Panama : must I know Spanish?

by Jennifer Venter August. 17, 2018 1360 views

Imagine a world

Imagine a world where everything you hear and see is different.

Where things we took so for granted are no longer understandable. Simple ideas from legal documentation, leases, food stuffs, road signs, warning signs, identity cards, bank emails, menus and everything around you is foreign. When you pop onto a website and since your originating IP address states you are in a Spanish country, all your websites including Google (my best friend) is in another language - and you proceed to take the next hour to change it back to your home language or just do your best in Spanish.

When we were moving to Panama, we were told its Spanish here full stop. We read articles and facebook posts but it did not really sink in. When we boarded our COPA airline and all the stewardess were speaking Spanish, it still did not sink in. When we got to immigration control, customs control and the taxi rank and everyone was speaking Spanish - it still did not sink in. When we got to the hotel, the receptionist spoke a little bit of English so reality moved a little further away at that point. When the yellow taxi arrived and wonderful Carlos with his broad smile and friendly face could only speak Spanish and use hang signals, it still did not sink in.

Driving through Panama and seeing all the Spanish road signs, it was exciting as we felt like tourists. We sat in the back of the yellow cab which was lovingly held together with duct tape and watched with excited wide eyes as the Panama scene unfolded before us.

We finally arrived at Metromall near to our hotel so that we could explore and experience our first taste of a Panamanian Mall, and then only then did it SINK in ! Everyone was speaking Spanish and I mean everyone. Each shop that we ventured into, each coffee shop, each takeaway joint were all speaking Spanish. No one spoke English and then it seriously sank in that we had indeed jumped down the rabbit hole and that life would never be the same again.

We realised that we had three options :

  1. curl up in a ball and cry; or
  2. pack up and go back to our old country; or
  3. embrace the change and learn.

So we decided that we would choose option 3. Yes it would be tough and frustrating but we would try. Coming from a country where Spanish is not prevalent, it would be difficult. But we knew that we could do it. Between some basic Spanish classes with a teacher, Google translate and Duolingo we would make a plan.

Nine months later, we are far from fluent but we can go to a shop and ask for what we want, we can order from a restaurant, we can ask a taxi driver for help and we can get by. Each day we learn a bit more, each day we become more confident and one day we shall be comfortable to chat away in our new language.

Learning a new language, for me especially, is difficult so I take it step by step as if I am a toddler again learning to walk for the first time. I try to be patient with myself and I try to practise. Yes it can be frustrating and embarrassing but it is worth the effort. At the end of the day, it benefits me and my skill set so it is a win-win situation all round.

We have met a few Panamanians that do speak English but this is more the exception than the rule. Whenever we hear a Panamanian speaking English, the first thing we say is "WOW !" and the second thing being "where did you learn English?" Answers have varied from a school to learning from watching English movies/TV. Many have different reasons for learning English, but they did and they practise whenever they can.

If you want to make your life easier, then learning Spanish in Panama is a must. But ultimately this is your decision.

If you have any questions or comments, leave them below.

Much love,


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