Be careful: If you ever visit Panama, you might be seriously tempted to stay there forever.
Don’t laugh. The expat community in Panama is huge and grows every year. It’s an incredible place!
The Panama Canal is an engineering marvel but there’s more to see in this gorgeous country.
Plan to scuba dive in Bocas del Toro (Bull’s mouths) for an up-close view of some underwater magic. Afterward, get their world-famous dessert called No Me Olvides (Don’t Forget Me)—which is, honestly, sublimely unforgettable!
But wait, don’t grab your bags just yet! Before you rush over to Panama, there’s one thing you need first: some Spanish skills.
More specifically, you’ll need to pick up Panamanian Spanish—which has some unusual quirks that set it apart from Castilian Spanish (the language spoken in Spain).
Let’s see what makes Panamanian Spanish so special and learn a few words to get started with this unique variety of Spanish!
What Exactly Is Panamanian Spanish?
Obviously, Panamanian Spanish is the Spanish spoken in Panama. But you want to know more than that, don’t you?
The language spoken in Panama has been shaped by the country’s indigenous native languages, particularly the Panamanian Ngäbere and Kuna languages.
It’s also been heavily influenced by English. Some even refer to Panamanian Spanish as “Spanglish” to show how much of an impact the English language has had on the Spanish spoken in Panama.
Beyond that, the language has bits and pieces of many other cultures, as well. Panama City is a port city near the canal. Historically—and currently!—it welcomes lots of foreign traffic. It’s just a logical effect that global citizens passing through Panama leave a linguistic and cultural footprint.
There are a few particulars to remember about Panamanian Spanish:
- The c and z sounds are pronounced as an s sound.
- Many words are shortened by omitting the last syllable or consonant.
- It’s common to drop the s at the end of a word. For example, vamos (we go) becomes vamo.
- Sometimes locals soften the ch in a word to sh—think mucho (much) spoken as /mu-sho/ rather than /mu-cho/.
- In the very southernmost part of the country, the voseo verb form is used instead of the tú form.
There’s one more thing to remember about Panamanian Spanish, and it’s a fun quirk: In Panama, you’ll hear lots of slang. It’s colorful and expressive, so if you pick up a few slang words and phrases, you’ll fit right in with the locals!
To get a sense of the different sounds of Spanish around the world, we recommend checking out the authentic videos on FluentU.
FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons. It’s a great way to hear the language as it’s actually used in Spanish-speaking locations all over the world!
Other sites use scripted content. FluentU uses a natural approach that helps you ease into the Spanish language and culture over time. You’ll learn Spanish as it’s actually spoken by real people.
FluentU has a wide variety of videos—topics like soccer, TV shows, business, movies and even magical realism, as you can see here:
FluentU brings native videos within reach with interactive transcripts. You can tap on any word to look it up instantly. Every definition has examples that have been written to help you understand how the word is used.
Plus, if you see an interesting word you don’t know, you can add it to a vocab list.
Review a complete interactive transcript under the Dialogue tab, and find words and phrases listed under Vocab.
Learn all the vocabulary in any video with FluentU’s robust learning engine. Swipe left or right to see more examples of the word you’re on.
The best part is that FluentU keeps track of the vocabulary that you’re learning, and recommends examples and videos for you based on the words you’ve already learned. Every learner has a truly personalized experience, even if they’re studying with the same video.
Panamanian Spanish 101: English-isms and Basic Panamanian Phrases
Panamanian Spanish Influenced by English
Many Panamanian Spanish words are very obviously influenced by the English language. Since the United States controlled the Panama Canal until 1999, that’s not a surprising fact.
Consider these words, which were “borrowed” from English and transformed into English-Spanish hybrids:
1. Chopear (To shop)
Instead of the usual comprar (to shop) you might hear chopear in Panama. Remember that the ch sound is often said as sh, so don’t get confused and assume this means “to chop.”
Quiero chopear. (I want to shop.)
2. El guy (The man)
This one’s so blatantly English it hardly needs to be explained!
El guy tiene una barba negra. (The man has a black beard.)
3. Chingongo (Chewing gum)
I asked about this Spanglish oddity. My friend, who was born and raised in Panama, said it’s got something to do with how similar the word chingongo sounds to the actual item, chewing gum.
¿Tienes algún chingongo? (Do you have some chewing gum?)
4. Fren (Friend)
If someone calls you’re their fren instead of amigo (friend) just smile because, in either case, it’s a good thing!
Ella es mi nueva fren. (She’s my new friend.)
Basic Panamanian Spanish Words and Phrases
Some Panamanian Spanish words and phrases are totally unique and don’t really have easily explained origins. This goes for everyday expressions and some slang words, as well.
There are a few instances when letters in a traditionally Spanish word or expression are regrouped to form new words that basically mean the same thing as the original. The classic example of this is the well-known, friendly expression “¿Que pasa?” (“What’s up?”).
Panamanian Spanish rearranges the letters in “¿Qué pasa?” to form “¿Qué sopa?”
“¿Qué sopa?” literally translates to “What soup?” but in this case it’s used to mean “What’s up?”
Other Panamanian Spanish words and phrases to add to your vocabulary—and use while in this amazing country!—include the following:
5. Buen provecho (Enjoy your meal)
It’s customary in a few Latin American countries, including Panama and Guatemala, to wish other diners a good meal. Say it before beginning to eat to fit right in with new Panamanian friends.
When the meal arrives at the table, smile and say, “¡Buen provecho!”
6. Dale pues (Do it, good, okay)
Dale pues means that you’re agreeable to whatever’s being discussed, and it’s also common in Nicaragua.
“¿Quieres ir a cenar?” (“Do you want to go to dinner?”)
“Dale pues.” (“Okay.”)
7. Cocobolo (Bald-headed person)
This one condenses the concept of a bald-headed person into one word that’s pretty fun to say.
“¿Ves a ese tipo?” (“Do you see that guy?”)
“El cocobolo.” (“The bald-headed one.”)
8. Está salado (To be salty)
This expression has nothing to do with salt—or any seasoning at all, for that matter! It’s a Panamanian slang term that means to have bad luck.
¡Pobre Ernesto! Está salado. (Poor Ernesto! He has bad luck.)
9. Chiva (Small bus)
Catching a chiva in Panama is likely to be an adventure. Often, rural chivas carry small livestock (think chickens and ducks) in addition to humans.
La chiva sale del mercado. (The bus departs from the market.)
10. Vino tinto (Red wine)
In many places, it’s customary to order vino rosso (red wine) but in Panama, you’re likely to hear it called vino tinto instead.
Quiero un vaso de vino tinto antes de ordenar la cena. (I’d like a glass of red wine before I order dinner.)
11. Pinta (Beer)
Ordering beer in a bar? If you don’t ask for a cerveza (beer) but request a pinta instead, you’ll get a nod from the bartender.
The term is pulled from the word “pint” and is the casual way to say “beer.”
Una pinta fria, por favor. (A cold beer, please.)
12. Buco (A lot)
This is a fun word to find in Panama! It’s derived from the French word beaucoup (a lot)—and it means the same when found in a Panamanian Spanish conversation.
“¿Cuánto te gusta el helado?” (“How much do you like ice cream?”)
“Buco.” (“A lot.”)
Want to learn more Panamanian Spanish words and phrases? Maybe you need a few extra slang terms to round out your travel vocabulary skills?
Consider going to the source and learning Spanish in Panama. Casco Antiguo Spanish School is located right in the center of Panama City and is a super spot for learning Panamanian Spanish.
If you’re unable to study in Panama, consider a Panamanian tutor from Habla Ya, instead. Speaking via Skype with a certified Spanish teacher is the next best thing to actually heading to Panama.
When you head to Panama, fall back on your basic Spanish skills.
Then add some of these authentic Panamanian Spanish words and phrases to feel like a local.
And Panama is really a welcoming country, so don’t be surprised when one of your new Panamanian acquaintances calls you fren!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Spanish with real-world videos.