The greatest compliment you can get when learning Spanish

The greatest compliment you can get when learning Spanish

I walked into the cool, dim interior of La Rana Dorada, searching the groups clustered around the dark wooden tables for a familiar face. An Italian expat I’d been introduced to by a mutual friend waved at me enthusiastically, gesturing me towards the table where she was immersed in a conversation with two other women. The local bar was flush with the chatter of the post-work crowd, making it necessary for her to shout at me over the noise when I joined them.“You do speak Spanish, right? My friends are Panamanian. They don’t really speak English,” she asked me casually after greeting me. Everyone turned to stare at me in anticipation.

Here it was, the moment of truth.  Do I speak Spanish?!!!

Can I hang with the cool kids?! Can I sit at the big kids' table? Now that my intensive Spanish classes at Habla Ya had all but come to an end, was it time to take the training wheels off (Insert a few more coming-of-age metaphors here to hide my momentary panic)?!

Perhaps I should pretend to have a stomach ache and go hide in a bathroom stall for the rest of the evening, I thought.

No, you can’t hide in the bathroom stall, France. You’ve been in Panama for more than 6 months now.

Si, hablo español,” I replied hesitantly. Everyone broke out in smiles, visibly relieved that they wouldn’t have talk around me the entire night. I braced myself for the rapid succession of questions to follow. 

“Where are you from?”

 “How long have you been in Panama?”

 “What do you do here?”

 “What made you choose Panama to learn Spanish?”

 “Do you like it here?”

 “Have you tried the nachos? OMG, you have to try this…””

 “Would you like a beer?

Once I was out of the proverbial hot seat, the conversation moved on and weaved through all the things women like to discuss in groups. I’d survived the first round.

A while later, another friend of the group arrived just in time for the next round of drinks. He was an Italian interior designer who had lived in Panama for half a decade. I found his accent intriguing because, although he spoke Spanish, he spoke with the sing-songy cadence of  Italian. His voice rose slightly at the end of each sentence, making every statement sound like a question. Once I adjusted to his way of speaking, I was able to understand his accent as we chatted  about his career.

Then the jokes began.

Like any other old group of friends, these guys had a long history together that was often encompassed in the retelling of jokes, anecdotes, and punchlines. If you’ve ever learned another language, you know that jokes are a particular sort of things. Most jokes are told in the colloquial language, some involve double-entendres, and often you need to understand the cultural context of the speaker to comprehend a punchline. Even when you speak the language, other cultures' jokes, memes, sayings, and proverbs can be difficult to understand.

One of the Panamanian women pulled out her phone, getting ready to tell the joke behind a heavily-guarded photo  that already had the Italian guy brooding in Italian (How does one brood in Italian? Easy: You diligently wait until all eyes on you and then strike a sulking pose reminiscent of a Renaissance statue. Pensive, forlorn gazing is a prerequisite. Now that you know, step your brooding-game up).  Everyone leaned forward for the joke, already giddy with anticipation.

I was again filled with anxiety. I was afraid that I would understand the words but entirely miss the intent of the joke. I was worried about the moment someone turned to me and asked me about what I thought of the joke. Again, I tried to think about how I could create a diversion and leave before she started to speak but, enjoying the fact that she now had a rapt audience, she’d already launched into the story behind the photo.

With no magic beans or confetti in my purse , I had no means of escape so I leaned in closely, resolved to capture every word.

She told us how the Italian guy had invited her and other friends over for dinner- pasta, of course. When they arrived, he was wearing nothing but an apron. “And shorts,” he quipped. Once the food had been prepared, the wine opened, and the table set, he asked to use her phone to take a picture of his masterpiece. When she arrived home that night, she was looking through the photos she had taken that evening, reminiscing on the great overall experience, when she landed on his photo.

In that moment she flipped her phone over and showed us all the photo. Instead of a photo of the spread he’d prepared for dinner that night, there was a close-up of his nipple peeking out from underneath the apron he’d had worn!

Everyone broke out in raucous laughter and teasing- myself included. 

The Italian now took his brooding up a notch to brood a la Michelangelo to further emphasize his feigned displeasure and embarrassment. 

As the night continued, a pair of Spaniards joined our group. The man introduced himself to me and asked if I spoke Spanish, “She speaks Spanish,” one of the Panamanians said before I could reply, “but she speaks more like you than like us,” she said with a wide grin.

She was right, my Spanish is still quite formal. I haven’t adopted any Panamanian slang yet. I still measure and weigh each word before I speak, thinking about the grammatical construction, gender, proper tense, and what message I wanted to convey to the listener. Admittedly, I can now do this in my head much faster than I could months ago, however, the fact that I don’t speak rapidly, casually, and colloquially marks me as a foreigner to the discerning Panamanian ear.

“How long have you been in Panama,” asked the Spaniard. I told him how long I’d been here at that point. “Wow, really?!,” he exclaimed, “you don’t even sound like a gringa!”

 And there you have it! The greatest compliment one can receive when you’re learning Spanish: I DO NOT SOUND LIKE A GRINGA!! Shout it from the rooftops! Put it on a T-Shirt! I do not sound like Former-NY Mayor Bloomberg when I speak Spanish!


Not only did I make a few new friends that night, but the evening boosted my confidence. I left with a new sense of where my strengths and weaknesses lie when speaking Spanish and a resolve to work on my problem areas. Todavia, the past tense in Spanish can trip me up with the verbs ser and estar (fue, estuve, era, estaba?!!!). Gendering doesn’t come naturally to me (la semana pasada/el proximo dia/un gran problema/ mis zapatos nuevos...ugh, why are my shoes masculine?!), forcing me to slow down and think about the gender of an object mid-speech, which I’m sure seems odd to the listener. I also want to expand my vocabulary so that I can talk about new and various topics. 

I'm certain that I can take it to the next level. I bought these books (here and here) to help me advance and have made Panamanians friends patient enough to correct my mistakes. As long as I don’t sound like a gringa, however, I’ve already come much farther than I thought I could when I began learning Spanish 8 months ago!


Are you the Hooker or the Help?

Are you the Hooker or the Help?

Panama is for Lovers

Panama is for Lovers


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