Despite having a reputation in some places as a country with strong English speakers, Panama ranked near the bottom in a recent international study of English Language Proficiency. The study, conducted annually by the group Education First, ranks 60 countries where English is not considered an official language. Of these 60 countries, Panama ranked 56, ahead of only Kazakhstan, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. Panama scored a 43.61 on the index, which is classified as “Very Low Proficiency.” The highest ranked country was Sweden, which scored a 68.69. Panama received the lowest score of all of the countries ranked in Latin America, with Argentina leading the way at 54.43.
As Panama continues to try to position itself as an international hub for business, finance, and trade, the lack of English proficiency stands as a hindrance to those efforts. President Juan Carlos Varela, as part of his “Panama Bilingüe” program, has committed to sending Panamanian teachers to train in English speaking countries. He intends to train 10,000 teachers through this program over the next 5 years, allowing them to reach about Panamanian 300,000 students with an English language education. Last week, the British Embassy in Panama announced that they had reached an agreement with the Panamanian government to train Panamanian teachers in the United Kingdom. Teachers are expected to be trained in the United States and Canada as well. Strong English language in Panama has traditionally been limited only to expensive private schools, and has been almost non-existent in the public schools. Only time will tell if the Panama Bilingüe program will be able to make progress in this area.
Panama’s lack of English proficiency may be surprising to some who are planning a potential move to Panama, particularly if they read certain sources that pitch Panama as a country where “everyone speaks English.” It also may seem surprising given the long historical ties that Panama and the US have had, given the Panama Canal Zone that the US controlled for almost a century. However, for expats who live or do business in Panama, this does not come as a surprise. Communication in Panama for those who only speak English poses significant difficulty, which is why it’s recommended that any expats moving to Panama make an effort to learn at least basic Spanish. To begin that process, here is 6 Ways You Can Learn Spanish for Free.
You can read the full rankings and learn more about the methodology in the study by clicking here.