The official language of Panama is Spanish. English is the major second language, but it’s not as widely spoken as one might think given the long U.S. presence in the country and Panama’s role in world commerce and finance. In fact, even in Panama City it seems harder to find someone fluent in English than it was 25 years ago.
A nationalistic emphasis on Spanish, combined with the exodus of U.S. civilians and military personnel when the Canal Zone disappeared, has led to a steady erosion in English on the isthmus. Even the large English-speaking West Indian immigrant populations, which learned Spanish as a second language when they came to the isthmus, are gradually losing their English skills as they become fully assimilated into the Panamanian mainstream.
The role of English in Panamanian life is still a touchy subject. A major controversy erupted in 2002 when a proposal to make English an official second language of business was floated in the national legislature, with many denouncing it as unconstitutional and impractical.
But the greatly diminished U.S. presence on the isthmus has helped make English less of a political hot potato. There’s a growing belief in Panama that English skills are crucial to the survival of its services-oriented economy. The point was driven home in 2002 when the HSBC Bank tried to open a 600-person call center in Panama. Of the 1,600 applicants, only 41 were fully bilingual in English and Spanish. The bank set up the call center in Malaysia instead. That same year, a Panamanian official estimated that only about 2 percent of government employees speak English well.
In 2003 the Panamanian government passed a law requiring the teaching of English in all primary and secondary schools. Private schools of English have sprung up all over the country. Suddenly, everyone wants to learn English, but progress has been slow.
All that said, English-speaking visitors usually have little trouble getting around even if they don’t speak Spanish. It’s not hard to find someone who speaks at least some English, especially in the fancier hotels and restaurants.
Outside of Panama City, English is mostly widely spoken along the Caribbean coast, particularly in Bocas del Toro. There are few English speakers in the rural areas and comarcas (semiautonomous reservations). In some of the comarcas, even Spanish is not universally spoken.
Panama’s indigenous people still speak their traditional languages to varying degrees. Ngöbere (spoken by the Ngöbe) and Kuna (spoken by the Kuna) are probably the least endangered, mostly because of the sheer number of speakers.
Those who speak neither Spanish nor English will have a harder time getting around, as no other European languages are widely spoken on the isthmus, let alone languages from other parts of the world. Panama City, Bocas town on Bocas del Toro, and, to a lesser extent, Boquete have the greatest mix of international residents and visitors.
Some descendants of Chinese immigrants in Panama City and larger towns in the interior still speak their ancestral languages, especially Hakka and Yue (Cantonese). Arabic and Hebrew are among the other languages with a foothold in cosmopolitan Panama City.
So-called Panamanian Creole English (PCE) is still spoken among the descendants of immigrants from Jamaica, Barbados, San Andrés, Providencia, and other West Indian islands. Most speakers live in Colón, the former canal area, Panama City, and Bocas del Toro, whose distinctive regional variation of PCE is called Guari-Guari. It’s almost impossible for uninitiated speakers of standard English to understand PCE.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition