in Learning Spanish

Spanish Language Schools In Panama

Or how to speak Spanish in less than a year.

Panama After Dark gets several thousand visitors a month. On average visitors linger for nine minutes. Long enough to ask questions like:

“What’s there to do in Panama?”

The problem with questions like these (besides that I’m writing about Panama and all you need do is read), is that I don’t know you. So I can’t advise you.

Do you want to tour brothels, or historical landmarks? Are you looking for a five star restaurant, or do you prefer to spend your days hunting for a good doctor to identify that burning sensation you feel when you urinate?

I know some of you picture me as a tropical Tenzing Norgay eager to lead you into the heart of Panama’s dark paradise. Sure, I know some things. That hardly makes me an expert.

I’m a simple man living a simple life. There’s a vibrant night life in Panama City. I know nothing about it.

There’s a tropical rainforest minutes away from me. I’ve never set foot in it. My knowledge has limits. For future reference it’s best not to think of me as your all-knowing sherpa.

In truth, I’m just another fat reptile dozing on the muddy banks of the Chagres River, waiting on a snack (Re: Paypal). You best keep moving. Don’t stop and ask for directions, or you might lose a leg.

That said, there is one question I can answer, the oft asked “What’s the best way to learn Spanish?” My preferred response has always been “go to school you lazy bitch.” But is this sound advice?

Spanish language schools have become the touristy thing to do. It’s easy. You just pick up a few classes on your way to the bar or beach.

That’s a good thing. It means you remain sober for at least half the day. But do these schools really do anything besides empty your wallet and soothe traveler’s guilt? Can you really learn Spanish sunburned and hungover?

When I first came to Panama I wanted to connect with people. It frustrated me that I couldn’t speak the language. I needed to learn or go mad.

I began taking classes. I started in Bocas Del Toro at Spanish Language By the Sea. Probably the best thing about this school were the classes on their balcony.

I liked feeling the sea breeze, watching the birds in the trees. Every day I’d hike up the street from the Hospedaje Sagitarius and study for a couple of hours. It was easy, relaxed fun.

My teacher was an attractive Dominicana. She was pleasant, spoke good English. Not a teacher by trade. She was a former dive instructor.

The class was basic. At the time (now 8 years ago), Spanish By The Sea was the only language school in town. It was always busy. It was difficult to get classes. I wanted more. I fled to Panama City.

My next move was to drop in to Spanish Panama. It’s located in Cangrejo about a twenty minute hike from the Hotel California. The prices were reasonable.

I liked the neighborhood. I had often eaten at Trapiche around the corner. I was thinking of buying an apartment nearby. I enrolled.

The classes were indoors. The cubicles spartan, hot, stuffy. This was exacerbated by my teacher.

He was a formal, briefcase-carrying Panamanian. When he wasn’t teaching me, he was teaching wealthy business men. He claimed to be a teacher of advanced learners.

My rudimentary skills seemed to frustrated him. Or perhaps he was, as Panamanians like to say, antipatico. He was always annoyed, and never smiled.

I recall our final conversation vividly. I had studied with him a couple of weeks. He knew by then I had a Panamanian girlfriend. He arrived late, harried, and began by complaining about foreigners marrying women from Panama.

“No es justo” he said.

“Como?”

“Ellos se casan con nuestro mujeres pero mujeres extranjeras no quieren hombres de Panama.”

This was all random. He was pissed. I rolled with it. I explained that while I had only been in Panama for a few months I had already met a couple of gringas who’d married local men. He cut me off.

“No mucho.”

“What do you expect”, I said in English, “virtually every Panamanian woman I meet has bad things to say about Panamanian men.”

That got his attention. Normally, I don’t criticize my hosts. It’s rude. But I was paying good money for the class. It was hot. I was probably hungover.

I didn’t need the attitude. I’d met so many angry women in Panama. I felt obligated to speak up. I pulled my journal from my bag and recited some of the phrases I had recorded.

“Mucho mujeres in calle, no le gusta ayudar, le gusta beber mucho, mucho fiesta, no trabajar duro, le pega a las mujeres, no trata bien, deja la familia, macho.”

That was the last class I ever had with him. Naturally I cried for days. But there was an attractive female teacher I had my eye on. “Maybe” I thought “she could ease my pain.”

She taught the same days I was there. I asked about a switch. “No hay problema,” I was told. Turned out she was busy for the hours I preferred.

Did I want to take an earlier class? Hmm, an early class in a hot, stuffy classroom. She’d have to hand out coca leaves and teach naked to make that equation work.

I ended up working with an older Peruvian man. He was a lighter spirit with the nose of an Inca warrior. Like me, he was a foreigner in love with a local.

So we had that going for us. He spoke no English. But our sessions were filled with laughter and easy communication. He was an excellent teacher. I worked with him for several months.

If you’re bored, or need a jump-start, these schools are good places to start. The Bocas school had the better environment. The Panama City school had better teachers. (They also have no frills rooms to rent if you’re on a tight budget).

Did I learn Spanish? Hell no. Unless you’re committed to paying for several years of study, or have a photographic memory, you will not leave these schools speaking Spanish. The average vacation is not long enough.

Did I improve at all? At Spanish Panama my Peruvian professor would tell me I was way ahead of his advanced students. While they knew more, tested better, and had studied for years, I could speak better. Why? I’d been speaking Spanish every day, all day, with my girl friend.

Turns out my advice was bogus. You don’t need school to learn Spanish. You’re better off with total immersion, time, daily practice.

I believe the best way to accomplish this is to find a Spanish speaking partner. Preferably someone who doesn’t speak any English. I owe my girlfriend a huge debt. Our daily communication has been has been the best teacher of all. Much cheaper than three years of schooling.

Oh, I hear what you’re saying; you don’t want to complicate your life with love, sex, or a relationship. You’re a purist. You just want to pay your money and learn. Bueno, there’s an alternative. The home-stay.

Of course home-stays are not for everyone. If you’re the type who wants to remain solo, stay in a hotel. If you want to give money to Colombian drug lords, or Panama’s wealthy elite, stay in a hotel. If you want a room that tens of thousands have fouled with their sticky fluids, stay in a hotel.

However, if you’re different. If you really want to learn Spanish. The second best way is to rent a room from a local. A home-stay gives you the chance to get acclimated, practice Spanish daily, effortlessly, without the torpor of a hot classroom.

You get to experience Panama. You get to know its people. “What’s there to do in Panama?” A homestay is the surest, cheapest way to find out.

-Cojito @ Panama After Dark.

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28 Comments

  1. Sherpa Cojito, I was recently in Panama and there was a spanish school across the street from the "La Papa" restaurant in Bella Vista. I pledged to record (but never did) the name of the school in my notes as I shuffled sadly by the place several times. Sad only because I could never conjure up the courage to ask that cute Panamanian waitress out for a date. Do you know the name of this school? I'm presently working in Kodiak, Alaska but keeping the Panamanian spirit as I sip a Bacardi and tonic with a lime here in the rain, looking up at the snow capped mountains.

  2. near "La Papa"? hmmm, think that's a new one. i don't recall seeing it. when i was researching this article i noticed there were several new schools listed online. they've sprung up in the last year or so. next time i'm over there i'll check it out. that is, right after i pick up and defile that cute waitress.

    (lol sorry, i couldn't help myself. i hope i haven't spoiled the fantasy. i know how lonely it gets up there in Alaska. i imagine the bears start looking mighty fine after a couple of months.)

  3. You're an awesome writer, dude. More entries. You need to publish this shit in a book!

    I agree, about learning spanish. My experience very closely parallels yours. I think I've learned the most spanish from talking with cab drivers. (Hijo de puta! Bestia!)

    But definitely agree on having a relationship with a native speaker.

  4. cojito, "ya really know how ta hurt a guy". the best way to learn spanish is to knuckle-down and take some classes. buenas suerte.

  5. at some point i'm going to write about panama brothels. but to date i've done very little "research." and most of my notes are back home.

    i can tell you there's a massage parlor over on veneto (oasis) that runs about $80 for sex and a massage. i think its a little cheaper for the lunch crowd. the girls are young, pretty. i see them all the time when i dine in manolos.

    i had a friend who worked there. but she's gone. married and moved to the states. elite's nearby and high class. it's a strip club. the girls are hot. but more expensive.

    the bottom line, you can find what you need almost anywhere (casinos, bars, massage parlors, escort services, discos, the street) for as little as $50-$100. and i don't mean for the hour. these girls will hang out, be your friend (or girl friend if you want), and screw you blind.

    but if straight-up brothels are your thing i can't help you yet. if you go though – report back.

  6. a local article on the oldest profession would certainly be interesting. Be prepared, however, to have all those cool hangouts overun with mongers. I saw it happen in San Jose, CR over the recent years. as a result, i have no desire to return there.

  7. yeah, i hear ya. i was in San Jose a couple of months back, and it had changed. the blue marlin's still loaded with hot girls, but it had been rennovated to handle even more ugly tourists. and that big-ass wooden crocodile was gone. i was crushed. i loved that thing.

  8. yeah, i just back for indo and you get to fuck lady boys for like 3 dollars and they will shit on your mouth for free.

  9. thanks. just got back last week. been battling the flu, playing poker, enjoying my girl friend, and painting my flat. but i'll start posting again soon.

    bob – "shit from your mouth?" lol what are you doing with shit in your mouth?

  10. Speaking of spanish – I know one guy who did not want to study, but had heard that it is possible to learn while asleep. So he bought the xxx Course – and lo and behold – he was speaking fluently within 14 days. Amazing!

  11. ralph, i salute you for getting through my spam filters. but, since your remarks are disingenuous, i've edited out your contact and company info. if you want to advertise on this site you'll need to be honest about it and pay for the privilege.

  12. some learn some dont. spanish panama had about 16 teachers and i chose carefully as teachers custom made my own program. i went from o spanish to intermediate in 3 months. what i learned in class i practiced in the neighborhood every evening.

    bobby brown

  13. I agree with you 100% that the best way to learn a language is to find a significant other who doesn't speak your language. If forces you to learn hers (or his depending on your sex or proclivities). That's how I learned my french. It led to some horrendous arguments because of misunderdtanding what the other was saying, but the make up sex was fantastic!

    If there is any book that a wannabe linguist should pick up for spanish it would have to be Madrigal's Magic Key to Spanish. Her approach is unique in that she starts teaching the past tense first since almost everyone talks about what we have done rather than what we are doing. Then she teaches the future tense and as a last resort the present tense.

    Another good hint is to get a pocket-sized English/Spanish dictionary and carry it with you everywhere.

    Learn a couple of phrases…the ones I learned in french were…"do you have?" which is great when you can't find what you're looking for in a store…look up what you want in that little dictionary you carry with you and then use your magic phrase and the word you've just looked up.

    The second phrase you should learn is "I would like to have…" (In french "je voudrais avoir")

    This is especially handy for restaurants. You tell the waiter (in spanish) "Quisiera tener" and then simply point to the item you want on the menu. It worked wonders in France as to how I was treated by waiters.

  14. thanks old salt. i'll look for madrigal's book. i speak spanish all day every day, but i still have problems changing verb tenses correctly.

    i know what you mean. any time alex and i fight it's because neither of us understands what the other's trying to say. it takes years and years to understand the nuances, and become fluent in another language.

  15. fastfreddie and raul have a point. It's also helpful to say "I just can't understand you when you are angry. Let's talk about this when you calm down." I use that one a lot — mainly because it's true!

  16. oops…forgot the translatioon:

    no puedo entenderte cuando estas brava. Hay que esperar hasta estas mas tranquila.

    usually she just talks louder an dfaster, but from then on i just give her a look like george bush at a press conference — someone gave a cocker spaniel a command he doesn't understand.

  17. I think people are using sex as the only reason to be with young women they are not sex objects machines but real people with feelings you lot make me ashamed to be a white man

  18. Teri – "ashamed?" really? you might want to take an anthropology class and have your testosterone levels checked.

    of course sex is not the "only" reason to be with a woman (unless you both just want sex!). but for most men, sexual attraction is big part of it.

  19. Yes, you are great writer. Just a note…the Spanish schools are not only made for people that want to survive, to order drinks and find hot girls. Some people want to learn to speak and communicate socially correctly, like to study and learn about the culture or need to get a certificate to show their level in Spanish to get a better job,etc..

    This is not a critic. I am just clarifying…

    TX, Ins.

  20. Write more, thats all I have to say. Literally,
    it seems as though you relied on the video to make your
    point. You clearly know what youre talking about, why waste your intelligence on just posting
    videos to your site when you could be giving us something enlightening to read?

  21. Interesting experience. I like the way you write. I personally learned Spanish in the Peace Corps in Bolivia and thought their interactive style of teaching Spanish was the best way to actually learn to speak the language. I’ve since started a Spanish school in Panama City, Casco Antiguo Spanish School, and we apply the same communicative method – as well as offer homestays. Feel free to shoot me a message at david at cascospanish dot com if interested in find out more about our school