Why Be Multilingual in the Caribbean

Why Be(come) Multilingual in the Caribbean?

If asked how many languages are spoken/used in the Caribbean today, most people (and official bodies) would respond “four”, referring to 4 of the 6 official languages in the Caribbean, all European languages, namely,

  • Dutch (in 5 territories),
  • English (in 21 territories, including 2 officially bilingual territories),
  • French (in 4 territories), and
  • Spanish (in 3 territories).

The other 2 official languages, rarely mentioned, are Haitian and Papiamento. Both are Caribbean-born languages, with African and other roots and with European influences (especially in the area of vocabulary).


A typical map of the official languages of the Caribbean

The real answer is that there are over 70 languages used in the Caribbean today, including both the well-known official European languages named above and a majority of lesser-known languages. Of the 1,000 plus languages of the Americas, yes, 70 are in some degree of use across the 31 territories of the Caribbean (although Ethnologue.com only lists 23 languages in 28 countries – here we separate some countries into their territories because of geographical and historical reasons). Check out some FAQs from the Society for Caribbean Linguistics (SCL).

Caribbean linguistic groupings include indigenous Amerindian languages, European languages, African languages, Creole languages, sign languages (indigenous and foreign), and immigrant languages of various origins, including sign and religious languages. Linguistic situations of the Caribbean are complex, with many language users navigating between and among a variety of heritage languages, each with its own social status, and some with both national and official status.

A number of heritage languages are in various stages of fading away. Some are almost totally extinct, and some moribund, with few, if any, young native language users. This is in addition to the complexity of the living languages, their varieties and the often overlapping communities to which their users (speakers and signers) belong.

Defining the Caribbean

For those in the English-official Caribbean, discussions and definitions of the Caribbean usually involve only the island archipelago (or “insular” Caribbean), and include only a few territories of the continental circum-Caribbean or the rimlands (to use Allsopp’s 1996 term). The few continental territories that English speakers often include in a definition of the Caribbean are Belize, French Guiana, Guyana and Suriname. These are the so-called linguistic islands in a sea of Spanish and Portuguese, the languages of Iberia and Latin America (see map of Latin America below).


Inclusion of all of the continental rimlands would bring the total up to over 245 languages, one quarter of the languages of the Americas.

The majority language of the Caribbean is Spanish (currently the number 2 world language), with over 25 million speakers concentrated in only 3 territories of the Greater Antilles (one of which is officially bilingual). The population count would be higher if Belize and the ABC islands were included and, of course, even more if the Greater Caribbean were taken into consideration. However, there is no correspondence between numbers of speakers and numbers of nations: the majority of Caribbean states and territories, 21 out of 31, have English as an official language, a co-official language, and/or a language of education, affecting up to 10.5 million people, under half the number of Spanish speakers.

(On another note, the majority of English-official sovereign nations of the Americas are Caribbean/Antillean/West Indian. Of the 15 English-speaking nations of the Americas, 13 are Caribbean, including Bermuda. These do not include the 8 colonies – 5 British, 2 USA and 1 Dutch. If there were meetings of English-speaking nations of the Americas, the greatest number of national flags around that table would be Caribbean, but 355 million people occupy the 2 biggest English-speaking nations of the Americas. Ironically, the biggest doesn’t actually have English, or any other, as an official language at the national level.)

So Spanish has the highest number of native speakers in the Caribbean, Haitian is in second place, English Creole varieties together would be in third place, and English is in fourth place, in spite of its place as the official language of most Caribbean territories.

Bilingualism in the Caribbean Today

Now, although English occupies a prominent position in officialdom and in the language and language education policies of so many Caribbean territories (even an Anglicisation policy in one), bilingualism in unrelated languages is not uncommon (Belize, Dominica, Puerto Rico, St Lucia and Sint Maarten, for example).

Bilingualism in lexically related languages (e.g., English and English Creole, and French and French Creole, the latter a.k.a. Patois throughout the English-official Caribbean) is actually far more common, and is the norm in many territories. Unfortunately, because of historical issues, language attitudes and a generally complex sociohistorical relationship with English, English Creole varieties are not given the position, status and chance afforded to other languages, and of course to their speakers.

With regard to European languages and Creole languages (especially where they share vocabulary and continue to co-exist), the relationships are varied, intense and often appear to be problematic and challenging, particularly where they meet in the arena of formal education.

But even in such cases where Creole languages are denied their due, language awareness and even pride seem to be relatively high. Many Trinidadians and Tobagonians, for example, are greatly intrigued by word origins or etymologies, given the numbers of words of various origins in our English and English Creoles. But many confess that they are challenged by learning a foreign language in the formal, now “normal”, way.

 Esoteric or Essential? 

In this day and age, when English (or Globish?) is a universal language, those of us born into an English-official space should consider ourselves lucky. Shouldn’t we? After all, 13 of our 21 territories are independent or sovereign countries, and are counted among the 67 sovereign states where English is an official language (there are 27 non-sovereign entities as well). English is now the language of the world and competent native and non-native speakers of English are in demand in almost every country as teachers, writers, editors, proofreaders, translators and interpreters and more.

So, is learning another language really necessary and essential in today’s world? Or is it something only for the gifted or those who can afford an idle luxury or both? Shouldn’t we be focusing on English instead and “improving” our command of English (usually a standard(ised) dialect of English)? English is, after all, one of the heritage languages of the Caribbean and its peoples.

Linguists say yes, by all means, learn about the history and origins of English, its linguistic structures and how it is used, but we neglect our other heritage languages, spoken and signed, to our peril.

The Benefits of Multilingualism

Googling “multilingualism” throws up sites that focus on the benefits of multilingualism in the job place, the cognitive, neurological, psychological, social and personal benefits of multilingualism and how to and why become multilingual.


Human beings are linguistically diverse. Human societies are linguistically diverse. Multilingualism is actually the norm or used to be the norm on every continent, whether officially recognised or not. In Africa, Asia and Oceania, it is still the norm, in Europe it is promoted, and in the Americas, it used to be normal but now almost seems an aberration and something undesirable or unattainable.

In spite of some resistance to learning “foreign” languages, the Caribbean continues to be a multilingual space. Not only is it multilingual now, but it used to be even more so, leading one linguist, Mervyn Alleyne, to describe the Caribbean as a “linguistic graveyard”, especially for Amerindian languages. The Indigenous Caribbean no doubt looked more like the rest of the Indigenous Americas at one point.


 Indigenous Amerindian languages of northern South America

 The English-official Caribbean

Most of the English-official Caribbean (and two non-English-official) belongs to CARICOM, the Caribbean Community.


In the CARICOM Statement of the Ideal Caribbean Person, multilingualism is not specifically upheld and promoted, but can find itself embraced in these two points, namely, “other diversity” and “cultural heritage”:

  • sees ethnic, religious and other diversity as a source of potential strength and richness;
  • has an informed respect for the cultural heritage.

Each territory has the space and the challenge to accept the diversity from within and this prepares us for understanding and relating to the diversity among our neighbours.

The Multilingual Caribbean and Its People

Caribbean linguists (language scientists) aim to understand the history and extent of multilingualism in the Caribbean, and in so doing, appreciate who Caribbean people are today, polyglot or not. The Society for Caribbean Linguistics (SCL) considered the theme of linguistic diversity in one of its recent conferences. All SCL conferences call for an engagement with the languages of the region and attendant issues.


Caribbean(ist) linguists have been engaged in the analysis and documentation of our languages and language situations for several decades, many pioneering work in previously neglected areas. These linguistics studies have a clear application to formal education, language and language education policies, bi- and multilingualism (and also varilingualism), sustainable and ongoing language and culture development, communication, issues of identity, heritage and ethnicity, nation-building, diplomacy and international relations, linguistic rights and discrimination, and language revitalisation.

To understand human language and languages as an integral and inseparable part of human culture is to begin to understand human issues of social and cultural identity. This is the work of linguists in the Caribbean and beyond.

Why become multilingual in the Caribbean, or why become a polyglot? If Caribbean people recognise ourselves as historically multilingual, we will take up our rightful place in a globalizing world. Why be multilingual in the Caribbean? Because we are.

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