There is no linguistic reality to the prestige of one speech over another. Belize Kriol is a real language and the term ‘dialect’ will not be used in this book…
In general, it could be said that Belize Kriol is spoken by the Creoles of Belize. However, there is not a clear definition of who is a Creole in Belize, and many people who speak Kriol as their first language would not consider themselves Creole. Historically, anyone who has AFRO-EUROPEAN ancestry is considered to be a Creole. Today this is used to denote a linguistic and cultural identity rather than a genetic trait. Some people who consider themselves to be Creoles can be lighter in skin color than someone who claims only European ancestry. There are non-Afro European families that have been in Belize for generations and have Kriol as their first language. Also, there has been considerable cultural mixing. It is reported that many Spanish-speaking immigrants, when they come from the neighboring Central American nations, desire to speak Kriol so they can better identify as Belizeans…
For years many Belizeans have been adamant that Kriol should be kept out of Belizean schools. They have a valid concern that with English as the official language of the country, and considering the value of English as a “world” language, any time spent on Kriol would only confuse and restrict students from development of English proficiency…
There is much research on languages around the world proving that students learn to read and write most easily in their first language. They are then more capable of learning to read, write, and speak other languages. This is so well established that as long ago as 1953 the United Nations declared, “the best medium for teaching a child is his mother tongue…we recommend that the use of the mother tongue be extended to as late a stage in education as possible.” (UNESCO 1953)
— Excerpts from “The Song of Kriol: A Grammar of the Kriol Language of Belize” by Ken Decker, SIL International, © Belize Kriol Project 2005
When will the Jewel shine again? In April 1989, our football fans celebrated “Belize’s Glory” at the MCC Grounds when our young men made history with a 3-nil win against Nicaragua in CONCACAF club play; thirty-two years later, last Friday, our talented youth, handicapped by long bus travel and short-staffed due to the absence of some veteran stars, lost by the same score, 3-nil, to a new generation of Nicaraguan nationals, proud and understandably euphoric at avenging that historic loss.
What next can go wrong for the Jewel?
Presently, amidst the gradually waning sense of urgency and terror visited upon us by Covid-19 in March of 2020, with the attendant economic collapse and escalating rise in violent crimes – domestic abuse, robberies and murder — most citizens have, like in a daydream, almost forgotten that, regardless of our particular viewpoint or convictions on the matter, the political fate of nation-state Belize still hangs on the scales of justice at the ICJ. Meanwhile, our Prime Minister suddenly whisks off to meet with the Guatemalan president, at the invitation of that foreign leader, as if we Belizeans are some side dish, even while there is much publicity for the impending visit of the American vice-president Kamala Harris with the presidents of both Mexico and Guatemala.
And even for those who maintain consciousness of the still live ICJ “grenade” that we hope will be detonated without major harm to the Jewel, there is still a little something happening “under the radar” that may seem innocent or unimportant, trivial even to some, but quite concerning and even worrying to a few nostalgic old-timers. It may even be symptomatic of the general sense of national patriotic malaise creeping up on an unsuspecting people – caught up in our political squabbles, economic and survival struggles, and distractions with one sensational crime after another. Has anyone in our National Institute of Culture noticed a new phenomenon amongst children of middle and upper class Belizean society, whose parents can afford not only television, but also an individual tablet as an additional teaching aid for their children, which may have given some of them an edge in the competitive sphere of scholarships for higher education? Time will tell how long-lasting will be the effect of this modern and exciting electronic gadget, but one observable negative so far is that a number of these young children in the five to ten-year-old group no longer talk Kriol as their first language, and a few simply cannot.
While some Belizeans in the diaspora may consider it a worthwhile tradeoff when their American-born or raised children cannot communicate in the mother tongue of their parents, it is now a reality that some Belize-born and raised children now have a mother tongue that is not Kriol, or Garifuna, or Maya, but American English. Maybe the tablets are not all to blame; what about the prevalence of parental employment at call centers or in the tourism industry, where English is a priority?
Maybe there is need for a national debate on the desirability and usefulness of Kriol in the future maintenance of our national fabric and culture. In St. Vincent they are trying to recover the lost use of the Garifuna language. Even in Dangriga, the elders some years ago saw the need to establish a special museum, Gulisi, to encourage young Garinagu to learn and speak their Garifuna language with pride. The original inhabitants of this territory, the Mopan, Kekchi and Yucatec Maya, have also made some moves to preserve their Maya languages.
As evidenced in the excerpt quoted at the beginning of this editorial, there has been some thought of preserving our Belize Kriol language, an effort inspired by Dr. Colville Young’s 1989 publication, “Language and Education in Belize,” and sparked by the 1995 formation of the National Kriol Council and its Belize Kriol Project. Indeed, as the generally universal means of communication across the nation, binding us all together as a unique people, the Kriol language has evolved over time, but retains a basic flavor that is recognizable wherever one may encounter a son/daughter of the Jewel. As the legendary Eddie “Seferino Cloudino” Coleman used to proudly boast on his mid-morning radio show, Kriol is one language where “di wossa yo talk ahn, di betta ih souhn.” Belize Kriol is unmistakable; and until now it has seemed indestructible. But is it? And if it indeed continues to survive and thrive, are there to be any negative effects on those young citizens who lose it?
When Andy Palacio visited Nicaragua back in the late 1970s or early 1980s, he was reportedly surprised and dismayed to find only a couple elders who remembered and could still speak Garifuna. The Spanish language had dominated, and the Garifuna language was no longer spoken or even known by the younger generation.
Decay and decline start somewhere. Has it started for Kriol right here in Belize? Is it a good thing, for the new generation to speak only English, for greater advancement in their education, and not develop the once taken-for-granted ability to communicate easily in Belize Kriol? Will the Belizean identity and our unity as a people suffer? And if it is only one segment of the society that loses their Kriol, what does that say or imply for their future involvement, contribution to and participation with the rest of their Kriol-speaking brothers and sisters in the Belizean community? Food for thought, Belizeans.