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Panama 2016 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | FOCUS: ENGLISH PROFICIENCY IN PANAMA

Though Panama is a global hub for international business and tourism, low levels of English proficiency still represent an obstacle to fully realizing the country's potential.

English is neither an official language of Panama nor is it widely spoken amongst the general population. Instead, Spanish is Panama's official language and is spoken by most of the country's residents. However, important organizations in Panama, such as the many international companies with a local operation, work in both Spanish and English. English is taught mainly in private schools, with a greater prevalence in international schools. As of 2015, estimates are that English is fluently spoken by roughly 15% of the Panamanian population.

Although Panama has a reputation of being an English-friendly country, recent studies have suggested otherwise. According to the Education First English Proficiency Index 2015, Panama's English Proficiency Score is 48.77, ranking 11 out of 14 Latin American countries. A score of 48.77 is considered to be a low level of proficiency. Some regions speak dialects of English, mixed with Spanish and native languages.
Because Spanish is the official language of Panama, government documents must be completed in Spanish. Labels must be in Spanish for medicines and household products as well. Labels for other products may be written in English, but most are often in Spanish only. All other goods may have an English on it, but only if the sellers wish to target the English-speaking customer segment.

The USA Today business guide to Panama states that many Panamanian business professionals speak both Spanish and English, with Spanish as a first language. It is considered a sign of respect to attempt to converse in Spanish before talking in English or another language. It is also recommended that business cards be written in English and Spanish, with the Spanish side presented face up when exchanging cards. Though some officials in government may speak English, most official business documentation must be completed in Spanish. There are many English websites that provide business and investment advice in English.

Until recently, English was sparsely taught at public schools. Because Panama is trying to reinforce its position an international business hub, the government is encouraging students to learn English by promoting training programs abroad in international countries. The Panama Bilingual project was started in 2015, wherein teachers and pupils are trained abroad in English. The program is intended to train 10,000 teachers from 2015 to 2020.

There are several newspaper and news sites that produce content in English. Panama News is the leading English newspaper. BBC News – Panama also produces a wide variety of English news articles. Other media publishers of interest include Panama News, La Prensa, Bocas Breeze, EyeOnPanama.com, and Newsroom Panama. American television channels available in Panama include CNN, ESPN, FOX News, and HBO.
Most companies and organizations have employees who can speak English, and most professionals are bilingual. As expected, regions that focus on tourism will likely employ staff that can communicate easily in both English and Spanish.

Some regions have a higher rate of English proficiency than others. On the Caribbean coast, in cities such as Colón and Bocas del Toro, English is more prevalent because many families emigrated from English speaking regions of the Caribbean. With a growing expatriate population, English is becoming more common in these pockets of Panama. Popular expatriate regions are Panama City and the Western Highlands.
English speakers are most common in Panama City. Because of the American influence of the Panama Canal in Panama City, many businesses that provide services to and around the Canal are capable of working in English. The demand for English speakers is Panama City is continually increasing.
Though English is not widely spoken among the general public in Panama, its role as the language of choice in the tourism sector and for multinational firms present in the country cannot be underestimated. The government of Panama is making an effort to increase English proficiency, and the language is expected to become increasingly prevalent in the coming years.