Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Country Profile: The Languages of Panama

Our last several country profiles have looked at countries on the eastern side of the Atlantic, including Mauritania, Moldova, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Oman, so today we'll be switching things up by focusing on the languages of Panama, which is located on the other side of the ocean.

The Official Language

It should come as no surprise that the sole official language of Panama is Spanish. This Romance language, which is spoken throughout the vast majority of the Americas, is the native language of nearly 3 million Panamanians. In addition, over 500,000 more Panamanians use it as a second language, as it is the country's most important language in terms of government, business and education.

Other Languages

While Spanish certainly dominates Panama's linguistic landscape, the country is actually home to a number of other languages. Panama's most spoken indigenous language is Ngäbere, also known as Guaymí, which is a member of the Chibchan language family. There are nearly 170,000 native speakers of Ngäbere in Panama, as well as a few thousand in neighboring Costa Rica.

Panama City, the capital of Panama.
Although it's not technically a language, Panamanian Creole English is also spoken by a significant number of Panamanians. This dialect of Jamaican Creole English, which contains elements from English, Spanish, and Ngäbere, is spoken by nearly 270,000 people in Panama.

Other indigenous languages include Kuna, Buglere, Emberá, and Woun Meu. Kuna and Buglere are both Chibchan languages like Ngäbere. There are over 57,000 native speakers of Kuna in Panama, primarily residing on the San Blas Islands, as well as in the cities of Panama City and Colón. Buglere, a language of the Ngäbe indigenous group, is spoken by about 18,000 Panamanians.

Emberá, on the other hand, is a dialect continuum within the small family of Chocoan languages. Its various dialects are spoken by over 20,000 people in southeastern Panama, as well as many more in northwestern Colombia. Another Chocoan language spoken in both Panama and Colombia is Woun Meu, also known as Wounaan, which is spoken by nearly 7,000 people.

There are still several other languages left to mention. One of the more surprising entries on the list is Hakka Chinese, a major group of varieties of Chinese spoken all over the world. There are over 6,000 native speakers of Hakka Chinese in Panama. The country is also home to over 3,000 native speakers of Teribe, a Chibchan language spoken in northwestern Panama.

Finally, there are two languages with an unknown number of speakers in Panama. First, there's Epena, a Chocoan language with a few thousand speakers in Colombia and Ecuador. Panama is also home to an unknown number of speakers of Yiddish, a Germanic language.