Many plan-to-be expats are concerned about the language, and rightfully so. After all, if you can’t communicate you’ll have a much harder time with everything in your new country.
Shopping, eating out, finding a place to live, getting utilities turned on, taking cabs and buses or getting car repairs — all the business of life requires that you be able to communicate with others.
How good does your Spanish need to be to live in Panama?
As with so much else in the expat life, the answer is, “it depends.” It depends on:
- where in the country you plan to live
- what level of interaction you want with the local people
Here’s what I can tell you based on my experience here in Panama.
Don’t Believe Anyone who Tells you “Lots of People Here Speak English”
It just isn’t true.
Yes, more and more Panamanians are learning English. But when you go into a hotel, a restaurant or a shop, you’ll be very lucky to find an English speaker, even in Panama City. When I stayed at a prominent downtown hotel catering to international travelers, not one desk clerk spoke English when I was there. Very seldom have I found an English speaker serving in a restaurant.
In the interior (everything that’s not the Panama City metro area) even fewer people speak English.
Now, if you’re in a heavily expat area like Boquete or Coronado, you’ll probably find more English speakers than you would find where I live in Las Tablas. But you can’t count on it.
Even a little Spanish will help you negotiate the day-to-day tasks. The better your Spanish, the richer your expat experience will be.
There are three basic levels of language competence:
- handling the most basic necessities
- Greeting people and having simple conversations
- Carrying on a real conversation
It’s a good idea to try to master some very basic vocabulary before you arrive.
Hello is buenos dias, buenas tardes or buenas noches depending on the time of day, or hola if you’re speaking informally with somebody you know. But Panamanians have one all-purpose greeting word that works any time. It’s buenas.
Goodbye is adios, or buenos dias, buenas tardes or buenas noches. Don’t use buenas by itself when saying goodby.
Thank you is gracias.
Como esta (if you’re talking to one person) is “how are you?”, and the response is bien, gracias (good, thank you) or muy bien, gracias (very well, thank you).
Another good, all-purpose phrase is esta bien — it’s okay or it’s fine.
Think about the nouns you’ll need to know most urgently. Bathroom is baño — you’ll definitely want to know that!
Verbs like ir (to go), comprar (to buy), necesitar (to need) and querer (to want) are pretty handy as well.
Of course, verbs are tricky because they change depending on whether you’re saying “I want” or “he wants” or “you want” — just like English. So here are the verbs listed above, in the first person singular:
Knowing your numbers — at least from one to ten — is a big help as well.
You’ll need these words for basic survival. They won’t take you very far, and you should be ready to use sign language, gestures, and have a pocket dictionary or translation program on your phone available at all times.
With a little bit of basic vocabulary and a lot of good will, you’ll be able to carry on a simple conversation.
Once you get past the “hello, how are you?” point in a conversation, weather-related exchanges are safe. Fortunately, they’re a lot less complicated here than in areas that see snow, sleet, hail, hurricanes, tornadoes, and such.
Here in Panama, it’s pretty much muy calor (very hot) or muy lluvioso (very rainy). Sometimes both at once.
People here are curious about us. They want to know where we’re from (I’ve learned to say “Florida” with a Panamanian accent), whether we have children and where they live, whether we like Panama and whether we like the food here.
Fortunately these are all fairly easy to understand and respond to. As to the food, I always mention something I do like, then tell them we’re used to food that is mas picante (spicier). That always gets their attention as Panamanians like their food very bland.
Once you want to go beyond talking about the family, the weather and the food, though, you need better language skills indeed.
If You Want to Improve Your Spanish
Before coming to Panama, I took a few semesters of conversational Spanish at my local community college. Once the classes finished, I tuned in to a Spanish-language radio station in my car and listened to it while driving. Even though I didn’t understand a lot, it helped me develop a better “ear” for the language.
I also bought the Pimsleur Spanish program, which helped me a lot.
Even after living here a year, I don’t understand some of the local accents. Some speakers are very clear, but others just sound to me like Charlie Brown’s teacher in the Peanuts cartoons — wah, wah, wah. Think about the difference between an English speaker from California and an English speaker from Mississippi. . .
Before You Arrive
- Take classes at a community college
- Listen to Spanish-language radio or TV to develop your “ear”
- Enroll in an online program like Live Mocha
- Take a language course like Pimsleur
After You Get Here
Depending on where in the country you decide to live, you may have access to a nearby Spanish school. There are several in Panama City, Boquete and Bocas del Toro, and there’s also one in Pedasi. There may be others as well.