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Speaking Spanish in Panama

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Written by Matt   
Tuesday, 24 March 2009 14:15
Dale Pues PanamaOne month after I arrived in Panama, drugstore I decided to take the easy way out and gave up on Spanish lessons taught by a Venezuelan guy named Pep. I had studied Spanish throughout high school and college but soon realized that real world application is totally different. When I lived in Spain, people spoke super clearly so when in public, I imagined my life surrounded by lots of professors. Professors that didn't assign any homework. Panamanians though speak incredibly fast and slur their words together, so understanding them is a little like understanding Lil Wayne. My go-to word when I first arrived in Panama was lento which means slow, as in "when you speak, could you slow the fuck down." But what for? It's not as if I understood things the second time around anyway. Perhaps the only benefit of living in a country where people are hard to understand is that speaking equally bad is a viable solution. In fact, I began to realize that in Panama, when I slurred my speech, people understood me better. When I was drunk and slurred my speech, people understood me the best. This would have gotten me scolded at in school, be here in the Panama I was making strides.

The other option was to use a word called dale (pronounced dah-lay). In kitchen terms, dale is the salt and pepper: you can use it on almost anything. Literally translated, it means "give it" and the first time I heard it used, I was at the gym holding a twenty pound dumbbell. I found myself asking "give what? And to who?" The second time I heard it used was by a taxi driver and the third time was by the man at the meat counter in the supermarket. It's creepy to have strangers throughout the course of your day whispering the words "give it."

Something no textbook prepared me for, it turns out Panamanians use dale as a flexible affirmation or commentary: a sort of "OK" or "right on" depending how you use it and when. Every country has its own favorite phrase. In Spain it was vale, a close cousin of dale, and in Costa Rica it's pura vida, which (in a cheesy sort of way) means "pure life" as in "oh you're going to the beach? I'm going to the beach too! This is great! Pure life!" Who decides the favorite phrase for a country, I don't know. Maybe it's the Prime Minister or something.

Upon realizing that it did double duty, acting as both a decent response to just about anything and a demonstration that I was proficient in Panamanian slang, dale quickly became my favorite phrase. "Did you get the sfsdfaojadsf?" someone might have asked me. "Dale." Of course I got the sfsdfaojadsf. What do you think I'm stupid? God.

Once I got comfortable with dale, I upgraded to dale pues, which is like a more complete iteration of dale: the sedan with fine leather seats. Adding the pues was like awarding a ribbon to my Panama progress, an extra carrot to my confidence in identifying with a culture my lingual skills new nothing about. I went around everywhere in Panama saying dale pues no matter what the circumstances were, even mumbling it occasionally when I had no one to say it to. Were you to describe someone who behaved like this to me, I'd say, "Oh, you mean the retarded kid?"
Several times, dale has gotten me in trouble. I said it to a taxi driver and got a one-hour tour of Chorillo. I said it to a store clerk and got a batch of raw pork and cucumbers stuffed in a jar. And I said it to the stadium ticket woman and was given a lone nosebleed seat at the top of an otherwise half-full stadium. I had a stint, trying to reduce my dale-usage, only saying it when someone else did but that came off as annoying and nonsensical and copycatish.

The first girl I ever dated in Panama was a curvy 8 with big breasts and straight long hair. I was at the ruins of Panama Viejo when she approached me and asked if I needed help navigating the museum. Her English was about as good as my Spanish which wasn't saying much, but we both spoke the universal language of love and walked around the exhibit several times, eventually exhausting it.

"Was that supposed to be a church over there?" I asked, pointing to a crumbling wall.

"Fell down." she said.

"It looks like everything here fell down, why didn't they use stronger materials?"

"History. Got pirates you know?" she said. "Bad day for Panama," she added.

"Dale pues."

They say learning Spanish is an integral component of a good Panama experience and I couldn't agree more. You certainly command more respect when you speak, or at least try to speak the local tongue. But there's a certain science in identifying where to draw that fine line: one that straddles goodhearted persistence and inappropriate overkill. One that distinguishes you as an enthusiastic visitor or a downright fool. The Spanish itself is the easy part.


Comments (2)Add Comment
written by Pamela , April 01, 2009
LOL - I will definitely keep this in mind. I've been using your site to help prepare for my now imminent departure date to Panama. Super entertaining as always!
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written by pauld , April 01, 2009
Yeah, yeah, so what happened to the curvy chick with the nice rack? smilies/tongue.gif
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Last Updated on Tuesday, 24 March 2009 14:31