Grinding your mental gears between incomprehension and understanding can take the pleasure out of travel even in the most idyllic destination.
If you’re already lost, I’m simply proposing to teach you a couple of common Spanish phrases that will come in handy if you’re planning to travel to Panama (or any Spanish-speaking destination, really). While you can probably get by in Panama with zero knowledge of Spanish, you’ll find that a few simple phrases in your back pocket are a real asset.
Most Panamanians speak at least some English, although they may be a bit tentative about it, especially if they feel embarrassed that their pronunciation isn’t up to par. You can easily allay their discomfort by demonstrating your aspirational Spanish skills. ; )
Let’s start with the ULTRA basics. When sounding out Spanish words, keep in mind:
a = pronounced “ah” as in “father”
e = pronounced “ay” as in “day”
i = pronounced “ee” as in “see”
o = pronounced “oh” as in “go”
u = pronounced “oo” as in “cool”
And the great news? Spanish vowels are pretty much always pronounced this way. Consonants are similarly straightforward — just look out for H (he’s silent), J (pronounced like H in “hot”) and the double L (pronounced like Y, when Y is behaving like a consonant). Compared to English, a language of nearly more exceptions than there are rules, Spanish is refreshingly uncomplicated, and in my opinion, lovelier to the ear.
Another useful pronunciation tip:
An accent appearing over a vowel tells you to stress that syllable. In single-syllabic words such as si (meaning “if”) accents are used to distinguish between identically-spelled words with different meanings.
Common Spanish Phrases
Sure, everyone smiles in the same language… but what if you have something more pressing to communicate than the sheer bliss of being in an extraordinary place like Panama? The phrases below will grease the gears a bit to foster positive interactions among the people of Panama and members of our island team on Isla Palenque, many of them born and raised right here in Chiriqui, Panama. As you’ll discover, even a simple greeting can become more meaningful through your modest attempts to overcome the language barrier. It’s okay if you can’t roll your R‘s, or if you have trouble emphasizing the right syllable — the locals will appreciate your beginner-level efforts to speak their native language.
And at the risk of offending your intelligence, I’ll include the numbers 1-10. Consider it a Sesame Street refresher course. Or unlearning your dubious lessons from Bono.
Lastly, a couple of fun, easy words you’ll see on signs and such – they’re not very different from English at all!
- el centro = center, as in city center or hub
- el museo = museum
- el taxi = taxi
- el hotel = hotel
- diferente = different
- estudiar = to study
- general = general
- no = no = no
- profesion = profession
- conversación = conversation
- posible = possible
- la familia = family
Learning a few basic phrases will serve you well when visiting any foreign country where English is not the primary language — even if the most meaningful moment you share with a local resident is, ultimately, a wordless one.
By the same token, a little research into local customs prior to your visit can go a long way. For me (and at least one other Ambler), reading up on Panama before my visit only fueled my excitement during the trip-planning process. Delving into my destination’s history, customs, and culture enabled me to arrive confident and let serendipity take over from there. So in addition to this basic Spanish lesson, I recommend exploring The Ambler prior to your Panama travels to learn about the country’s rich cultural heritage, indigenous tribes, national cuisine, and traditional music and dance.