So you’ve decided to come to Panama, but you’re a bit worried because you don’t speak Spanish. How concerned should you be? Well, the fact is that Spanish is the official language of Panama: all legal, government and business matters are conducted in Spanish and most Panamanians do not speak English. But don’t let that discourage you! There is hope and help out there!
You don’t have to be fluent in Spanish to manage here in Panama. Just a basic knowledge will help you a lot. Being able to read simple signage, understanding salespeople and cashiers, and knowing common greetings and expressions will really make you feel more at home. With more than eight years of traveling and living in Central America, I’m comfortable speaking Spanish and it does make it easier to get things done. If you have chosen Panama as your adopted country, then it makes sense to adopt their language, too.
At the same time, there are places in Panama where you really don’t need to speak Spanish. On the Caribbean coast, most of the residents speak English in Colón and Bocas del Toro because their ancestors came from English-speaking Caribbean islands. You’ll have to get used to their Garifuna dialect and often heavy accent, but it is English! In the Chiriqui highland town of Boquete there is such a large population of English-speaking foreigners that many of the locals have learned English and you can get by with very little Spanish. I know several folks who have lived in Boquete for years, and speak only a few words of Spanish. The same may be said for Coronado on the Pacific coast, where more and more businesses are catering to the influx of English speakers. In Panama City, the demand for bilingual employees has grown tremendously in recent years, so most businesses have staff members who speak English, and most professionals are bilingual. I am often pleasantly surprised in the city when I address someone in Spanish, and they reply in English.
When you are ready to study Spanish, there is plenty of help available. Remember, it really is never too late to learn. It may take a little more effort to study and learn something new as we get older, but it’s certainly possible. If you already speak a second language or have studied a foreign language in the past, you have a head start. You already have a foundation for learning another language, so use what you know and put it to use to study Spanish. Between high school and college I had eight years of French, which helped me enormously in learning Spanish.
The sooner you start, the better. Maybe there is a school or college where you live that offers Spanish classes. There are plenty of online offerings just a search away. Programs such as Rosetta Stone are available for home study. Once you get to Panama, there are numerous schools where you can take classes in Panama City, Boquete and Bocas del Toro. In addition, you can find immersion programs, tutors, and informal conversation groups, so there are options to fit your needs. I lived in Guatemala before coming to Panama, and a group of us gringos met twice a week to study Spanish together. We encouraged and challenged each other, and we all benefited from the routine. Anything is better than nothing and whatever option you choose is worth the time and effort.
If you are not competent in Spanish, your best bet when you need to handle some official business is to get someone to help you. Maybe you have a friend or neighbor who speaks Spanish well who would go along as your interpreter. Occasionally a friend will call on me to go to an appointment with them, and I’m happy to assist. Maybe a local person you have become acquainted with is willing to help you out, perhaps your realtor, attorney or other professional who speaks English. It is worthwhile to cultivate a relationship with such a person that you may call on when you need their help.
It will certainly help you in Panama to speak Spanish. You will be able to communicate with many more people and engage in social events with confidence. It is an ongoing process, and with luck, you’ll learn something new every day! I still use my dictionary all the time!
If learning a new language is not for you, you can still manage to create a satisfying life here in Panama by carefully choosing where to live and knowing where to get help when you need it. ¡Bienvenidos a Panamá!