Authors note: There are two other resources we have to assist you with learning Spanish. The first is our article 6 Ways to Learn Spanish for Free. The second is a Facebook group we have set up for those looking to learn Spanish (or native speakers willing to help us out with questions), which you can join at Expat Spanish Study Group.
In past articles, I’ve spoken pretty openly about how important it is to learn at least basic Spanish if you want to be successful in Panama. Some retirement websites like to sell Panama “as a place where everyone speaks English,” this is simply not true. While there are some Panamanians who do, this is mostly in the professional side of life. In your day to day interactions – in the store, at a restaurant, taking a taxi, etc, you are unlikely to find someone who speaks even basic English. So unless you’re the type who communicates well with your hands, not being able to speak Spanish will quickly become frustrating for you.
For me, my journey to learn Spanish has been difficult and slow moving at times. My original goal when I moved to Panama was to be functionally fluent within two years of moving here. With 13 months left, I think that with a lot of work, it is still doable. I have grown leaps and bounds in my ability to speak since I first moved here, but my Spanish can be very hit or miss. Some days I’ll be on and have full conversations with taxi drivers. Other days it will feel like I just got off the plane and don’t understand a word.
I tell you this to let you know that I am not writing this article from the perspective of someone who is fluent in Spanish or is a Spanish teacher. I am writing it from the prospective of a guy who is slowly improving his Spanish and sometimes still struggles to get by. The words I put together on this list come from the basics I’ve learned to help me communicate with little knowledge of Spanish. They will not make you conversational by any means, but will help you with the basics you need to help communicate and get around Panama. I have broken them up into different sections based on where I think they will be of most use.
Before I start the list, a couple of notes on the list. Unless specified else where, each word that is a noun will be listed with “un” or “una,” depending on if they are masculine or feminine. This is the way you would say “a house” or “a taxi.” to say “the house” or “the taxi,” you would use “el” or “la” instead. For the handful of verbs on this list, they are already conjugated, most of the time into the command tense. So if the word turn is listed as “gira,” that would be the tense you use to tell someone to turn. I think those are the only notes I need, so without further ado, here is my list of 125 Spanish words (a few of them are phrases) that every expat should know.
Hello - Hola Goodbye - Adios/Ciao Good Morning - Buenos Dias Good Afternoon - Buenas Tardes Good Evening - Buenas Noches See You Later - Hasta Luego Please - Por Favor Thank You - Gracias You're Welcome - De Nada Excuse me - Disculpe/Permiso I'm Sorry - Lo Siento My Name is - Me Llamo "Mike" Pleased to Meet You - Mucho Gusto
At the Restaurant
restaurant - un restaurante table - una mesa menu - un menu plate - un plato glass - un vaso cup - una copa bottle - una botella fork - el tenedor spoon - una cuchara knife - un cuchillo water - un agua* beer - una cerveza white wine - vino blanco red wine - vino tinto juice - un jugo meat - una carne chicken - un pollo pork - un cerdo fish - un pescado (the) shrimp - los camarones grilled - a la plancha breaded - apanado hamburger - una hamburguesa (the) rice - el arroz (the) french fries - las papas fritas mashed potatoes - un puré (the) fried plantains - los patacones salad - una ensalada soup - una sopa sandwich - un emparedado (the) breakfast - el desayuno (the) lunch - el almuerzo (the) dinner - la cena for here - para aqui takeout - para llevar delivery - para domicilio (the) check - la cuenta (the) tip - la propina pen - una pluma
*words that end in “a” are usually feminine, and words that end in “o” are usually masculine. However the word “agua” is feminine but uses “el” and “un” in it’s singular form, but stays feminine in it’s plural form. So it would be el agua and las aguas. Don’t blame me, I don’t make the rules.
At the Store
(the) store - la tienda (the) supermarket - el supermercado (the) bread - el pan (the) milk - la leche (the) ground beef - la carne molida chicken breast - un pechuga de pollo turkey - un pavo ham - un jamon cheese - un queso pound - una libra kilo - un kilo half - un medio/una media* quarter - un cuarto banana - un guineo plantain - un platano orange - una naranja apple - una manzana onion - una cebolla tomato - un tomate lettuce - una lechuga garlic - un ajo avocado - un aguacate egg - un huevo
*you would use medio or media depending on whether the object it is describing is masculine or feminine. So it would be una media libra and un medio kilo.
In the Cab
car - un carro taxi - un taxi to the right - a la derecha to the left - a la izquierda straight - directo turn - gira here - aquí there - allí before - antes after - despues (the) street - la calle wait - espera the same street as - la misma calle de near - cerca de next to - a lado de across from - enfrente de (the) building - el edificio traffic - tráfico/tranque How much is it? - Cuanto es? change - cambio I always pay three - Siempre pago tres
At the House/Apartment
house - una casa apartment - un apartmento (the) floor - el piso ground floor - planta baja (the) pool - la piscina bed - una cama couch - un sofá chair - una silla window - una ventana (the) television - la televisión (the) refrigerator - el refrigerador (the) freezer - el congelador (the) oven - el horno (the) stove - la estufa (the) washing machine - la lavadora (the) dryer - la secadora shower - una ducha desk - un escritorio computer - una computadora door - una puerta
(the) police - la policia call - llama ambulance - una ambulancia I am sick - estoy enfermo I am in pain - tengo dolor i need a doctor - necesito un medico help - ayuda 911 - nueve-uno-uno
As I was putting this together, I realized that as one additional step to help you form Spanish sentences, I needed to talk briefly about conjunctions. Translating conjunctions from English to Spanish is not a simple direct translation, as many Spanish conjunctions are used for several English words, and their meaning will change depending on the context. But here are a couple to get your started that will help you put together some of the worlds in this article>
y – and
con – with
en – in/on
Hopefully this guide will help beginners get a base of Spanish words and phrases that will help them get around Panama. For those at a more intermediate level, I hope at least a couple of the words were new to you and will help you in the future. The best advice I can give to learn these words and other Spanish words is to just keep studying and practice. With some practice, this lesson should help you form some small useful sentences like “gira a la derecha aquí (turn right here)” or “pollo a la plancha con arroz, por favor (grilled chicken with rice, please).” And as I mentioned in the beginning, take advantage of the 6 Ways to Learn Spanish for Free article and our Expat Spanish Study Group to learn more Spanish and improve your skills.