I'm Christina Lyon, a coffee sipping, piano playing, beach loving, word-obsessed freelance writer and musician. I'm on fire for helping freelance writers get paid and small biz owners succeed online. When I'm not reading or writing, I play music and explore the beaches and wild trails along the California coast.

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Diving Into Spanish immersion in Panama City

Christina Lyon

Diving into Spanish immersion in Panama City

Hola a todos! I just finished my first week of full Spanish immersion in Panama City with Habla Ya Spanish School and boy what a week it has been! Panama City is bustling with action and I’ll admit it was a little overwhelming at first. The constant buzz of this city is a reminder of how great a melting pot it is. In many ways, it feels just like LA, but in other ways, it’s worlds apart.

Getting my bearings in this gigantic city

I arrived to Tocumen International Airport at 6:30 a.m. last Sunday and spent the weekend resting, getting lost, buying groceries, and did I mention getting lost? I truly don’t know how people functioned successfully before the genius invention of google maps.

Long story short, I spent one day without cell service. Combined with the lack of street signs this was an excellent recipe to make me look completely clueless. Which, I was! Nevertheless, I got my cell service, have been using google maps and Uber (thank you Uber for successfully getting me around!), and am falling into the rhythm of this upbeat city.

A view of Panama City from the window of the Uber driver, with the Panamanian flag waving in the wind.

The view of the cityscape and boats from the lookout on the Amador causeway.

Learning Spanish vs. FULL Spanish Immersion

This is not my first time attempting to learn Spanish. In high school, I took one year of Spanish and in college, I took two semesters. In addition, I live in Southern California where Spanish is a language in some areas more prevalent than English. Which was part of my motivation to devote my full attention to polishing up my Spanish. That said, learning Spanish for one hour a day twice a week is completely different than attending a Spanish immersion school in a Spanish speaking country where English is scarcely spoken.

Full Spanish immersion requires constant effort to communicate with what limited ability you may or may not have. Practicing your communication in Spanish is heavily encouraged at Habla Ya even when outside of the classroom. I think this approach is extremely valuable, though difficult. Forcing yourself to rely on what skills you have means that you’re constantly challenging your brain to put to use what it absorbs (and often forgets) in class.

As grand a feat it may be, it’s more rewarding than it is difficult. After one week down and five weeks to go, I can already see progress and honestly can’t wait to see just how far I can go with this six-week Spanish immersion experience.

The entrance to Habla Ya Spanish School's location in Panama City

Habla Ya has 3 locations in Panamá: Panama City, Boquete and Bocas del Toro.

Pictured is the board we learn on everyday filled with Spanish words and a story.

One of the lessons my professor utilized to help us learn the verbs ser and estar. I’m still fumbling them up but it’s a work in progress!

Spanish immersion with Habla Ya in Panama City.

Developing my Spanish skills

When I first arrived to Habla Ya I was somewhat timid about speaking what Spanish I did know out of fear that I would sound like a babbling buffoon.

Habla Ya places students into class levels based on their skill level. After an initial assessment I was placed into the first week of Survival 1 for beginners but after two hours was moved to week 3 because my professor thought I should advance.

In the classroom, the professors do not speak to you in English, so you need to employ a Spanish-English dictionary or use an app on your phone to define words beyond your Spanish vocabulary. This initially kind of mortified me because I wondered how I would learn if I couldn’t understand something being explained to me. Alas, I did learn! At first it was overwhelming but then it became fun to try and communicate only in Spanish. Plus, Habla Ya has a really refined system of implementing information only to the degree that is comprehensible to the students’ placement level.

Doing my homework for my Spanish Immersion experience with Habla Ya.

Level 1 focuses on grammar and vocabulary, and yes — homework is assigned! It’s just a small element of the immersion process!

In the common area at Habla Ya there is a delicious vending machine for coffee.

I’ve become quite fond of the coffee vending machine. Thanks to my classmate, Elena, for helping me set up this shot!

In Survival 1 for beginners, I’ve reacquainted myself with common words and phrases and moved on to more challenging basics like conjugating verbs. The main takeaway from this level is the ability to understand and participate in familiar everyday expressions. This course is three weeks long, which means next week I will move on to the next level, Survival 2 for beginners.

I am participating in group lessons which means there’s only potential for a maximum of 4 students. However, in my class there’s just one other student, my new friend Elena from Ukraine! Being in an intimate learning environment enables greater attention to each student. You also get to know your classmates and professor better and in turn feel more comfortable asking questions or practicing what you’ve learned in front of one another.

Safe to say I’ve graduated from saying “hablo poquito Español” to “Hablo un poco Español.” (thumbs up in my book! But that’s really just a tiny slice of everything I’ve learned. It’s amazing how instrumental one week of Spanish immersion can be. Which leads me to…

Practical application

Being in class for 4 hours a day provides the foundation necessary for learning a new language. The true test of all the knowledge I’m cramming into my brain comes when I interact with a local. I’m still in that phase where some of my words evade my brain before I can get them out. What’s really great about Panama City is that English is not common. This means you rarely have an occasion to get off the hook. The few times I have come across a local that speaks English, I ask them to speak with me in Spanish. If I don’t understand something I say “repite por favor,” or “más despacio por favor.” Usually, when they see you’re making an honest attempt to try to speak in their language, they are happy to help you!

Children play in a water fountain near a playground on the Amador Causeway.

Did I mention the humidity? These kids are cooling off the right way!

Fun Activities

Something I love about attending Habla Ya are the weekly activities! Last week I participated in my very first salsa lesson and visited the Miraflores locks at the Panama Canal. There are a world of things to do in Panama City so I appreciate that the school arranges fun things that students can participate in to see the city while they learn Spanish. This week I’m going bowling and probably salsa dancing again!

I'm holding a Panamanian flag in front of a view of a ship at the Panama Canal.

The Miraflores locks at the Panama Canal. Thank goodness I was there to guide the ship, I don’t know what they would’ve done without me! 😉

Reflecting on my first week

I’m truly satisfied with what I gained from my first week of Spanish immersion. Diving in headfirst is stimulating, challenging and ultimately the fastest way to see results.

My friendly Uber driver who took me to the Amador Causeway told me that properly using verbs is the heart of the Spanish language. This fact hit me hard when I realized in class that I’d been telling strangers that “I’m sexy” instead of that “I’m hot” (from the humidity)! Oh, sometimes it’s so fun to be me! Don’t expect your translation app to protect you from that catastrophic slip.

Aside from what I’ve learned in class and practiced on the street, I’ve now had two people tell me that in order to learn a language you have to think in that language. I catch myself saying sentences in English in my head and trying to translate them into Spanish. The truth is though, that they’re two very different languages and they don’t always translate to the same meaning.

As I begin my second week this is my greatest goal: to start thinking in Spanish. And perhaps to stop telling random strangers that I’m sexy!

A self-portrait of me at the Amador causeway with the cityscape as my backdrop.

My Spanish needs a lot more work, but I’m ready for it!

Have you ever participated in language immersion? If so I’d love to hear about it in the comments below! For more on my Spanish immersion experience, check out my Panama Travel Diary!

Want to attend a Bocas del Toro Spanish School? Read about my experience!

* Big thanks to Habla Ya for hosting me during my trip, all opinions on my blog will always be my own! <3

August 28, 2017


*This post may contain affiliate links, and I may receive a commission on purchases made through provided links (at no extra cost to you).

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