Spanish Vs. English in Panama

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Written by Matt   
Sunday, 10 September 2006 10:41

I woke up at about six AM because the woman next door was being loud. She was talking loudly. About hamburgers. “I took it out of the freezer and it melted into this little meat puddle” she said. I wondered what that meant exactly. Was the meat just so bad and milky that it had no texture?


Being able to speak English and Spanish in Panama is funny because, besides being useful, some translations and false cognates are hilarious. I once walked into a five-and-ten looking for a small pill case that I could attach to my keychain, because I am allergic to a lot of things: I carry Benedryl pills everywhere. I thought I had the sentence correct, but ended up asking for a small box that could attack my keys. I then wandered around the store, humoring each of the salespeople who said they weren't sure and suggested that I ask one of their co-workers. I was passed around the shop like a cute baby or a love letter.

English is spoken pretty widely here, though in my opinion, not as much as Costa Rica. A lot of TV channels are in English as well as billboards and the occasion bum sign asking for money. Panamanian people like to greet each other at any time of day with the phrase “buenas” as it covers almost all the bases: buenas dias, buenas tardes, buenas noches. Literally, this means “goodies” which, to me, is just stupid funny. I enjoy using it in crowded shops, walking in through the door and greeting everyone with a “hello, goodies”, as in the states, people would not go for that. They'd look at me like I was an elfish, impish little mingland bumpkin.

Some people actually speak so fast that I cannot understand them but then again, I know people like that in English too. A taxi driver, just the other day, was rattling off some spit so fast that I only caught maybe one third of what he was saying. “Do you have splenxir dasdum piersdysrs back in the USA?” I answered yes with verve, confidently, as if he had asked me something obvious like, do you have teeth in your mouth? Turns out the guy was asking if we have wild clams at home. He was some sort of clam monger and was really interested in what was available in the states. But it is miscommunications like these that, if actually important or life threatening, could be thorny.

For the most part though, people appreciate Americans speaking Spanish, or at least stabbing blindly at it. One good thing to remember, if you want to get showboaty, is that the Spanish slang word for thing, is very much similar to the word for vagina. So be careful when you are asking where to put things or commenting on how something looks. Please, whatever you do, do not be one of those people who comes to a Spanish-speaking country and doesn't make the least effort to learn a few words. We're not asking you to master the language, but learn your basics: your hola, gracias, por favor. Whether you mean it or not, people can be offended by this.

In more rural areas, chances are, people may not know English at all. So if they look at you like you're speaking in code, it's probably because they think you are.

Every 3 years, I take a picture of myself to see how big I have grown or how much tougher I have gotten, and on one particular occasion I wanted to blow the photo up so I could post it on my kitchen wall. I showed up at this Kinkos-esque place and was stopped at the door. “No eating in here” the guard dude told me.

I had been noshing on a fresh boule and had almost half of it left. Didn't want to throw it out. "Why? It's just a copy center” I contested.He looked at me all fiery and fierce like a PETA rep at a cat eating contest. Hot and bothered. To make a long and incriminating story short, he wasn't talking about my boule. He was referring to my dog—that I wasn't allowed to bring little Balboa in the shop. It was a funky glitch in the system that is my existence in a foreign country. Back to more Panama Information
Last Updated on Monday, 11 August 2008 21:42