Let’s Be Honest About Your Spanish

A recent conversation I had over dinner with a good friend:

Me: “So, how’s your español coming along?”
Friend: “Basically fluent.”
Me:  “Really?!”
Friend:  “Yep… I understand it better than I speak it.  But, I’m basically fluent.”

{insert waitress}

“Bienvenidos Señores.  Que desean tomar?”

Evan Terry Forbes

My friend looks at me with a confused stare,  “Como como como?…. Evan, what is she asking me? I can’t understand this darn Panamanian accent.”.

Let’s be honest:  It’s not the accent.  You, my friend, are confused by the waitress’ rudimentary question.  She was asking you (in a slight variation) what you would like to drink.  Rosetta Stone and street practice has taught you to listen for the verb Querer = to want, “Que quieren tomar”. Instead, the verb she used was Desear = to wish, “Que desean tomar?”.

Let’s be more honest:  You’re not fluent.  Rosetta Stone and some Spanish classes have taught you the basics.  You can order food and explain a little bit about your homeland. Maybe you can even understand the flight attendant’s safety instruction speech in both English and Español.  This is exciting.  Yet, it’s far from fluency, fren.

Take the true fluency test.  Go to a Latino dinner party.  Make sure there is no other Gringos, or any person who speaks even a spick of English.  Not even anyone who’s intrigued by you being a foreigner in LatinoLand.

So, how do ya do?   Are you participating in the group conversations?  Do you understand the inside jokes?  More importantly, are you genuinely laughing at them?  If you answered yes to those 3 questions, then that’s pretty dang fluent.

Realize that a lifetime might never achieve this level of fluency.  A good friend of mine’s mother was born in Colombia.  She has lived in Houston for 40 years.  Her English has an accent, but she speaks well.  Yet, depending on the language, her personality changes.  In Spanish,  she is bubbly as a bee.  On the other hand, in English she is quiet and reserved.  It’s almost as if she is a completely different person.

Now, let’s be honest about my Spanish:  Recently, I was sharing a few maracuya flavored mojitos with friends.  The topic of conversation was home construction en puro español (pure Spanish).  I listened attentively.  But, I was lost (I did learn the word for bulldozer – excavadora).

I wasn’t a contributor to conversation. I definitely wasn’t spontaneously laughing along with the group.  And, I definitely, definitely wasn’t crack’n any jokes.  I WAS a wallflower.

People have a tendency to overgrade themselves in their Spanish/language abilities.  The more Spanish/language you learn, the more you realize how much more there is to learn.   Let’s just be honest about it.

Our First Four Words

Our First Four Words

You may have noticed a pattern. There’s a commonality in the first four words Gringos and Latinos learn. Sure, the very first words we all learn is a language’s bad words and pleasantries (Hi, bye, how are you, etc). But, I’m talking about the post-pleasantries vocabulary. There’s a pattern to these words.

Evan Terry Forbes

****Let me clarify. This is a VERY loose generalization. Just an observation. 93.7% NOT scientific.

Let’s start with Gringos. Gringos’ introduction to the Spanish language is highly influence by Mexican restaurants. In North America, they’re extremely popular. Many Gringos first and most frequent interaction with Spanish is at these Burrito serving, Tequila pouring establishments:

Cerveza. “Hey, bartender, one cerveza please.”.

Baño. “Excuse me, where is the baño?”.

Cuenta. “Could you please bring us the cuenta.”.

Quiz any Gringo that doesn’t speak Spanish. They’ll know the word for beer, bathroom, and the bill. I guarantee it!

Manaña.  Manaña breaks from the restaurant theme.  Nonetheless, limited Spanish speaking Gringos know it.

Manaña” doesn’t actually mean tomorrow. Rather, it’s open ended. More appropriate would be to say, “Señor, when I get around to it.”. But, that’s just too long and controversial to say. Gringos quickly incorporate manaña into their vocabulary. If they want to postpone something indefinitely, Gringos will enthusiastically say, “Lets take that big project on… manaña!”.

Latinos first four words are different. Rather than individual words, they’re typically phrases.   American pop culture is influential force. It’s likely that an average Latino’s favorite music, movies, and T.V. shows will be from American mainstream pop culture – Not sure this is a good thing:

You are crazy!Oye, sabes que you are crazy!” (You know that you are crazy!).

Oh My God (OMG). “OMG! No lo puedo creeeeerrrr!!!!” (Oh my god!  I can’t believe it!!!).

No problem. “Oye, no pasa nada. No problem, mi fren.” (Hey, it’s okay.  No problem, my friend).

Relax. “Que haces tu?” (What are you doing?).
Naaaada. Estoy en mi casa. Relax.” (Nothing. I’m at my house, relaxing).

4 Panamanian Phrases That Will Confuse You

4 Panamanian Phrases That Will Confuse You

Learning Spanish from a university class or Rosetta Stone will only get you so far. The beginner and intermediate lessons only begin to scratch the surface of the language. As you’ll quickly discover, Panamanians speak their own flavor of Spanish. Little phrases and inside jokes have meanings that won’t make sense to you. These will confuse you.

1. Oiste

Oiste is preterite tu form of the verb oir — to hear. Thus, oiste in Spanish translates to “did you hear me?”. It’s a confirmation that the person indeed heard you.

For example: “Hey Miguel, can you grab me that bag of chips, oiste?”

In some Panamanian’s lexicon, however, oiste is a part of the rhythm of speech. It is the English urban slang equivalent to “ya feel me” or “ya know what I’m say’n”. The following is an example of how the use of oiste confused me in a recent conversation.

Miguel: “Vamos a buscar comida, oiste?” (Let’s go look for food. Did you hear me?)

Me: “Yes, I did understand. Ready to go!”

Miguel: “Quiero un batido de guineo, oiste?” (I want a banana smoothie. Did you hear me?)

Me: “Yes, yes, I understand. That sounds delicious!”

Miguel: “Fren, esta viana es lo mejor, oiste?” (Friend, this shit is the best! Did you hear me?)

Me: “Fren, I do speak Spanish. I know I have a heavy Gringo accent, but I understand 100% of what you are telling me. It is not necessary to ask me oiste after every sentence.”

I finally figured it out after he used oiste several times. He was not asking me to confirm that I indeed heard him. Rather, it was just a part of his pattern of speech.


2. Ahora

Spanish 101 teaches you that Ahora = Now. Ahora vamos a la bibloteca (Now we go to the library). Simple. Yet, it is common for people to use Ahora as later.

Ex-girlfriend: “Evan, te llamo ahora.” (Evan, I call you now.)

Me: “You call me… now? But, aren’t we already in a conversation? How will you call me now if we are already talking? I’m confused.”

Ex-girlfriend: “Evan, que te pasa? Te llamo AHORA!” (Evan, what is wrong with you? I call you now!)

Me: “Don’t que te pasa me, missy. Ahora is now. At least how I understand it.”

Ex-girlfriend: “Bueno. Evan, te llamo MAS TARDE, oiste!” (Good. Evan, I’ll call you later.)

Panamanian Spanish guidelines:

English                  Spanish                   Panamanian Spanish
Later                      Mas Tarde               Ahora
Now                       Ahora                        Ahorita
Already                  Ya                              YA! (YA means hurry up! I needed it 10 fucking minutes ago.)


3. Siempre

Again, Spanish 101 teaches you that Siempre = Always. “Siempre es lo mejor” (It’s always the best).

However, in certain situations, it is used to replace the word todavía (still).

Ex-girlfriend: “Te vas al cine siempre?” (Do you go to the cinema always).

Hmmm…. Strange.

Me: “It is true I enjoy the cinema. But, I don’t understand. Are you asking me, ‘Do I always like to go to the movies?’ or ‘I’m always at the movies?’ Like I go to the cinema so much I practically live there, or something?”

Ex-girlfriend: “Evan, que estás hablando? TODAVIA quieres ir al cine?” (Evan, what are you talking about? Do you still want to go to the movies?)

Me: “Now I understand. Do I want to go to the cinema tonight? Well, sure!”


4. Cuanto sale

Sale is the present tense it (he, she or it) form of the verb Salir. Salir = leave or to go out. It is commonly used in terms of going out to party. Like “Tu quieres salir hoy, mi amor?” (Do you want to party tonight, baby?).

It is also used to ask the price of a certain item. It replaces “Cuanto cuesta?” (how much?).

El Señor: “Cuanto sale eso?”

Me: Hmmm…. “Did you just ask, “Cuan-d-o sale eso?” (When does this leave?). “Sorry sir, but this item does not leave the store.”

*** Cuando = When. Cuanto = How.

El Señor: “No, cuan-d-o s-a-l-e eso.” (How much this item goes out at night.)

Hmmm…. Strange.

Me: “Sir, I have no idea what you are saying.”

El Señor: “A ver….” then El Señor explained to me the meaning and context of cuanto sale.

At first, these words and phrases will certainly confuse you. Don’t let it frustrate you. Instead, embrace it, mimic it, love it.Panamanize your vocabulary!

If you combine these examples and sprinkle in some past EyeOnPanama.com helpful Spanish language articles; Spanish Sweet Nothings, Pretend Like You Speak Spanish and some Panamanian Slang terms, you’ll practically be a local! Dale, loco! (Do it, you crazy person!).


Spanish Sweet Nothings


Spanish Sweet Nothings

Want to learn the local lingo? Add a few Spanish sweet nothings to your growing language skills. It’s amazing what sprinkling in Mi vida (my life) or Mi amor (my love), can do. If said in a playful, joking manner, these terms of endearment will help make you the funniest foreigner to land on the Isthmus since….. well, me.


It’s helpful to understand Caribbean influences on the Spanish language. Spanish in Spain is noticeably different from Spanish spoken in Caribbean countries; Cuba and Puerto Rico or countries that partially border the Caribbean Sea; Colombia and Panama. The Spanish spoken here has a flirtatious, flamboyant flavor to it. Maybe it’s the heat? Maybe it’s the rum? No sé (I don’t know) but a close Latina friend put it best, “Caribbean Spanish is just mas rico (more rich or spicy)”.

Let’s begin the Using Sweet Nothings in Panama lesson. Use your sweet nothing at the beginning of the conversation. Smoothly insert your choice of a sweet nothing after your greeting, but before beginning the general conversation.

For example, (Greeting) Hola (Insert sweet nothing), blah (General Conversation), blah blah….. Gracias (Again, insert sweet nothing)

Got it? Let’s go through a few examples together.

Male to Female
Buenos dias mi amor, ¿como andas?..blah, blah… Gracias, mi amor.
Good day my love, how have you been doing?…. Thanks, love.

Female to Male
Ohhh mi gordito, ¿cómo te va?
Hey my little cubbie boy, how’s it going?

Sweet nothings don’t always have to be romantic. They can also be used to show affection for your same sex friends.

Male to Male
Hola papa, ¿cómo ha sido?…blah, blah… Bueno, papa, hasta luego.
Hey pops/dad, how have you been…. Cool, pops/dad, see you later.

Female to Female
Oye nena, auydame con esto por favor ……
Hey girl, help me with this please.

List of possible Spanish terms of endearment:

Male to Female
Mi Amor – My love
Mi Vida – My life (personal favorite)
Mi Reina – My queen
Mi Corazon – My heart
Jovencita – Young girl
Mami/Mamacita – Sexy mama
Flaquita – Skinny girl (personal favorite)

Female to Male
Carnio – Sweetheart
Gordo – Chubbie
Papi/Papito – Sexy Daddy
Mi Amor – Love
Mi Vida – Life

Male to Male
Primo – Cousin
Tio – Uncle (popular with Spaniards)
Hermano/Brother – In Panama, more people use the English term “brother” with a Spanish accent.
Papa – Dad or pops (personal favorite)
Mi Hijo – My child

Female to Female
Chola – Country Girl
Nena – Girl
Mi Hija – Daugther
Guapa – Pretty Girl

It’s important to remember to whom, and in what setting, you are using these sweet nothings. It is generally not appropriate to call a young lady “mi amor” in a business meeting. Basic common sense still applies.

I still call, and get called, mi vida by Latina grandmothers. It is a term of endearment.  Additionally, it is not unmasculine for a father to refer to his son as mi amor. It is not sexual, just being sweet.

Beyond the basics. If you want to spice it up a little more, use the diminutive form cito/a-ito/a. Cito is a suffix used to denote endearment. Use this to give your conversation a more personal touch. Cito is often used when speaking to kids. Guys also use it with their romantic interest.

Otro Nivel (To the next level): Want to elevate your Spanish to the next level?

First, combine the guy’s/girl’s nationality nickname in the diminutive form.

Nationality                                            Term                                                    Romantic Female Interest
Bogota, Colombia                                Rolo/a                                                           Mi Rolita
Venezuela                                             Chamo/a                                                       Mi Chamita
Chiriqui Province in Panama           Chiricano/a                                                 Mi Chiricanita
Chinese                                                 Chino/a                                                        Mi Chinita

Secondly, alternate two different Spanish sweet nothings in the same conversation. The first time I heard this in real time, it threw me a communication cruveball. I overheard a local guy use it while I was waiting in a local bus terminal. I thought to myself “This can’t be. He must be mistaken. There is no way he could be that suave.” From that day forward, I have never looked back. Using differing Spanish sweet nothings is now my standard speak.

My personal favorite duel sweet nothing combo.

Bueno, mi vida, me puedes …blah, blah… Bien. Mil gracias, mi reina.
Hello, my life, can you …… good. Thanks a lot, my queen.

Foreigners have often said to me, “Evan, saying sweet nothings is just silly. It’s pointless and makes you look stupid.”. Quite the contrary, there are tangible benefits:

1. Reduce your risk of price discrimination. Being overcharged for products and services solely based on skin color (white) and country of origin (North America/Europe) is a daily occurrence. It’s frustrating.

Yet, magically, using sweet nothings with people from store clerks to cab drivers demonstrates (or fools) locals into believing that you have been in Panama for a long time. Practically a local. As a result, your odds of receiving a fair price will dramatically increase. Hurah for savings!

2. More effective. An example from Panama’s daily life; My friend was calling IDAAN (water company) to turn back on his water, which had been mistakenly shut off. With a touch of anger in his voice, he explained the situation. She fired back by basically saying “Not my problem, buddy.”. Needless to say, my friend had another dry day.

My advice to my friend was to lighten up a bit. The average worker in Panama is not well- motivated. They are paid peanuts. They have no real incentive to go out of their way for you. In order to get things done, try sprinkling in a sweet nothings greeting, maybe even a combo.

It’s difficult to snarl while saying mi amor. If you are playful and calm, yet assertive, maybe that unmotivated worker will say to themselves “Geez, this Gringo is kinda strange, but funny. I think I’m going to help him out today.”. If it didn’t help you become more effective, I wouldn’t recommend it. It works for me. It will probably work for you too.

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Limited Spanish Dating


Dating in a different language is difficult.  Both language and cultural differences exist.  At the beginning of a different language relationship, it’s a novelty.  Even, if your vocabulary is limited to a few basic phrases, it’s fun, it’s new, and a it is the best way to learn a language.


Yet, as time wears on, the novelty wears off.  Your inability to communicate will become awkward and frustrating.  Communicating in another language is difficult for all but the most fluent.  Here are some basic tips that I hope will make your entry into the local dating scene less stressful and more rewarding.

First, remember the differences between men and women.  For females, attracting males with limited communication is easier. Simply stated, males are much more attracted to physical features.  On the other hand, females tend to place a higher importance on intellectual and emotional connections. To illustrate my point, look no further than the female display manikens with totally disproportionate double D breasts in Panama’s shopping malls.  The ability to verbally communicate with the woman you desire is critical to your successful dating experience.

Understanding the importance of communication, you can see the difficulty in dating when you have limited language skills.  This is not to discourage my fellow amigos.  However, it is crucial that you acknowledge the limits of your Spanish and adjust accordingly.  Pinpoint your level of Spanish and incorporate some of the tips below.
No Spanish (20 words or less)  – First and foremost, learn more Spanish!  If not, go to places where it is so LOUD it’s nearly impossible to talk (Beiginns, Hard Rock Café, People, Zona Viva).  Have good, positive energy and communicate with body language.

Your homework: Learn more Spanish!

Beginner (20 – 100 words).  Dancing and language tips.   Ask for help with Latino things like help with dancing Merenge (Salsa is too difficult, don’t even try) or how to say something in Spanish.  A little Latino tutelage will be considered cute.

Your homework:  Try to learn 5 new Spanish words a day and watch No Words Spanish video.  Start with phrase like; how do you say – “como se dice”, you look pretty –  “te ves bien”, and the verb to dance – “bailar”. Additionally,  listen to 15 minutes of Salsa and Merenge to acclimate yourself to the beat.

Intermediate (100 – 300 words).  This is my current level of Spanish.  Don’t get too confident.  Avoid large groups of her friends until you are comfortable in the relationship.  I refer to it as choosing your battlefield.  With multiple native Spanish speakers, the conversation will be too fast.  Your silence will be taken as anti-social.  No bueno.

Additionally, learn the chorus to popular Latino songs.  Being able to sing along will be impressive for a foreigner.  Also, inject funny Panamanian slang terms and common phrases and have her explain the meaning to you.

Your homework:  Listen to songs that are popular in Panama.  Download all Marc Anthony and Calle 13 albums, learn a couple Panamanian slang terms, and common phrases.

Advanced (highly conversational).  At this level, speaking Spanish one on one or in group setting is not a problem.   A deeper understanding of both local Panamanian and broader Latino culture is in order.

Your homework:  Learn local political matters (read La Prensa), travel to frequented Panama destinations (Chiriqui, Carnivales in Los Santos, and Decameron), familiarize yourself with movies and TV shows (Chance and El Cartel de los Sapos), and the larger Latin culture outside of Panama (CNN en Espanol).


Most importantly, once you have reached an advanced level of Spanish, stop talking.  Be an active listener.  In economics it’s referred to as the 80- 20 rule.  It applies to dating too.   She talks 80% of the time and you speak the other 20%.

Be an interested attentive listener. Show her that you care and you’re more interested in her than merely sleeping with her. Having a shared connection is central to dating chemistry.  Good chemistry is the difference between a temporary fling and having an ongoing dating partner.

Above all, don’t ignore what you already know. An attractive Panamanian woman is not fundamentally different from a pretty woman back home. Good manners, not being creepy or socially awkward, and respect go a long way no matter where you are. Being in decent physical shape helps too.  The fact that you try to communicate with a woman with whom you do not share a language is already a point in your favor.  Most of the time, the effort will be recognized and appreciated.

Entering a totally new dating scene is never easy. When you don’t speak the language, your task is even more challenging. However, don’t be intimidated. You will have fun. You will learn.  If you are lucky, you might even meet that special dating partner.  Suerte Amigos!

No Words Spanish

Here are a few common body languages signals frequently used in Panama. If you master these non-verbal phrases, not only will you be the cool foreigner dude, but you’re a step closer to immersing yourself in the local culture. Good luck!

Top Ten Signs You Have Been In Panama Too Long

How do you know that you have been in Panama too long? Jesse Choquette from www.EyeOnPanama.com gives you a David Letterman inspired Top Ten Signs You Have Been In Panama Too Long. This footage was filmed at the Ancon Theatre Guild’s “Improv8″ in Panama City, June 2009.

Top 10 Phrases to Pretend Like You Speak Spanish

Written by Jacobo.

So you don’t fancy spending $300 on Rosetta Stone?Here is your alternative.These ten following common used phrase will help deceive Panamanians that you actually speak Spanish.These 10 phrases are guaranteed to save you money on taxis, buying souvenirs, and everyday bartering.

1.Que va! – nonsense.

2.Como no – Of course.

3.Voy pa’ alla – I go there.

4.Noommbe – (No hombre) No way man.

5.Esto – Ummmmm, begins sentence.

6.Que vaina – That’s some bullshit.

7.Ayala vida – Holy shit.

8.Asi es la vida – That’s how it goes.

9.Jo! – Used as emphasis in reaction to a shocking revelation.

10.Chuleta! – Used to emphasize your personal shock in reaction to a statement.

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