The Joy of Bilingualism

When one moves to another country where the language isn’t your own native tongue I really believe it is incumbent on you to learn the new one. Of course there are lots of people who expatriate themselves and seek out others of their own kind so that they can go on about their lives in their mother tongue. In the States, Hialeah, Florida, has the second highest percentage of Cuban and Cuban American residents of any city in the country, and I’d bet it would be safe to say that a large percentage of them don’t speak English, either.

Here in Chiriquí Province, up in the highlands around the town of Boquete, there is a similar phenomena taking place. Several thousand Anglophones have chosen the area as a place to retire , and many of them, for many different reasons don’t make much of an effort to learn Spanish. The excuses are numerous: “I’m too old to learn a new language,” “It’s too hard,” etc., etc.

There are several Spanish instruction schools in the area and some people are quite dedicated to learning the language of their adopted country. Like the couple I met recently at a Tex-Mex restaurant.

I haven’t attended any of the schools for various reasons, one being there isn’t one in easy proximity to where I live. The closest would be about a four hour round trip bus ride which I’m not willing to subject myself to. So I’ve studied on my own with a couple of good books and I never leave the house without my plastic-covered pocket Spanish/English dictionary.

I know I’m a long, long way from being fluent in Spanish. I probably never will be fluent and that really doesn’t bother me. All I’m aiming for is to be proficient in the language, and I think I’m doing pretty well. I talk with all my neighbors, none of whom speak English, and when I go shopping or have to deal with people at the utility companies or other places I do it in Spanish and the people all tell me I speak quite well. Flatterers.

But, I bumble ahead making horrible grammatical errors, confusing verb tenses and committing other linguistic offenses. I’ve also had some really great conversations with locals where we’ve passed my dictionary back and forth when I’m stuck for a word or don’t understand one they’re trying to relate to me.

I think one of the biggest mistakes newly-arrived expats make is buying a car. Cars insulate you from the rest of the world. You leave the sanctuary of your home and encapsulate yourself in your car to get from one place to another and never have to interact with those around you. Me? I don’t have a car and take public transportation everywhere. Much of the time I tune out the world by plugging into my iPod and listen to a book from But I also spend quite a bit of time talking to my fellow passengers. Many times I’ve had young people approach me and ask me if they can practice their English. I like that though I have to say I usually feel strange talking to Panamanians in English, but if they ask I help.

The other day I needed to go to a specialty store at the Plaza Terronal  in David. The Plaza is very modern and not unlike what you’d find in the States. There’s an El Rey supermarket, easily equivalent to stateside markets. There are department stores there. Conway is the Panamanian outlet for Target. There are several appliance stores, a Do It Center which is like Home Depot and there is even a Subway sandwich shop where I get what I call my “gringo fix.”

To get to Terronal I have to take two buses. The first from my home to the bus terminal (60 cents with the “old fart’s discount) and then I get on the bus bound for Dolega. One of those leave the terminal every 10 minutes. It’s a 35 cent ride to the Plaza and takes about 10 or 15 minutes. No discount.

I took a seat on the left side of the bus just opposite the door. I was soon joined by a thin man, about my age, with a cane and a couple of plastic bags. We nodded “hello” to each other but I was plugged into a good book. The ear plugs didn’t dissuade him. He asked if I was listening to the radio.

I detached myself from the audio book and reentered the world to explain that I was listening to someone reading a book to me and how hard it was trying to find English language books here in Spanish-speaking Panama.

“Ahh,” he said, nodding.

“Where are you from?” he asked in Spanish.

I gave him my usual, disarming, “Soy gringo,” (I’m a gringo) reply.

A broad smile broke across his heavily lined, cinnamon-colored, bearded face. “Norte Americano,” he said.

“No, gringo,” I replied. “No tengo una problema con la palabra ‘gringo.’ Canadians are norte americanos, too,” I said.

He nodded. “And not everyone knows that Mexico is part of North America,” He said. “They think it’s part of Central America, but it’s not.”

He asked me where I was from in the States and then he said he was from Colombia. Medellin.

“It’s dangerous there,” I said.

“Very,” he replied.

“You have some cocaine in that bag?” I asked.

Again a broad smile creased his weathered face.

“No. I don’t like cocaine, but I do like ‘yerba.’” (Grass)

I smiled this time. “I’ve smoked a lot of your country in my time,” I said.

We exchanged smiles.

He said he had family living in the States and that two of his sons worked as contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Now that’s dangerous,” I said.

“Worse than Medellin,” he said. “I fear for them.”

We came to the stop for the Plaza and I told him, “Pase un buen día, señor.” (Have a nice day.)

“Iqualmente,” (you, too) he replied.

As I was stepping off the bus, I heard him say, in heavily accented English, “God bless you.” And then the doors closed and the bus departed.


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4 responses to “The Joy of Bilingualism

  1. What a beautiful story! If you can’t talk to the Panamanian people I think you are missing out on so much. I know it’s hard to learn Spanish, and seems to take forever, and I’ll never get it all straight, but I can’t think of a better use for my time if I’m going to live here. The rewards are so worth it.

    If a person can’t talk to the people you live among then they should have stayed in the States and watched the Travel Channel.

  2. Capt Dan

    I used to say “my first wife was Swedish”. Years after our divorce I realized my error and amended my statement to “my first wife is Swedish”. Our divorce didn’t change her nationality! Since my former in-laws whom I dearly loved, didn’t speak English, I spent years struggling to learn Swedish – a very difficult language only spoken by about 8 or 9 million people in the entire world , most of whom speak very good English. (except my former in-laws with whom I truly enjoyed communicating with in my broken Swedish and made the effort totally worthwhile)
    99.9% of the time it’s totally useless and was apparently a total waste of time to be conversant – at a great cost of time and effort – in such a language. When in Sweden, I occasionally get kudos for my linguistic efforts, but they’re always in English!
    However, since it’s so obscure – traveling Swedes, confident that virtually no one can understand them – don’t hesitate to make critical or insulting comments, or talk about very intimate subjects – openly and freely.
    One day, while having lunch in a restaurant in Jupiter, two visiting Swedish girls, sitting at the table next to me, were having a very graphic and explicit discussion in Swedish about the affair one of them was having with a life guard at the beach in Jupiter.
    As I paid my bill and left the restaurant, I paused at their table and told them (in my awfully accented Swedish) that my son was the life guard they were talking about (a lie) and that he was really more interested in the other Swedish girl than the one he was currently sleeping with.
    I know it was cruel – but it was sure fun to watch their red-faced expressions!

    Good story! I had a somewhat similar experience when I returned to Fort Lauderdale after a three-year sojourn in France where I became fairly proficient in that dastardly language. There are a lot of snowbirds from Quebec in the Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood Beach area. One day, standing in the checkout line at Publix there were a couple of Quebecers behind me gabbing away in their bastardized version of French and making disparaging remarks about the people in the States. When my groceries were bagged (don’t remember if it was in paper or plastic) and I was ready to split I turned to them and said, in French, “be careful what you say in public. You never know what the people around you might know.”

  3. I’ve got a long way to go, Richard. My Honduran friends call me “el hombre sin ley” because I murder Spanish.

  4. Great story. My sister in law is Ecuadorian. If I want to make her laugh, all I have to do is leaved her a voice mail in my version of Spanish!

    Thank you. And thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. I appreciate feedback from my readers.