Learning Spanish as a Foreign Resident

– ¿Me podría regalar un vaso de agua? – If you were to literally translate this phrase into English, the end result would be a bit peculiar to not say odd. But this request expressed in this particular manner with the precise intonation, besides being courteous, sounds like music to whom it’s being addressed and is perceived as a gentle request instead of a command. Being fluent in Spanish is more about being aware and understanding the underlying social-cultural elements of us Spanish speakers than just memorizing never ending lists of verb tenses and grammar rules (www.hablayapanama.com/methodology/communicative/).

When relocating abroad, life is so much more enjoyable when you become part of the community than if you’re just surviving, permanently hanging out with your foreign friends and living in permanent defensive mode. It’s great to be able to make a simple request without offending your local neighbor. It’s amazing to be able to understand what’s so funny when everybody bursts into laughter (and even better if you’re the one telling the joke). It’s incredible to be able to negotiate a deal without sounding rude and getting access to the “real” price or even getting the bargain that us locals naturally have it easier to get. Becoming part of the local community is being able to relate, socialize, share and really feel part of the environment that surrounds you.

Learning a language is more about gaining a set of skills which allow you to perform, be your natural self, and accomplish a set of tasks and goals in your daily life just as you can when you’re surrounded by people who speak your native language. For example, going to the hardware store and getting what you need quick (or knowing that they don’t have it so that you can move on to the next one fast), motivating the crew that is renovating your business so that you can open up in time for high season, explaining to your kid’s nanny what she should do with them while you’re out and how lunch should be prepared (and making sure she gets it) and in general incorporating all of the knowledge that you have about the world into your newly acquired language. When you’re learning a new language you really need to think about what you’re learning, how you’re learning it and how you’ll incorporate those tools into your daily life in order to truly assimilate it: you can’t just repeat things as a parrot without knowing how you’ll use them.

On the other hand, it’s quite common for misunderstandings to take place between a native and a foreign resident, and not only because of a language barrier, but due to the fact of social-cultural differences. Panama is a very different country from where you come from, with different customs and rules, and Bocas, within Panama is whole different story by itself. When you learn a new language you also have to develop special social skills that will allow you to analyze situations from the perspective of the local culture, get rid of stereotypes and be able to neutralize those misunderstandings that will unfortunately take place in order to share this land that we all call home and really enjoy your new life in Panama.

From experience I know that many new residents arrive to their first day of class with certain fears and insecurities (which are all natural) such as: that their fellow classmates will know more than they do, that others will laugh about them, that they won’t be able to learn the language, that they’re too old and do not have enough energy or discipline to study hard and practice outside of the classroom. But it really all depends on how you look at it. Don’t look at it just a Spanish course: take it as an opportunity to discover a whole new world, to live a new adventure: the real world is right outside your door and awaits you! Also, a little bit of mental exercise will help you prevent Alzheimer!

Are you afraid of making lots of mistakes? It doesn’t matter! That’s part of the whole process: it’s more probable that you will learn and retain something if you first made a mistake and had to think and understand why it’s the way it is. And besides, language is all about communicating and at the end of the day, what’s most important is to be able to understand others and to be understood: to communicate!

Do you get bored of vocabulary lists? Then instead of trying to memorize words, go and cook a meal with your teacher, or take a walk around town and visit some shops and take care of your normal chores but as part of the class and in that way you will internalize those new words which are in fact the ones that you need. This and many other things can be done in a Spanish class, but what is important is to always allow your teacher to lead you. It’s important to talk and plan with your teacher which class activities work better for you and to keep a balance between hard work and entertainment. Listen and take into account his/her advice because he/she’s the expert, has the experience, the knowledge, the training and has an enormous desire to take you to fluency. All of Habla Ya’s teachers have university degrees related to language learning and have undergone an immense amount of training which never ends. Just this month, we’ll be receiving training directly from instructors that belong to the Instituto Cervantes, the worldwide authority when it comes to teaching Spanish. They are coming to Panama specifically to train us as our Spanish school in Boquete is accredited by them and our Campus in Bocas is currently undergoing the accreditation process (www.hablayapanama.com/school/accreditations-credits/).

For those of you who think that learning Spanish is a goal beyond your reach, I can share with you that in my 7 years of experience as a teacher at Habla Ya Spanish Schools I have had many students just like you who can talk about a before and an after about their life in Panama: a before Spanish, and after Spanish. I won’t trick you into believing that it will be easy or happen from one day to another: as most things in life that are worth it, you will have to WORK HARD to achieve it. Attending class, taking care of your homework and PRACTICING outside of the classroom are all things that you will have to incorporate into your daily life in order to be successful. But it’s certainly within your reach, and definitively worth it if you truly want to become part of the community and call Panama your new home.

By Janeth Martínez, Academic Director at Habla Ya Spanish Schools


The Bocas Breeze is a digital and print newspaper proudly serving the Bocas del Toro community since 2004; reporting news, advertising local businesses and promoting tourism in Bocas del Toro, Panama.


    1. Floria Reply

      Great video! Looks like an exhilarating place to learn. Wonderful sntiteg, I love life around the equator. Would love to become bilingual and would want to learn it here!This video looks very professional, kudos to the producer!

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