Author’s Note: This blog specifically addresses living in Panama, but the same advice contained here can apply to any ExPat moving to any Spanish speaking country in the world.
UPDATE 12/27: I have created a Spanish Study Group for expats on Facebook so we can all support each other as we are learning. Feel free to join us.
As I have mentioned before in other posts, despite what some retirement sites may tell you, learning Spanish is pretty much a must do if you are planning to move to Panama. While some of the professional class speaks English in Panama, you will find it difficult to get by with just using English anywhere in the service sector, shopping for food, dining out at restaurants, taking taxis, etc. It’s not impossible to get by only speaking English, if you want a life of speaking slowly, pointing at things, and making everyone’s life you interact with more difficult. But you shouldn’t. You are guests in someone else’s country, and you should make an attempt to learn their language. Locals will have a lot more respect for you if you do.
You do not need to be fluent in Spanish before you move, or even know very much at all. You just have to come to Panama with a willingness to learn. There’s a reason why I classified this article in my “While You’re Here” section instead of the “Before You Move” section. Based on my own experience and the experience of those I know, it’s hard to get really motivated and focused on learning Spanish until you’re on the ground in Panama. I bought a Spanish program about 6 months before my move to Panama, and swore I was going to open it and practice it every day. I think I maybe opened it once. If you are the type that can get started before you move, that’s great. But if you’re like most of us, this is a project you’ll undertake when you’re here.
One thing I’ve learned while living here is that learning Spanish does not have to cost you any money. Spanish classes in Panama are usually expensive, and I have heard very mixed reviews about them. This does not mean that there are some that are not good, but if you are planning to take classes, make sure to do your research and get reviews before choosing. And I do not mean to put down any of my readers who run Spanish programs or tutor Spanish. You will generally always learn a language faster with good dedicated instruction than you will on your own. But if you are a do it yourself person and want to save money, you can definitely get by. There are many programs and strategies out there that will help you learn Spanish for free.
DuoLingo is my number one, go to, option to use to learn Spanish for free. I’ll be honest, DuoLingo had been recommended to me by several people for months before my move, and I was always a skeptic. I figured that if programs like Rosetta Stone could charge hundreds of dollars for software to teach you a language, whatever a free program was offering would be vastly inferior. I finally gave in and tried DuoLingo, and I am glad that I was wrong. I’ve really found it easy to use, and it’s significantly helped me improve my Spanish in the couple of months I’ve been a member.
DuoLingo breaks their lesson plans down into different skills, which then have several lessons for each skill. There are 64 skills in Spanish program, totaling hundreds of different lessons. DuoLingo states that you should be able to learn about 2000 words from their program, and read most written Spanish while speaking at an intermediate level. I am currently less than halfway through the program, and I believe that when I am done, this will be true. According to the program, I have learned 744 words so far. You will need to complete each skill before you can progress to the next one, and you will continue to use words that you’ve learned in previous lessons as you progress. If you start with a working knowledge of some Spanish, you can test out of the beginner modules.
Since DuoLingo starts basic and continues to build from there, some of the sentences you learn are somewhat silly and not practical. You learn a lot of sentences like “el pato azul come arroz (the blue duck eats rice).” This may seem counter productive, but to me it makes sense. Instead of memorizing specific sentences and just using those sentences, you’re forced to learn the words and how they fit into a sentence. This way when you’re further along with the program, you’ll be better able to put together sentences when you’re out in the real world. DuoLingo focuses more on grammar and sentence structure than most programs. You’ll spend a lot of time on pronouns, adjectives, adverbs, and verb conjugation. For me this is where DuoLingo has been most helpful, since even when I knew how to say a noun in Spanish, putting it properly in a sentence was always challenging. Especially since verb conjugation and sentence structure are so different in Spanish than in English.
DuoLingo works kind of like a video game. You get “experience points” every time you complete a lesson or practice your skills, and you gain levels based on your experience points. You also gain “Lingots” which can be used in their store to buy bonuses lessons and detailed Spanish tests. You can also compare against your Facebook friends to see who’s accumulated more experience points.
To use DuoLingo, register for a free account at www.DuoLingo.com.
2. Post-it Note Method
This is the first thing I did to help with my Spanish, before I even started DuoLingo. The idea is simple. Go to a store, buy a package of post-it notes, write the Spanish words for common household items on the post-it notes, and go wild decorating your house. It may make your house look funny, but it will definitely help you learn how to say common household items.
One of the problems with learning a language is that if you are not constantly being reminded of what the word for something is, it won’t stick in your memory. You usually have to learn a word a number of times before it will stick. Also, people often learn better visually than written. What is great about the post-it note method is that your house will serve as a constant lesson to you of basic Spanish words, and you will always be learning visually.
The crazier you go with this, the better. Do this with as many items in your house as you can. You can even do it with articles of clothing and food items. My one word of advise for this method would be to buy clear tape to keep the post it notes attached to different household items. I didn’t do that at first, and the post-its kept falling off. I have included some basic words for you to get started with at your house.
bed - la cama sheets - las sábanas pillow - la almohada blanket - la manta closet - el closet Couch - El sofa Table - la mesa chair - la silla television - la televisión window - la ventana door - la puerta door handle - la manilla wall - el pared glass - el vidrio floor - el piso washing machine - la lavadora dryer - la secadora refrigerator - el refrigerador freezer - el congelador laundry detergent - el detergente para la ropa oven - el horno stove - la estufa microwave - el microonda frying pan - el sartén pot - la olla sponge - la esponja kitchen sink - el fregadero bathroom - el bano toilet - el inodoro bathroom sink - el lavabo towel - la toalla shower - la ducha soap - el jabón toothbursh - el cepillo de dientes toothpaste - la pasta de dientes desk - el escritorio computer - la computadora printer - la impresora paper - el papel camera - la cámara
Memrise is another free language learning program you can access on the internet. They do offer a premium memory analysis or something that they try to sell you on, but the language program itself is completely free. I do not have nearly as much experience with this program as I do DuoLingo, but so far, it also appears to be a good option. The “Basic Spanish” program is much less thorough than DuoLingos (they only teach about 300 words), and it’s more phrase focused. So I wouldn’t recommend it as your main learning tool. However, one cool things that Memrise has is they have a bunch of different user created lessons that you can use to build on the basic lesson. This includes helpful lessons like verb conjugations and “el menú.”
So I would try this program out and see ways in which it can assist you that DuoLingo doesn’t. You won’t harm your learning progress by using multiple programs. Also, unlike DuoLingo, you can choose whatever lesson module you want, even if you haven’t done the ones that came before. So if you are looking for a specific lesson to practice, Memrise may be helpful there. Visit www.memrise.com to get started.
4. Trading Lessons with a Spanish Speaking Friend
While you’re in Panama, you will make friends with at least one person who’s first language is Spanish. That could be a Panamanian, or another ExPat who comes from a Spanish speaking country. Chances are, they will already speak pretty good English (much better than your Spanish), but will still want to improve. So most of your friends will be willing to make an arrangement where they help you practice your Spanish in return for helping them practicing their English. Even if your friend is pretty close to fluent, you may be able to provide a benefit to them. I have a Venezuelan friend who is fluent in English but completely lost when it comes to regular American slang. So there are a lot of words me and my American friends use that she doesn’t know. So we trade Spanish practice for English slang practice.
This arrangement doesn’t have to be a formal, once a week sit down lesson (although it could be). It could be as simple as finding a person you can WhatsApp when you want to know how to say a certain word. But a Spanish speaking friend will definitely help you improve your skills.
5. Watching English Movies and TV with Spanish Subtitles
This could also be flipped around. You could also watch Spanish language programming with English subtitles. But I’m more of a visual learner, so it’s easier for me to watch in English and learn from the Spanish subtitles. Netflix will be your best friend for this, as will going to the movies in Panama. If you are not using a VPN, and watching Netflix as a Panamanian, a lot of the programming will have Spanish subtitles that you can’t get rid of, all of them will have the option to add the subtitles. Movies at the movie theater, when they are not dubbed, also have subtitles. So it’s a helpful way to listen to the dialog being spoken and seeing what it is translated to. If you are ambitious, you can even bring index cards with you to write down new words.
The one thing you have to be careful about with this strategy is that sometimes translations are not exact, and they are adapted to a general meaning of the words. So you may not get exact translations. The more slang that is used in the original dialog, the rougher the translation will be. One extreme example of this is the show The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which is available on Netflix in Panama. Since almost all of the dialog is 1990’s American slang, the translations are almost completely different. But after you watch a couple of shows and movies, you’ll be able to tell when a translation is direct and when it isn’t. Once you figure that out, you can improve your Spanish by using subtitles.
6. Practica, Practica, Practica!
The best and truly only way you’ll really learn Spanish is by getting out in the real world and using it. Learning from programs and different strategies is great, but unless you use it, you will lose it. So when you go out in Panama, try your best to only speak in Spanish. You will naturally get better that way. While I still struggle with a lot of areas in even basic conversations in Spanish, there are some where I am now pretty strong, because I’ve had to use them in the real world.. I can now speak pretty good Spanish at restaurants and in the grocery store, because those are the first places that I really needed to use my Spanish in order to communicate. I am also now getting better at using Spanish to give directions to cab drivers.
And if you go out and struggle, that’s okay. Nothing motivates me to keep practicing and learning more than going out and having failed interactions in Spanish. If I just stay in my safe little bubble of English speaking friends, I can easily get complacent and not focus on improvement. But falling only makes me want to get back up and try harder.
So even if you move to Panama without knowing a single word of Spanish, and you don’t want to spend a single cent on lessons, you can still be successful here if you come with the right attitude and a willingness to learn. There are plenty of ways for you to learn Spanish for free. It may seem daunting, but the longer you are here, the better you will get.