Five years ago, when I was a senior in high school and just recently bitten by the travel bug, I visited Panama for the first time. It was an exciting trip – I faced my fears and went white water rafting, visited a coffee plantation, studied Spanish, and met my best friend. Since I was on a school trip and studying Spanish, I didn’t have a chance to explore much of the country – though I can tell you that the best fried chicken you will ever eat can be found at Nelvis in Boquete.
I know Panama is more than the Panama Canal and Boquete and since I’m now 3 busses and $30 from the border, it only made sense to head south to continue my Spanish practice.
Habla Ya is the top-rated Spanish school in Panama and has three locations in – Panama City, Boquete, and Bocas del Toro. I promised my best friend to never return to Boquete without her and I’ll take the beach over a city any day so Bocas del Toro was the obvious choice.
I had intended to spend two full weeks studying Spanish in Bocas del Toro with Habla Ya but, unfortunately, had to cut the trip short to only 9 days due to obligations back in Playas del Coco.
My goal heading to Habla Ya was to improve to a conversationally fluent level.
My level of Spanish is frustrating. I took a few years in high school that I really don’t count but also studied for a month in Orosi, Costa Rica two years ago with Montana Linda and again this summer with my friend. However, despite living in Central America, I’ve never actually USED much of my Spanish. You know what happens when you don’t use a language? You forget it.
I’ve completely forgotten the majority of the grammar rules beyond the present tense but in the past month I’ve reached a level where I am comfortable communicating when I absolutely have to. I spent a solid three months refusing to speak a word of Spanish while listening to everyone else talk so most of the Spanish I use now I’ve learned through listening. For that reason, I know my grammar is all over the place. I have no idea how to conjugate the past and mess up reflexive verbs 50% of the time. I’m capable of communicating and (usually) being understood but I want to actually speak properly, which was why I headed back to the classroom.
I arrived at Habla Ya on a Sunday afternoon, feeling confident after independently crossing the Costa Rica/Panama border. The school was easy to find – everyone I asked knew exactly where it was. Orientation took about half an hour, including a verbal test. (I had already taken a written test online.) I panicked a bit when it was time for the test but felt pretty confident after – I felt that I did an okay job until we reached the past tense. I had already taken a written test online which had also gone well, until I reached the reflexive verbs section. The test asks that you leave the question blank if you’re unsure of an answer so even though I have some basic reflexive verb knowledge, I decided to minimize my Spanish level just a bit to stay at a level where I could review and learn without being overwhelmed.
I think my plan worked a little too well, as I was placed in A1, which is the most basic level possible – usually for those with no prior knowledge of the language. It was a bit underwhelming but I chose to stick it out and use it as a way to get the basics firmly cemented in my brain.
I think it’s important to note that I did NOT ask to switch to a higher class – I made the choice to stay in A1 and re-learn the basics. However, there were others who chose to switch class levels in my time there as Habla Ya is committed to putting everyone in an appropriate language class.
Group classes at Habla Ya Bocas del Toro run from 8am-12pm with one twenty minute break in the middle. My teacher, Ashley, normally teaches in Panama City but was helping out in Bocas del Toro while I was there.
To my understanding, the teachers have a general curriculum and timeline they need to follow for each group level. This means that, to an extent, everyone who comes through Habla Ya receives the same class and that there are no huge discrepancies if you change teachers from week to week or travel between the different school locations.
I think teaching people who have no background knowledge of a language is difficult, especially when you’re teaching adults. (You can’t just hold up flashcards of animals, like I did teaching English to little kids in Honduras.) I was impressed by how well Ashley handled the class as we ranged from people who spoke literally no Spanish to those who knew the basics to me. She spoke little English in the classroom but was still able to address questions other students had. I also met and chatted with two of the other teachers, Tonis and Eduardo, and heard nothing but praise for either for them the time I was there.
This was my first time being in a group class while learning, which made things interesting. I’m shy and self-conscious by nature so I wasn’t sure how I would like being in a group class but it actually turned out really well. A bonus to taking a group class is that you meet more people and often automatically have someone to go exploring with.
Four hours a day is a LOT of Spanish, something I learned at Montana Linda. I always imagine my brain swelling with knowledge and then going “Nope, no more” when it just can’t process anything else by the end of the class. If you want to learn Spanish quickly, I do think 4 hours per day is the way to go. Habla Ya also offers private classes in the afternoon and several students who only had a short amount of time did both. (Crazy people!)
By the end of my week and a half, I felt more confident speaking. Since most of the class was a review for me, I put an emphasis on learning new vocabulary – yes, I even made flashcards #nerd – and that really helped me feel more confident in my speaking. I also spent a lot of time talking to others in Spanish, including a few of the teachers, and even though it was still not grammatically correct, I managed to get my point across. Communication, I think, is more important than having perfect grammar.
The best part of studying on an island? All the things you get to do AFTER class.
Bocas del Toro is an interesting beach town – I won’t say much more about it now other than I really appreciate the orientation Habla Ya gives of the town. Even better, they set up activities for EVERY day of the week, ranging from sunset catamaran tours to movie night to beach trips. I had planned on taking a few of these…but I somehow managed to miss the tour to Zapatilla the day after I arrive by not realizing my cell phone hadn’t automatically adjusted to the new time zone and then the sunset catamaran tour was cancelled due to rain.
I did, however, get to join in with the weekly dinner held at one of the restaurants and I loved that it gave us all an opportunity to get to know each other. Most days I also went to lunch with a few of the girls from my class and on the weekend I visited Parki Point and Playa Estrella with new friends.
Overall, I loved my time at Habla Ya. It was a week and a half well-spent. It reminded me how much I love being in a classroom and miss learning. My friend’s Tico husband even made a comment that I have more confidence speaking in Spanish now, which was a serious compliment as before I nearly always ran in the opposite direction when he talked to me.
I am really looking forward to continuing my Spanish-learning journey…possibly at one of Habla Ya’s other locations!
I traveled to Bocas de Toro via Costa Rica and crossed the border independently in Sixaola.
You can read more about my Spanish-learning journey here.