So You Want to Live in Another Country (Part 3)

Learn the language! It’s not as easy as one would think.

I don’t usually post writing by other people, but this series of articles by my friend By Edgington speaks for us expats as we navigate the joys and challenges of living in another country, and I think it’s well worth sharing.

View at

When I copy/paste the link it does weird things in my browser, so just in case I’ll try this too

By and his wife Mariah previously lived in Panama, and now they are in Colombia, both of which are Spanish speaking countries. You can get by in Panama with only English, especially in places full of expats, but (if you’ve read this blog for a while, you know what I’m going to say) but why? Why come here and hang out with only gringos? You can do that back in the USA or wherever you are from. Why miss out on this life from a Panamanian point of view?

Learning another language is a challenge, of course, but so worth it. You don’t have to be perfectly fluent, far from it, but if you can carry on a conversation you can have local friends, learn about the life, the culture, the food, what they value, and their sense of humor (which I especially enjoy). I have found the Panamanian people super helpful too. If you need a good plumber, the route to someplace, what is this fruit, or a multitude of other questions they will be happy to help you. I have found them very appreciative of my efforts to learn the language and endlessly patient in helping me along. We also have a repertoire of jokes about my missteps – you go to the canal to see las esclusas (the locks) not los esclavos (the slaves) and jugo de araña (spider juice) is not served for breakfast. (sounds too much like naranja = orange).

I am very happy living in Panama and for me, the biggest part of that is my friendships and interactions with the Panamanian people. I have been treated so well, and have been made to feel so included in their community and lives. None of that would have happened if I couldn’t talk with them. I give thanks every day to the friends who have helped me along the way, and to my very much loved teacher who patiently pounded quite a bit of Spanish into my thick head before I arrived.

It takes persistent effort over time, and using your new language every day at every opportunity, and the ability to tolerate frustration when it doesn’t work but little by little, a new word today, a new phrase tomorrow, it will get better. Buena suerte! 🍀 (good luck)

About Kris Cunningham

We live in David, Chiriqui Provence, Republic of Panama! This blog is about some of our experiences in our new country.
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15 Responses to So You Want to Live in Another Country (Part 3)

  1. sounds like By should go home. Sadly, when we relocate THAT is supposed to become home. He dumps all the crap and leaves the blessings to be imagined. Too bad. After living in 4 different countries I welcome the changes, they stimulate a lazy brain.


    • I think it takes an unusual sort of person to welcome the challenges, and some find it more difficult than others. I’d rather someone share the difficulties than paint everything with a rosy paintbrush, and then others who believe that are in for a rude awakening.


  2. MEBE in Medellin says:

    Thanks for this, Kris, important stuff for expats to know, I think. I didn’t even mention what local folks think of extranjeros who refuse to try speaking Spanish. It’s likely the quickest way to gain the label ‘ugly American.’ It’s hard work, but very much worth it.
    Thanks again for the reposts, and keep ’em coming! Feliz dia.


    • Even better, speak English and when they don’t understand, speak louder and roll your eyes for good measure. I have been so embarrassed by the behavior of some expats. Thankfully they aren’t common. Of course the people here appreciate our Spanish, even if it isn’t a lot, just like we appreciate people in the US doing their best to communicate in English. We should all be dropped off in another country for even a short time to appreciate the challenges of another language.


  3. oldsalt1942 says:

    When I would meet the linguistically-challenged gringos in David (dah VEED) I used to tell them: “Listen, at OUR AGE, you are NEVER going to be FLUENT in Spanish. Ain’t going to happen so don’t let it bother you. BUT you need to learn to be PROFICIENT in the language. That is, you need to be able to go to Cable Onda and open an account. You need to be able to go to IDAAN and change your address. And you need to do it in Spanish. So what if it’s not perfect. The people you’ll be dealing with will respect you for trying and if anyone there speaks English they’ll jump in and help out. I guarantee!”

    At the VERY LEAST, newbies need to learn “Lo siento, yo no hablo espanol.” (I’m sorry I don’t speak Spanish) DON’T start off saying “Anyone here speak English?” If I was a Panamanian with a PhD in English translation I’d look you right in the eye and say, “NO!”

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Meadow says:

    Definitely hard (we have 18 months before we jump, and it’s a struggle) but oh so worth it. Why would we move and not try to fit in. This ain’t the US of A. smh #nouglyamericanshere


    • I think many people want a familiar or easy life, but less expensive or not in the US or whatever reasons they have for leaving. That’s different from looking for a new experience, challenge, and adventure. You would be surprised at the number of expats who have been here for years and can barely say “hola” and “gracias”. They manage but I think they are really missing out.
      Hang in there and keep at it! You’ll enjoy your life here so much more.


  5. oldsalt1942 says:

    My biggest accomplishment with Spanish was getting a motorcycle endorsement for my driver’s license. Had to go to driving school which was, of course, done in Spanish. That did have some joke qualities to it. Sort of pay your money, show up for five days and get your certificate. But I was able to interact with the instructor and other students. The BIG hurdle was passing the “written” test. Done on a computer. Ten questions, one minute for each one allowed, no dictionary, no interpreter, and you need to get 7 out of the 10. I don’t know what my actual score was but I passed. I think I might have aced it, though….THAT’S what being proficient in the language is even if you aren’t able to conjugate all the verbs and know when to use ser and estar…


  6. junebugapril says:

    Great idea!! I have a fairly decent understanding of the Spanish language from having a landscape biz, and from living in South Texas. I think it’s offensive to move somewhere and not bother to learn the language. My daughter has friends from another country. Their mom still never learned English after ten years in the U.S. One thing that helped me with Spanish was watching silly Telenovelas 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think it’s just easier and more fun if you can talk with people, but it’s harder the older you get so the older generation often relies on the younger ones. Back when I knew hardly any Spanish, I learned to ask if there are children, and do they speak English, helpful when I had a Spanish only patient.
      Present tense works. I go to the store yesterday sounds funny, but we can figure out what it means.


  7. junebugapril says:

    I met someone from Columbia recently. She mentioned how nice and how much cheaper Columbia is than Panama.


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