Linguistic Landscape of Panama in the Early 21st Century: An Indigenous Orthography Striving to Decolonize

  • Ginés A. Sánchez AriasEmail author
Reference work entry


Newcomers from all over the world emigrate to the Isthmus of Panama bringing along their culture and language. Today, at least 15 different languages make up the linguistic landscape of Panama. The predominant language is Spanish and the language of international business is English. Two Chinese languages are growing in importance while Hebrew, Hindi, and Arabic have also taken root as important enclaves of merchant activity across the urban spaces of Panama. As world trade becomes increasingly multilateral, new linguistic spaces become operational in cities sometimes replacing existing dominant languages, but in other instances diversifying opportunities as alternatives to the established oligopolies. Countries with high rates of economic growth like Panama see more dynamism on this aspect. Non-Latin scripts also diversify the legible landscape of Panama. Not only are these scripts increasingly practical to learn for their utility in the expanding market, but also for their potential to make a multicultural landscape more heterogeneous. By no means does this mean that diversity is voided of animosity across cultural groups. Indeed, towards the periphery of Panama’s linguistic landscape, among the least powerful folk, in terms of their economic power, indigenous communities become vulnerable to conspicuous actors and state institutions. At the border with capitalism, this otherwise illegible landscape includes seven indigenous languages that together make up ~12% of the population of Panama. On the physical and cultural borders with these communities, national education regimes are characteristically colonial, marking the injustice of cultural hegemony that continues to obscure self-determination of indigenous people. In turn, some groups resist by innovating alternative pedagogies and engaging literacy critically. Among the largest indigenous group in Panama, the Ngäbe, a new orthography and pedagogy has surfaced against the odds. It has the potential of being a model for decolonization, revitalization, and empowerment across the region. The changing linguistic landscape of Panama not only takes shape from international commercial flows but also from indigenous intellect and purpose.


Indigenous Writing systems Panama Decolonial Hegemony 


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Panama CityPanama

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