Do you need to speak Spanish?

People are always asking me if you have to speak Spanish to live in Boquete. No, this is not South Florida or Southern California! But it is a Spanish-speaking country, so you do best if you speak at least some Spanish. Unlike the US, you won’t find any legal documents or governmental agencies even trying to use English. Most Panamanian companies might as well put up a sign on the door reading “Spanish Only” since there is no concept in Panama of “Press One for Spanish; Press Two for English” even although English has been widely spoken in the Canal area since workers were brought in by the thousands from English-speaking Caribbean islands to build the Canal. Talk to West Indian person in Colon and they will quickly assure you in English that Panama is as far as they are concerned bi-lingual.

There are expat folks in Boquete who don’t speak Spanish, and don’t try, and are perfectly happy . . . but move solely in a circle of other English-speaking friends. Many of the locals are struggling to learn English, just like most of the expats are struggling to learn Spanish. I have a Panamanian friend who says, “It’s a toss-up which language everyone will speak first!” My wife goes to the farmer’s market (daily in Boquete) and the farmer wants to practice his English, and my wife wants to practice her Spanish, so she talks in Spanish and he talks in English!

I’ve gotten by for ten years mutilating the language. Thankfully I have friends and workers who “dummy down” their Spanish and speak very s-l-o-w-ly and, just like we do in order to be understood, LOUDLY so I get much of what they are saying. Much, but not all. And sometimes what I hear is all backwards from what they said!

Yes, I mess my tenses and confuse my genders, but most of all I’ve been here long enough that there are Spanish-speaking folks that I want to connect with on a level that goes beyond the weather, directions, etc. The only way you can really share ideas and feelings is if you know the language. I have friends with whom I would dearly like to share something other than it’s a nice day, or we had a lot of rain, or how is your family.

People say you can “pick up the language.”  Let me tell you, once you turn sixty you don’t “pick up” anything!!  I have a PhD, MBA, MDiv and BA.  I speak and lecture all over the world, and I write books, so I’ve gotten by pretty well, but … When I was growing up some educational genius decided that you wouldn’t teach grammar to children, just have them learn to speak and write so it “sounded right.”  So I never knew how to diagram a sentence until I got into my first-year college English class.   I don’t know what a past-preterite-subjunctive-imperfect-whatever tense is in English, so how am I ever going to figure out what it is in Spanish?

My mind just doesn’t work with languages … or music for that matter.  And I’ve had bad, bad experiences with languages.  In junior high school we were required to take Latin.  “A dead, dead language, as dead as dead can be.  It killed the ancient Romans and nearly killed me.”  I didn’t see any point.  In high school I took Spanish from a greasy, scummy teacher who was always trying to proposition the high school girls and eventually got his ass kicked out of school.  The textbook was “El Camino Real,” but at the time in high school in New Jersey, I never realized that someday I would actually live on El Camino Real in Ventura, California!

On to college, where I took French.  Why French?  It sounded so sexy and since I had dreams of going to Europe … well I got to Europe, never mastered French, and so never got the girls.  Part of the problem was that I worked nights to pay my way through college and after working all night had to put in time in the language lab first thing in the morning … not a good combo.

On to seminary … classical Greek and biblical Hebrew.  Really useful languages.  Required, so I managed to get through.  Never once in 35 years of ministry did anyone ever ask me a question in Greek or Hebrew, nor for that matter gave a rip what the correct exegesis of a passage was in the original languages.  I only managed to get through Hebrew … never tell anyone this! … by associating the words with the most pornographic images my innocent seminarian mind could conceive.  Actually pretty tame stuff, but it worked!

My first church was a black congregation in a Puerto Rican area of the South Bronx.  So I should have “picked up” Spanish.  Well, I did … some at least.  Get me mad enough and I can swear a blue streak in New York Puerto Rican street Spanish and say all sorts of evil things, in Spanish, about your mother’s sexual habits.

Coming to Panama I researched a lot of Spanish programs. I really didn’t have the time or interest to go to a Spanish school. Immersion? I’m already immersed living in Boquete. I need to move on. Like a lot of folks I looked at the most expensive Spanish program assuming that because it was the most expensive it must be the best. Then I discovered how much they spend on advertising to reinforce that image. And I talked to folks who’d used that golden program . . . and unhappily sent it back to get something else, or let it just sit . . . like most of us do with exercise machines. A number of folks who’d tried those high-priced programs told me about a less expensive program, but one which for them worked, so I tried it, and actually liked it.  But I discovered that, just as with my college French textbook, just tucking it under your pillow at night didn’t really help you learn the language.

I’ve come to the conclusion that I will never speak “business Spanish,” i.e. proper Spanish.  But I continue to struggle, and learn, to communicate in my day-to-day Chiriqui Spanish, which is the local version of Panama Spanish, which is different from Mexican, Puerto Rican, South American, and European Spanish.

I particularly found this video by my friend Bob Adams whose very valuable Web site is

And online courses with ridiculous offers like “Speak Spanish in 3 Days!”  OK, if you want to believe that … whip out your credit card and start speaking Spanish.  Heck, I’ll teach you in 3 days FOR FREE!

Day One – ¿Dónde está el baño?

Day Two – ¡Me gustaría otra cerveza por favor!

Day Three – ¡Pero dijeron que todo era barato en Panamá!*

*And many, even most things do cost less, but, more importantly, the lifestyle is better!