Learning Spanish in Panama

It’s a journey I wish I’d started at 5 or 6…

But I didn’t so I’m starting now!

The beginning

All right, so my backpack and tennis shoes has been ceremoniously plonked on Panama soil for one month. It’s been a whirl of hotels, cultural awkwardies, meeting new faces, forgetting names, and not knowing where I am.

Sound fun?

Yep!!!!!

Where’s my Spanish at?

Let me unbiasedly (Is that a word? Do I even speak English adequately?) try to evaluate my Spanish level.

I can (decently):

  1. Order food in Spanish and probably get what I asked for.
  2. Greet people on the street
  3. Navigate taxis, tell them where to drop me off, pay the correct amount, and make small talk.
  4. Understand roughly 40-50 percent of Spanish television, depending on the show (and whether it has Spanish subtitles)

What I can’t do decently:

  1. Have a meaningful conversation beyond basic greetings
  2. Talk without ums, uhs, and hmm’s.
  3. Understand any Spanish unless it’s slow
  4. Automatically translate anything (my Spanish is cognitive right now – not automatic.)

What resources have I used?

Let’s see…..

  1. Immersion. i.e. taxis, grocery shopping, strangers, teaching kids, neighbors – it’s all in Spanish.
  2. Christian songs in Spanish. I listen to my favorite songs in Spanish with Spanish subtitles. This is so helpful, because I know the meanings of the songs already. (10000 Reasons, Good Good Father, Here I Am to Worship, etc.)
  3. The SpanishDict app. I downloaded this app and use it offline for single words.
  4. Spanish with Paul YouTube Videos. I like his slow style.

What I wish I’d done differently

My mom gets frustrated when I speak Spanish. She understands it, but she doesn’t want to translate it. “It’s bad enough I can’t understand anyone else, but now I can’t understand my own daughter,” is her philosophy.

Yet, today I watched a Ted talk about learning a second language.

Halfway through, I was kicking myself.

I’ve been studying Spanish, I’ve been learning Spanish, and I’ve been thinking about Spanish. But I also revert to English whenever I feel lazy. Grrrr….no more English. JUST Spanish.

JUST Spanish.

My biggest blocker

I have only spoken Spanish a month but made so many embarrassing mistakes. I’ve:

  1. used the familiar (tu) instead of (usted) with total strangers.
  2. used the masculine form of tired (cansado) instead of feminine (cansada) with so many words. (English is so nice that it isn’t gendered.)
  3. Got my pronouns completely goofed up and said You when I meant I.
  4. Pronounced the words “easy” and “difficult” completely wrong
  5. I froze once when someone “Hasta luego.” I forgot what it meant and how to respond.
  6. Sometimes Panamanians say English words to me, for practice. My brain always freezes, unsure whether to respond in Spanish or English or both.

Why I love Spanish

In the beginning, learning Spanish was a huge bore, but I bribed myself by interspersing my sessions with lots of walnuts, cranberries, and bagels.

But now I absolutely love Spanish. It’s part of my life. It’s part of my music, conversations, television, friendships, etc. It’s integrated.

Spanish has become a gigantic puzzle I am putting together. Or like a game. I need Spanish to survive: to buy plantains, to tell the taxi driver where I live, to ask where I can buy toilet paper, to tell the plumber what is wrong with our toilet, to say, “I am lost,” to say, “Go left then right.”(Most Panamanians don’t speak English.)

If you are considering moving to Panama, learning Spanish, or just interested in learning a new language, I cannot encourage you enough to keep going. The beginning is the hardest. In my experience, with time, learning a language only gets:

  1. easier and
  2. more fun and
  3. more rewarding
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