Habla Ya’s Raffle

My efforts to learn Spanish have slowed, but I’m looking forward to taking lessons again in the fall. Our Spanish school is having a raffle for free lessons. The cost of an entry ticket? Writing a post about learning Spanish in Central America, for their blog. Here’s my entry. Wish me luck,  I really, really want those extra lessons!

Learning Spanish in Panama for a Better Life when Relocating

Posted by  | July 5th, 2013

This is a testimonial by Habla Ya Spanish student Valerie Keating from New Jersey, USA. If you, as Valerie, would also like to win some free Spanish lessons with your very own accredited Spanish teacher, click here for more information on how to win 30 hours of Spanish lessons over Skype…

Learning Spanish has been a long, long dream of mine, but the small attempts I made to learn in the Estados Unidos didn’t get me very far. I even took that a step farther once, by spending an extra week in Venezuela for work, to take Spanish lessons there. Unfortunately, I was placed in a class of 10 that was much more advanced than I, and encouraged not to venture out on my own in the streets of Caracas, so I’m not sure I really learned anything that entire week.

All that changed when I moved to Panama. After a quick review class with my husband in Bocas del Toro, and 8 months inBoquete, I finally decided to jump into the classroom situation again. After all, I want to LIVE here, not just visit. And, while yes, you can get around without Spanish, it became clear early on that living here would be a more complete experience if I could do more than speak haltingly in the present tense. Plus of course, listening and speaking in real lifeare much different than just learning about Spanish in school.

I signed up for a group class (and I’m supposed to be teaching my husband whatever I learn!). The assessment process seemed simple, but whatever was involved, worked well, because I felt that the two other people in my class and I were all at the same level. We had an excellent teacher, who did a good job of gauging how much to let us go off on tangents before reining us in. We didn’t waste any time reviewing the basics that I know I’d gotten in every other class I’ve been in – greetings, simple vocabulary and conjugating in the present tense. Pretty much everything I learned was new to me, and the speed with which the course progressed was perfect. I felt like a genius when I mastered a past and simple future tense – whoa, my ability to communicate seemed to triple!

Our 2 bedroom house on  Ometepe Island, Nicaragua
Our 2 bedroom house on Ometepe Island, Nicaragua

A few months later, I traveled to Nicaragua, and visited some areas where English was spoken rarely. Imagine my surprisewhen I was able to call on the Spanish skills developed in Panama to get to know a future landlord, and negotiate my rent! Practice, practice, practice can get you a $170 a month house on Ometepe Island! My Spanish was needed when we were in the parking lot of the baseball stadium, trying to figure out how to buy tickets to the Nicaraguan World Series.

No Ticketmaster or online sales in Nicaragua!
No Ticketmaster or online sales in Nicaragua!

And, Spanish was essential when I was working through some technical problems with Claro in Granada. The woman who managed the store (and spoke only Spanish) was going on vacation and gave me her cell phone number in case the resolution didn’t stick.

No a/c and no English!
No a/c and no English!

These opportunities to use my Spanish helped develop my skills and build my confidence in a way that never would have happened if I’d stayed in the States taking classes!

My husband was so impressed with the power of my expanded Spanish skills that he couldn’t wait for me to start my next session. And, as soon as we got back to Boquete, that’s what I did, but with private lessons this time. Again – it was a great experience, progressing at exactly the speed I needed, with a skilled and patient profesora. I learned more tenses, grammar and vocabulary, and loved the experience of knowing that after class, there would be plenty of opportunities to practice in real life situations.

My husband and I volunteer at the library in Boquete, which gives us additional opportunities to listen and speak Spanish. I don’t kid myself that I sound like an educated woman when I speak Spanish (yet!) but I am able to understand, and to make myself understood. It’s a gift to be in an environment where I know people have patience with my efforts!

The Boquete Library’s fiction section
The Boquete Library’s fiction section

And of course, the library is a great place to find books in Spanish to read. I choose early teen books that I’m familiar with, in particular, the Narnia series, which la biblioteca has in both Spanish and English, just in case you don’t know the stories.

Find a book that you like and know. I read them to myself, and read them out loud, and find it encourages me to think (very simple thoughts) in Spanish.
Find a book that you like and know. I read them to myself, and read them out loud, and find it encourages me to think (very simple thoughts) in Spanish.

Another tool in my arsenal is Panamanian TV. I don’t think listening to Spanish TV helps when you are brand new to the language, at least, it wouldn’t have helped me, when all I could hear was a torrent of sounds strung together so fast I couldn’t tell if it was one word or 10! But now, after a year and a half in Central America (and some good lessons), I’m at a point where I can get much of what’s going on, especially when I’m able to watch with Spanish subtitles.

My current favorite is La Reina del Sur, available on Netflix. It’s decidedly unwholesome, but absolutely captivating and addictive!
My current favorite is La Reina del Sur, available on Netflix. It’s decidedly unwholesome, but absolutely captivating and addictive!

But my favorite way to practice my Spanish? With the Panamanian women that my neighbor teaches English to! My neighbor speaks very little Spanish (although more than she gives herself credit for), so she’s invited me to some of her sessions to help translate. The Panamanian women are so warm and encouraging, assuring me that my Spanish is “bastante”, and that I should be quite comfortable with it. They will stay late or stop by during the week to talk to me, and that’s an incredible experience – having small talk, getting to know someone, in THEIR language.

There really is nothing like exposure to the culture to really motivate you to learn the language. I do know a few people who have picked up the ability to communicate with only classes in the States, but those people seem to be few and far between. I think most people are more like me – being here is the very best way to learn. I encourage anyone who wants to learn Spanish to travel to Central America to do so!

{The Habla Ya blog with all the entries can be found at http://www.hablayapanama.com/blog/2013/07/learning-spanish-in-panama-for-a-better-life-when-relocating/}