A Box of Condoms and A Dream: How I Learned Spanish in Panama

I used dance to improve my Spanish in Panama.
I moved to Panama (actual Panama, not the bootleg Florida city) from Los Angeles, California in July of 2011 with a box of condoms and a dream. After years of studying Spanish in high school and college, it was time to fulfill my duty as the son of a Panamanian immigrant and seek out my own personal connection to the land of murderous humidity and plentiful passé American fashions. #VivaEdHardy
I first became interested in learning more than profanity after I grew tired of Mom and Grandma switching languages to talk shit about a mooching family friend or someone’s subpar cooking and not understanding them. I grew up speaking English. Each time I mix up my verb tenses, I still bemoan the fact that Mom never even cursed me out with her best AfroPanamanian Spanglish as a kid. Not once. In every Spanish class, I excelled, propelled by my ambitions of bilingual eavesdropping.

Like many who learned a foreign language in school, I had never really held a full conversation in Spanish with a native speaker. The practice you receive in foreign language classes usually consists of stringing vocabulary you just learned in the previous chapter into rehearsed conversations with that girl who never bought the textbook and is in the fast lane to nowhere. Plus, classroom Spanish is found nowhere on this Earth.

Guided by champagne and a taste for adventure, I bought a one-way ticket to Panama. “No use putting a time limit on my dreams,” I would say often, and eventually landed here with muchas ideas y zero solid plans. The goal was to learn to speak amazing Spanish, teach English to anyone but children, teach dance in Spanish, and dig into my family’s Panamanian and Jamaican ancestry. Previously, I had done exactly none of these things. My life in Panamaland has been one of many firsts.

When I exited the airport in Panama City and understood four percent of what the waiting taxi drivers screamed at me, I felt mighty low. And muy American. The first order of business—after the inaugural cross-cultural bustdown—was to absorb as much Panamanian Spanish in as little time as humanly possible.
At the time, according to the entrance exam at the University of Panama, my Spanish was teetering between the lower intermediate (B1 by CEFR standards) and upper intermediate (B2) level. In the real world, this meant I could understand clear-speaking natives with great pronunciation and slowly tell you how to clean, season, bread, and fry chicken.

Here is how I became fluent.

1. I taught dance and fitness classes in Spanish.
Teaching in Powerclub in Panama City, Panama
Before moving to Panama, I trained in hip-hop, ballet, and contemporary dance in Los Angeles and New York. I have yet to dance for Janet, so you see how that worked out for me. Days after arriving, I responded to a classified ad seeking a dancer and fitness instructor, and was hired to teach a Zumba-adjacent fitness class, in Spanish.

While designing my class, adhering to the studio owner’s request of 70% Latin rhythms and 30% other, I studied all body part names. I talked myself through every step, punch, cha-cha, kick, squat, slide and jump in my class choreography, rehearsing how to break each move down using the command forms of all necessary verbs.

Twice a week, I led 20-30 well-to-do ladies through warm-up and 12-14 vigorous routines that meshed cardio and toning with hip-hop, salsa, samba, and/or dancehall, before a relaxing cool-down and soothing stretch. In the beginning, I made at least 94 mistakes each day while instructing in Spanish. I asked that students correct me, kindly, in private. At my request, the studio owner forbade clients from speaking to me in English. It all helped.

Fielding questions and the occasional vaginal offering as the resident sweaty, dancing, foreign Black guy (who was allergic to sleeves) did wonders for my small talk skills.

The flashcards and daily terror paid off. Eventually, I worked up to seven of these CardioDance classes and two hip-hop dance classes (in two studios and a national gym chain) per week. Learning to explain grooves, nuances and the emotions and effect I was seeking from a piece of choreography was a boost to my vocabulary and descriptive skills.

Teaching a hip hop class in Panama - May 2012

2. I taught English.
Swearing off traditional employment, I dug deep and vowed to support myself using my own talents and body parts. I had never previously taught English, but as a lover of the language and a gent who appreciates a divinely crafted sentence, I knew I could excel at slinging these phrasal verbs.

I copped some books and combed the World Wide Web for teaching materials. Slapped up some flyers and classified ads. Within months, I acquired a handful of private clients for Business English classes. As I cherish my sanity, jobless humans (children) were out of the question. I specialized in helping Spanish-speaking professionals work and do business in English. I tailored the curriculums, vocabulary, and class materials to the student's field of work. I helped my students feel comfortable conducting meetings, express opinions, acing job interviews, giving business presentations, and using language relevant to their specific positions, in English, with confidence.

How did that help my Spanish? Speaking Spanish on the phone was stressful for me. When my phone rang in Panama, I never knew what type of accent I'd be greeted with, because my clients came from every corner of Latin America...and Spain. Throughout my time teaching in Panama, a good 42.6% or so of my clients came from Spain. A tanking Spanish economy sent pilots, architects, bankers, professors and such to Panama for work and, eventually, into business with me. (Yay, recession.) After a while, I could tell if you were from Andalucia or Madrid or Galicia. An unexpectedly helpful ability, that was.

I had to explain my services, negotiate prices and contracts and deal with managers, CEOs and human resources reps, in Spanish. Finding a few local banking and construction industry magazines helped me learn the necessary language to communicate with prospective professional clients. While building the website for Panamerican Languages, a site called linguee helped me find suitable phrases and vocabulary in context in documents and elsewhere online. I had Spanish-speaking friends revise my site text, client agreements, and email templates to make life easier.

3. I dated in Spanish.
About nine months into the journey, I found a Guatemalan boo. A fine one. My Spanish was much better than his English, so all sweet-talking happened in Español. Some expats call it getting “a two-legged dictionary.”

I have my corny inclinations when smitten, so it was important that I knew how to be saccharine enough to lay my mack down and talk underwear off, in Spanish. This is when the faux passion and flowery compliments found in telenovelas and the intros of classy Latino porn come in quite handy. Seriously. Romancing GuateBoo also made me comfortable discussing feelings, desires, strong opinions, and complicated food orders in more complex and abstract ways. Also: I insisted he correct my many, many grammatical mistakes, kindly, in private.

Bonus: Use of appropriate Bedroom Spanish is also an important skill. Imagine the stress of conjugating verbs while putting your back into it! ¡Qué horror! Refer back to those Latino porn clips.

4. I organized language exchanges.
Here in Panama, you can’t pass two palm trees without bumping into someone looking to improve their English. Since FREE is a universally attractive price, I placed flyers around my neighborhood looking for a Spanish-speaking professional who wanted to trade an hour of English conversation for an hour of Spanish conversation each week. For two months, I met with Consuela, a doctor from Venezuela, twice weekly. She helped me polish my professional Spanish and my small talk, two skills vital to my success here. If attempting an exchange, it’s important to select a partner with a good grasp on grammar in your target language. A cute partner who has never been in an office will likely not be able to help you prepare for an interview.

5. I depended on taxi drivers.
Using taxis to get around town has kept me up-to-date on new and inventive uses of slang and street Spanish. As Taxi Driver Spanish is the polar opposite of the academic stuff that has helped me professionally, learning to speak and curse like a taxi driver will ensure cheaper fares and more enjoyable commutes. If they like you, they’re less likely to overcharge you. Maybe.

And there you have it. In addition to one helpful semester at the University of Panama, this is how I progressed from head nods and mumbling to living, flirting, and doing business with the finest Panamanian Spanish.

What about you? Any nontraditional language-learning advice?

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