

During times like this it reminds us how important family and friends are to each of us. My son Matthew, daughter-in-law Heather, and brother-in-law Adam, are all in the healthcare industry. Matt has direct patient interaction every day he is at work. I pray he, and all healthcare workers and front line emergency teams, stay healthy and safe. I might have missed standing, thanking, and acknowledging the heroes of the healthcare industry last night, but I am standing up right now and clapping for them all!! I hope you will join me, they deserve our respect and support.

From Portugal with love (de Portugal com amor),


Published by Beth Thomas-Kim

After working in corporate America for companies like Mattel, Nestlé, and Johnson & Johnson, I retired and moved to Portugal in January of 2020 with my husband Won and our 12-year old wire fox terrier, Sweet Pea. We now live in Monte Estoril, a lovely seaside town just outside Lisbon. We spend our days happily exploring this beautiful country and learning about its fascinating history, engaging culture, warm and welcoming people, delicious food and wine, and stunning architecture. This blog was started primarily as a way to keep family and friends updated on our transition from the US to Portugal. Now, my subscribers include people from all over the world. Enjoy!

2 thoughts on “Communication Gap

  1. Hi, Beth: I have been thinking about you two and wondering if the language situation would affect your perception and understanding of the process. It sounds so complicated. Love and prayers for you and Won. Stay isolated and safe. I hope Won’s knee problem will be minimal until after this crisis with the virus and he can see a doctor under calmer conditions. Love, Aunt Dianna


  2. Thanks Aunt Dianna. We’re doing fine. We are snuggled into our place with everything we need. We’ve also just discovered a local supermarket chain delivers so we placed our first online order which will be delivered tomorrow. We’are doing everything we can do stay healthy. Hoping the same for you!! Sending you hugs.

    Liked by 1 person

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