What We Learned: Regardless of what anybody says, YOU DO NEED TO SPEAK & READ SPANISH

We had a great time living as expats in Panama for 18 years. Now that we’ve returned home to the US, there is time to reflect on the lessons we learned that are important for anyone thinking about moving to Panama.

Regardless of what you may hear, you need to speak and read Spanish. Spanish, and to be specific Panamanian-style Spanish, is the official language of Panama. Yes, a few people may know a few words or phrases in English, especially in Panama City, but Spanish is the official, legal language, plus a half dozen native, Indigenous languages. There is no “Press 2 for English” here. If you want to do business, work with the government in any way, sign legal documents, etc., it has to be in Spanish. If you only want to hang out with other English-speaking expats or hire a translator to shadow you, you can squeak by, but you will be agreeing to things and signing official documents that you may not completely understand which should wave a big red flag.

Some folks who are already good with multiple languages, and are young, or like some Europeans who already speak multiple Romance languages, you will probably do OK learning Spanish or adjusting to the Panamanian style Spanish. Kids generally do fine, picking up the language from their playmates and peers, but when you get older … Face it: you don’t “pick up” a language in your sixties.

And here’s where it becomes really important. It doesn’t make any sense to move to a vibrant new country, like Panama, and only hang out with and socialize with other North American expats who speak primarily Spanish. If you want Panamanian friends, and you want to talk about life, gossip, relationships, faith, the meaning of life and all the ups and downs of each others lives, you’ve got to be able to speak the same language!

Sure some of the expat relocation “experts” will tell you it’s fairly easy to pick up Spanish and even offer you some free, very elementary Spanish lessons. “Hello” and “Where’s the bathroom?” while important, will only get you so far in building relationships and making your time in Panama meaningful.

Do some research on the language which you will need. Spanish is one of the most difficult languages to learn and Spanish speakers are very fussy about you speaking Spanish absolutely correctly. To make matters worse, Spanish in Panama is not exactly the same as in other countries, and even within Panama there are regional differences between the very proper Spanish spoken in the capital and Spanish spoken on the “frontier” like in Boquete. Add into the mix that Panamanians speak Spanish with machine gun rapidity.

It takes work, hard work, and there are folks, like me, who just don’t have a brain for languages. I took high school Spanish, French in college, Hebrew (Biblical Hebrew – big run on that), classical Greek, and even Latin in junior high. I suspect it was the Latin that soured me on languages. I always managed to learn just enough to get the grade and move on. I did learn street Spanish in the Puerto Rican area of the South Bronx where my first church was located. Yes, I can curse with a pretty good string of street Spanish and say some truly insulting things about your mama, but aside from cursing out offending technology, that skill isn’t worth much.

And be prepared to screw up trying, and laugh it off and make it a game. For years I tried to apologize for not speaking Spanish buy using a Spanish word that I assumed meant “I’m embarrassed” because that’s what it sounded like it meant and there are a lot of Spanish words that sound like the English equivalent or vice versa. Finally someone kindly told me that what I was really saying was “I’m pregnant.”

On our little coffee farm we always had projects going on and local guys who worked with me. They were patient, understanding and actually learning English faster than I was learning Spanish. One time some bilingual friends were visited and they heard me say, in Spanish (Yahoo!) to one of the workers, “I need to use you over there.”

My friends looked shocked and said to me, “Richard, do you know what you’re saying?!?” I said sure that I needed him working over there. They said, “That may be what you think you are saying, but what you are really saying is that you want to use him sexually over there!” Well everyone had a good laugh, but …

If you are introduced to someone the polite response is “Mucho gusto” the polite way of saying you are happy to meet the person, Somehow I got it mixed up and started saying “Me gusta”. That came to light when I had some gay friends who were introducing me to one of their gay friends. What was saying was, “I like you” as in “I think you are hot!”

Funny, but very frustrating. We had the teenage son of the woman who was living with one of our workers on our farm. At the time the worker was involved in a very fundamental, judgmental church. Because the kid wasn’t “his” son, the worker was very hard on him. The kid came to the house one night crying. He’d gotten his girl friend pregnant and needed some advice and was afraid to tell his family and he said, patiently and mostly in broken English so I would understand, that we were the closest thing to real parents that he had.

It gets worse. Time passes. That worker breaks up with the woman, quits the local church he had been involved with, quits working for us and moves back to the comarca (like a reservation, basically a sovereign Indigenous state within a state, Two years after all these folks left the kid, Jose, shows up at the house crying. He now has two kids, his partner’s family hates him, his mother and the guy who worked for us don’t want to see him, and he wants me to tell him what to do because I’m the only “father” he’s ever known. Good luck communicating without a common language. And as best I can I tell him he’s not a kid any more, but a man, and he needs to step up and be a man, and while it’s not going to be easy, he has to take care of his family. I hugged him and sent him off. Then I was crying because I just didn’t have the ability to communicate.

He’s on my Facebook, so I see pictures of him as he’s grown. He was struggling to learn to play an old guitar and he posts video of him playing and he’s become really good. I’ve tried to use Translate to send him occasional messages, but I have no idea how he is really doing.

You’ve got to speak Spanish! There’s no way around that. Your experience and enjoyment of Panama will be a thousand percent better if you speak the language! That’s true on an interpersonal level but also legally. We got royally screwed, which I’ll tell you about later, by a dishonest, supposedly very “Christian” attorney who ripped us off big time. Had we known our way around the legal system, been able to study the law, and read everything, we would have saved ourselves a lot of grief.