Sad to say, I have English friends who have been in the Algarve for 22 years who don’t speak a word of Portuguese or hardly a word in Portuguese. So sadly, the answer is yes, you can get by in the Algarve by just speaking English.
The Algarve is the most popular tourist region in Portugal. It receives somewhere between 5,000,000 and 6,000,000 arrivals a year and the Algarve has the population of only 300,000. So there is a lot of influx of people into the area and, of course, what this means is that the most common language of communication is English. English can be used to communicate with Dutch, Norwegians, Americans, Canadians, Australians, English, and even with Germans. And so English is the de facto international language in use in the Algarve in conversations involving foreign people.
We have many foreign people who start off learning Portuguese but the Portuguese people go out of their way to speak English and so what the foreigners find is that sometimes it is difficult to practice their Portuguese because the Portuguese people in their anxiety to be helpful start speaking English. And so most people kind of then become embarrassed and they revert to English because the Portuguese speak so much better English than the foreigners speak Portuguese.
It would be helpful to speak some Portuguese because it is part of understanding the culture. So it’s always useful to be able to say something more than just “hello” and “goodbye.” But the truth is that there are some people who for cultural and other reasons have not necessarily made the effort or found that they needed to make the effort to learn Portuguese. They can simply get by on English and do everything that they need to do—go to the doctor, go to the supermarket, go to the club, etc., and they can get away perfectly with just speaking English.
(Lennart Eriksson [far right], Swedish Olympian visited Algarve Senior Living property in Portugal, pictured.)