The original, independent guide to Lisbon
The language spoken in Lisbon is Portuguese but English is widely spoken by all people who work within the tourist industry. There will be no language problems for tourists who are visiting Lisbon or the surrounding coastline. In major transport hubs (eg the airport and stations) signs are displayed in English and Portuguese and for all tourist attractions leaflets in English can be obtained.
It is always appreciated by the Portuguese when visitors attempt to say a few basic words in their native tongue but there is certainly no need to learn an extensive vocabulary or to enroll on a language class just for a standard holiday. No tourist should be discouraged from visiting Lisbon due to the perceived difficulty posed by the language barrier.
The Portuguese have a good understanding of English as they are constantly exposed to it via movies and music, while their education actively promotes language skills. The Portuguese are more exposed to English than many other European countries as the majority of their TV programs originate from the USA and have Portuguese subtitles with the original English audio.
Language will not be a difficulty while traveling on public transport, most signs have an English translation and on the automated ticket machines there are options to alter the language settings. English is the second language in Lisbon airport and the entire airport is very easy to navigate. The only real language difficulty is with some of the older taxi drivers but this can be easily resolved by having the address of hotel clearly written on a piece of paper or the hotels business card. Eating out is again easy as restaurants and cafes commonly have an English menu and most good waiters can speak English fluently.
For those tourists who are trying to learn the Portuguese language will find the way the Portuguese speak is very different to the structured methods of language programs or evening classes. The Portuguese speak very fast, will happy talk over each other and raise their voices to make a point. Initially this makes it very difficult to follow a conversation but gladly the number of commonly used words is relatively small and often the entire gist of a conversation can be gleaned from only a few words.
Being a small country Portugal is fiercely defensive of its language from the subtle invasion of Spanish and the more direct influence from Brazil. Though Portuguese and Spanish (and Italian) languages read and look very similar they sound very different, with Portuguese often being compared to an Eastern European language with strong nasal sounds.
Portuguese and Brazilian read exactly the same with a just a few variations, similar to English written in the USA when compared to the UK. There are strong dialect differences between Brazilian and Portugal Portuguese with very different sounding words. Brazilian Portuguese is slowly influencing the Portuguese spoken by Portugal with inter country migration and the endless poorly produced Brazilian TV series flooding the Portugal cable channels.
Interestingly to stop the influence of Spanish names in Portugal children who are born in Portugal and have two Portuguese parents are required by law to choose a name out of a specially compiled list of names. This is partially the reason why so many Portuguese have similar names.