When in Rome, do as… the Panamanians?


A very small part of our Spanish educational initiative

Caution: This post will sound a bit self-righteous & boastful. It’s not our intention, really. We’re struggling to learn Spanish, and consider it muy importante. If anyone reading this post has a different opinion, no problemo. De acuerdo que esta es su derecho. In that case, read this as light comedy.

Here’s the thing. We think it’s a shame that folks come to Panama, or any ‘foreign’ country, and shield themselves from the people and culture by avoiding second language skills. I’m the first to admit that learning Espanol is hard, hard work. Especially at our age, learning anything tougher than Old Maid is strenuous and discouraging. But we’re not tourists here in Boquete; we’re residents, and we happen to think that making the effort to learn Spanish is crucial to our success, and to the way we’re accepted in the community. Back in Ohio our neighbors from Ukraine brought their parents to live in America, to escape the instability and peril in their embattled country. Sadly, in our opinion, the elders made no effort to learn English, stumbling along and hiding from enriching daily encounters. Their example spurs us to learn the language of the culture we now live in. When in Rome…

As I say, this may read in a self-righteous, or self-congratulatory way. It’s not meant to at all. We’ve encountered expats, some of whom have been here for many years, with no interest in learning Spanish. We think that’s sad, but it’s their choice. There’s comedy in our efforts, that’s for certain, and here’s some of the light comedy parts. The pix below show just one of mi carina’s many mechanisms for aprendiendo Espanol.

Back in 3rd Grade

Remember the flash cards that Mrs. Ruble, your third grade teacher, pasted everywhere? Well…here at the condo it’s like we’re back in 3rd grade again, and Ms R has post-its for us everywhere we look. There’s no escaping the little note cards: want to fix a snack? Check out the note on the door of el refrigerador. Need to thaw el pollo por cena anoche? Don’t miss the note on the congelador. Ooops, there goes el electricidad again, better light una vela, it’s right by the note, next to the encendador. Necesitas un leccion en pronunciacion’? El abecedario es en el respaldo de la silla. Que hora es? Ve’ase la nota del reloj. See, isn’t this fun? And while we believe it’s all or nothing, that we either learn to speak Spanish or stick with English, we’ve learned that Spanglish is okay, just a stepping stone along the way to being Espanol-conversant, if not fluent.

No need for wallpaper

There’s nothing in our lease prohibiting wall decoration, so mi esposa has filled every nook & cranny with training aids. There’s no escaping her little notes. We can’t fix dinner, use el bano, take a shower, watch TV or leave the house without a Spanish lesson. Other methods of instruction include the following: Counting each step as we descend or ascend from our 3rd grade…I mean 3rd floor walkup. (There are treinta y seis escaleras, por cierto.) We chat with each other as much as possible en Espanol, read road signs as we drive along, try to write our journal to each other in Spanish and share palabras nuevas todos los dias.


Van los Cachorros! Go Cubs!

We’ve begun watching el television en Espanol as well. We’ve heard that the simple act of listening to the tone, timbre and timing of a language can facilitate learning it. So we listen to Spanish radio, pay attention to public conversations and use our vitally important ‘Mas despacio, por favor,’ when engaging with mas rapido Spanish speakers, trying to make every encounter a lesson. If last night’s TV session, Cubs over the Giants, was any indication we’re on our way…as are the Cubbies. Yes, this might be the year! Van los cachorros! Ellos van ganar hoy!

We’ve enrolled in Habla Ya, Spanish language school as well, and lessons are proceeding apace. There are numerous options close by, language teachers & multi-lingual folks willing to help us learn, some for a fee, many for free.

Immersion is the key

The best way to learn any language, of course, is to immerse oneself in the culture, hanging out with people who speak that language. For example, Erick, the little guy above, is Mariah’s maestro favorito. In la biblioteca de Boquete, Erick listens to her con mucha paciencia as she struggles with his native tongue. (In the scene above, he explains that his hermano es mas viejo!   In the other scenes Mariah makes a purchase at BCP’s Tuesday market, tries out her Spanish with fellow bus riders from Albrook Mall Panama City and visits the vegetable stand, all great opportunities to learn a word or two, or three.

In her blog, Let The Adventure Begin, Holly Carter mentions other ways to learn, such as listening to the carpenters, as they work on the house she and husband Scott are building. Cindy Crawford Thomas in Loving Retirement writes about group lessons, another useful path to fluency. In their blog, The Panama Adventure, Kris and Joel Cunningham mention on-line language acquisition. A fellow named Jared Romey on speakinglatino.com even writes about how not to learn Spanish, in this case by, among other things, ignoring the gender attribution/agreement issue that often trips up students. Is it La dia, or El dia?  Los caballos, or las caballos? Los? …the hell! But they’re girl horses! Romey’s focus is, as he states, ‘Functional Spanish.’ Lindsay Dow in Lindsay Does Language offers an in depth collection of language-learning opportunities such as her blogs, vlogs and YouTube offerings.There’s no shortage of resources available for anyone wishing to learn a language. The only real dilemma is deciding which one is best, and that depends on time availability, method of learning, age, access to those resources and temperament. Plus motivational level, I’d say.


The Friendly Duo-Owl

A free application for language acquisition is Duolingo. My wife has been an avid Duolinguist for a long time. In fact, one of the features of this free service is its tracking of students’ time & progress, and Mariah recently surpassed consecutive day number 325 of daily Duolingo attention.Woot!  Duolingo offers language training and simple vocabulary/verb/grammar exposure in several languages, all for free.

All the post-it notes, textbooks, shared new words and shortcuts in the world won’t result in fluency. So we try to dive in and use whatever fluency we’ve acquired. It’s not pretty, but folks seem genuinely pleased that we’re trying, and they immediately assume the role of maestros quien son felices ayudarnos.

11 thoughts on “When in Rome, do as… the Panamanians?

  1. Vivi’ en Boquete por tres anos pero pienso mi espanol is malo. pero yo aprendiendo poco a poco. Yo se es mejor porque entiendo mucho y a mi cita con mi doctor hoy , no uso un translator. We get better everyday just by listening and forcing ourselves to speak. I’m using private lessons now since Habla Ya is out. Y estudio mucho. Buen suerte!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ME BE in Panama

      Thanks for the reply, oops… gracias por la respuesta, y por leendo nuestra blog. We do get better every day, escuchando y hablando a los gentes locales.
      Buen suerte a tu!



    1. ME BE in Panama

      Thanks, PK, always good to hear. Gracias por leendo nuestra blog! (Thanks for reading our blog) More later.

      Abrazos, (hugs)



  2. After 3 years of traveling in Latin America and muchos lecciones, we became comfortable with survival/travel Spanish and were even able to carry on some good (well basic anyway) conversations with people who were very patient with us. Luckily, a lot of the words we learned are very similar to the written Portuguese (spoken is a whole ‘nuther ballgame) and we are able to function in Portugal. However, we too believe that as guests in our new country it is to our benefit to learn some of the language to participate in many of the activities that will enrich our experience. Now that we’re coming up on a year in Portugal, we’re going to have to get serious about learning. For me, it’s not the gender that’s confusing so much as the tense. Let’s just say for now, I’m totally living in the present! Good luck! Anita


    1. ME BE in Panama

      Understood. There’s a reason they’re called ‘tenses’ I guess. It’s a struggle, but worth it. Thanks for reading & responding. Buen suerte!



  3. What a wonderful idea with the notes on daily items. I have been doing duolingo and learning some words and sentences. It is slow for me (a little shy about my pronunciation I think)
    I wrote before and we would love to meet up at some cafe in Boquete or David if your there after we arrive the 29th Nov. We will be busy initially doing some legal stuff but then we may drive up to Boquete (we’ll have a car for a week). Name a place/ send me your phone # via email and we’ll make a plan. Carol & Richard
    You are Bryon & Mariah? correct?


  4. ME BE in Panama

    Hi, Carol, nice of you to write. We’re out of the country starting soon, but back in Boquete 11/12, so we’d be happy to meet up with you. Our Magic Jack ph # is 1-319-930-3001, and on WhatsApp I’m at 6604-9860 (in Panama). Not Bryon, but Byron, but I use ‘By’ here and it’s all good. Our Espanol is coming slowly as well. Mariah’s little note cards stuck everywhere seem to help. It’s a process.
    Give us a call and we’ll try to meet up




  5. I’m a arriving in a few days, saw this and picked up a stack of blank file cards and put into the suitcase so I can copy one of your strategies. I’m there for four months and I want to learn as much as I can in that time. I’ll have to learn to talk to myself in Spanish. LOL

    Thanks for the tips.



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