Given the speed with which we moved to Panamá, I had almost no opportunity to study Spanish before we got here--enough to know that the grammar was very similar to Portuguese, that verb conjugation was nearly identical, and that pronunciation was radically different for some consonants (depending on placement in the word) and diphthongs. The two languages were enough alike, though, to give me some confidence. There had been my learning experience in Brasil, and I felt if I could survive that, I could survive anything.
Plus I was assured (incorrectly) by acquaintances in Boquete (source of most of my erroneous information in my 4 years here), that it wasn't necessary to know Spanish, that lots of Panamanians spoke English and one could get along easily without it.
Now, that's probably true. Then, it was flat out wrong.
We bought land rather quickly, decided on a contractor even more so (lucked out on both of those decisions), and pretty soon we were involved in construction.
Because I'm out of the construction loop these days, I don't know how it works now, but then, if you were smart, you served as your own purchasing agent. Given how one of our future neighbors is going to be fleeced so badly he'll be lucky to survive with his shorts, I think it's still a good idea. The builder was the general contractor and he gave you lists of what you needed. Because I had been in project management, I knew to allow for lead time, etc., so it wound up being an invaluable learning experience for me and an unusually smooth construction for this area--we moved into our house only 6 weeks later than we had been promised, a delay that was not due to the builder. From start to moving in, the house was built in less than 6 months. Even counting the bodega, which was built first, it was something like 7 months more or less.
So Chief Purchasing Agent Joyce, lists in hand, had to go to David and deal with construction supply companies where not a word of English was spoken at that time.
As happened in Brasil, although in a different subject area, I quickly enlarged my pathetically small Spanish vocabulary in a very specialized sector--construction terms. Those were pretty easy to learn. However, nouns are nowhere near enough--verbs get the action done.
Dictionaries are inadequate, to put it mildly, to look up verbs given that Spanish verbs are so irregular thanks to the prevalence of the stem-changers. Portuguese saved my life because I knew, from experience in Brasil, what I had to look for. Differences in conjugation in the tenses I needed were so minor as to be ignorable. Spanish uses more reflexive verbs than Portuguese does (and orders of magnitude more than English)--at least the way it's spoken here--but that was ok--I could still understand and be understood and at that time, that's all I cared about. When I didn't know a word in Spanish, I would desperately fall back on Portuguese and hope. That worked about 50% of the time; the other 50% of the time, I would get polite but blank stares. Since I am Italian by ethnic heritage, I used my hands a lot, searched for different ways of saying what I wanted to get across--and it all worked.
There were a few minor problems--misunderstandings--but nothing lethal. And I learned, believe me, I learned.
So then came daily life. I knew from Brasil that if I wanted to be comfortable here and minimize unpleasant experiences, I had better improve my Spanish. You simply don't understand a people or a culture until you speak the language.
One of the greater ironies of my life is the pronunciation of "r" and "rr". Because I grew up in a household where Italian was spoken often, I was quite comfortable with rolling my "r"s just like you need to do in Spanish. BUT one of the bigger differences in Portuguese is that, not only do you NOT roll "r", but depending on the position in the word, you either aspirate it--it just about disappears at the end of words like "por"--or it becomes an "h" sound ("rio" is pronounced "HEE-o" in Portuguese, for instance). I had to beat it out of my pronunciation, suppress that ability entirely.
Then I moved to Panamá--and discovered that an ability which I'd had for over 50 years had disappeared in less than 10. I have as bad a time as most linguistically-challenged Americans with "r". The Espinosas are constantly and gently correcting me, and I am constantly and far from gently frustrated. I've got it back partially, but I mourn for my lost ease. Since there are other differences that come up practically in every sentence, I despair of ever losing my Portuguese accent.
Another aspect I had a terrible time with, although I've just about mastered it, is the use of reflexive verbs. English uses what we call a passive voice; Spanish uses reflexives, far, far more than in Portuguese. Same is true with the concept of transitive and intransitive verbs--except for the usual culprits in any language ("to be" and "to have"), Spanish doesn't have intransitive verbs--it uses reflexives.
I'm still struggling with indirect pronoun redundancy, although I'm getting there, I'm getting there. Brasilian Portuguese just about ignores it, which is totally symptomatic of that laid-back people, so I never learned it.
And finally, I'll never forgive Spanish for not having the marvelous, the glorious short-cut constructions that allow you to avoid having to use the plural conjugations except in certain cases. Here in Panamá, I've had to learn 5 conjugations for each tense; in Brasil, I rarely needed more than 3 in any tense and only occasionally 4. I'm also much, much fonder of the way Portuguese sounds due in great part to its nasality, second only to French; it's so much softer than Spanish which, I've decided, is the harshest of the Romance languages.
There's really only one way to learn, and that's to jump in there and talk. And listen. Again, from experience in Brasil, at first I paid close attention to advertising, because it's always pitched to the lowest common linguistic denominator. I picked up a lot of Spanish that way. Reading the newspaper every day helps a great deal. I'm advanced enough to ask Maritza to help me with constructions I simply don't understand. I say "advanced enough" because I have to understand the explanations in Spanish--neither she nor Ricardo speak English. But Maritza is a retired public school teacher and is used to dealing with children, so we get along just fine! Mary and I alternate weeks going to their house for Spanish lessons and visiting; she goes for formal lessons, I take my notebook with phrases I don't understand, constructions that have me baffled, and questions as to when you use one word and not another. I feel I've made a huge leap in my understanding in just two sessions.
Plus, she feeds me. What an incentive to learn!
The big exception: I don't do well on the phone. I dislike it in English and avoid it whenever possible in Spanish. Many times the connections are not good, cellular to cellular, and just trying to figure out what's being said, never mind translating it, is nearly impossible, what with static, the dialect, and the fact that in the early days when I asked people to speak more slowly, they 100% of the time doubled or tripled their output per second. So I don't ask anymore.
One of the paradoxes is the better I get in Spanish, the more a salesperson or someone else will either slip into dialect or use idioms I've never heard before and ramp up their speech to Mach 2 (if I'm lucky) or Mach 4 (if I'm not). I'm totally familiar with this from Brasil, and I'm resigned to it here, although there are times when I wind up feeling I've made no progress whatsoever in the language. I paraphrase and ask questions; so far I've managed to survive. But I still hate the phone.
I download and print out at least one article from La Prensa nearly daily, and read it--for vocabulary, for grammatical constructions and for Panamanian usages. Many times the paper is boring, but last Sunday's edition had a whole section on the food crisis that was every bit as good in its local focus as the series of articles that have been running in the NY Times and the WA Post. I had bought a hard copy at our mercadito; I still have that section.
Around the house, we speak a mixture of Spanish and English. I've gotten to the point that at times I have to search my memory for the English word because I'm so used to using the Spanish one. There are many times when there is no English equivalent, so we wind up speaking Spanish out of necessity.
I can't understand people who refuse to learn the language. They miss out on the wonderful whimsical Panamanian humor, for example, and on important aspects of their lives, their culture--and most importantly, their food! My life would be far poorer if I couldn't exchange gossip with Darío, or joke or laugh with him (why do I get the feeling that his wife has been listening to his jokes for 40 years, and he's ecstatic with his new audience?). I would miss out on the warmth and affection of the Espinosas who have for all intents and purposes taken us into their family. I would never learn to avoid pitfalls that you can fall into if you're ignorant of the language.
I do study (not nearly enough). I have some excellent workbooks, particularly for verbs, all of which can be purchased through Amazon.com. Here is a list of those and other books I've found useful:
Concise Oxford Spanish Dictionary, 2nd edition. Available locally--we picked ours up at PriceSmart, I believe
501 Spanish Verbs by Kendris and Kendris. I consider this indispensable. I have its companion for Portuguese. I bought mine through Amazon.com before we moved here.
Practice Makes Perfect: Spanish Verbs and Tenses by Richmond. Outstanding--I can't recommend it more highly. BUT--you have to have the self-discipline to drill yourself.
Practice Makes Perfect: Spanish Pronouns and Prepositions by Richmond. Ditto.
Larousse Diccionario de Sinónimos Antónimos. We just recently picked this up at Rey, and I'm starting to use it more and more.
Read, read, read--La Prensa for starters. Something else I've found useful (and it will be more so as my Spanish improves) is to buy a book I already have in English and read it in translation or the original Spanish. Rest and Relax in Boquete has books in the original Spanish by Isabel Allende and Arturo-Perez-Reverte, two of my all-time favorite authors. I picked up a couple in Spanish last time I was there. Mary also has the first Harry Potter book in Spanish, which I think is even better because Rowling pitched that book to pre-adolescents in a marvelously non-condescending way. Almost everyone has a Harry Potter book (we, like most of the known universe, have all 7).
She also has another booklet she picked up somewhere in David; she says it's available in just about any supermarket in David: Escuela Para Todos 2008. This is a 192 page booklet with short, relatively simple, informative articles. She does not speak Spanish as well as I do, so this might be a nice resource for beginners and just beyond beginners. I haven't read it yet, although I will sooner or later, since the articles sound interesting.
These resources may not suit everyone, and I'm sure there are many, many others equally as good, but these are the ones of which I have first-hand experience. Unlike Portuguese textbooks, I haven't found an equivalently good Spanish textbook, so no recommendation there.
I hope these are of some use.
5/12/08: This in from Don Ray of Chiriquí Chatter: "http://www.mangolanguages.com/ has a pretty desent free portion that will assist with getting started in Spanish."
5/13/08: A few more good language links--these from Mary Farmer in the Comments section (check for descriptions):
For iPod users: Learn Spanish--Survival Guide
For free, written material: About.com