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Do Jamaicans Speak Spanish: Should it Become its Second Language?

It is widely acknowledged that English is the official first language of Jamaica. However, the reality is that the majority of Jamaicans speak a variety which many other native English speakers find hard to recognize as the same language. In this article, we will discuss a hot topic on the island: Should Spanish become Jamaica’s second language?

Experts estimate only 200,000 Jamaicans are fluent in the English language, with more than 4 million using Jamaican Patois, also known as Jamaican Creole, as their first language. It is thought that the street language developed in the 17 th century from a mixture of English and African languages, which were used by West African slaves in Jamaica's sugar plantations. It exists mainly as a spoken language, with standard English used for most writing throughout the country.

There has been some controversy over the language, with a debate over whether Jamaican Patois should be named the country’s official language. At the end of the day, Haiti's Patois is not considered French. While the majority of inhabitants can speak Jamaican Patois, some consider it to be the language of the uneducated. Although all Jamaican children are taught English at school, the ability to speak the language is often used to indicate a person’s social class.

A map of the Caribeean featuring Jamaica

Whether you agree with Jamaican Patois being the official national language or not, it is easy to see why the government may have concerns about the majority of its population speaking a language that the rest of the world can not understand.

While English is the main language taught in all Jamaican schools, there have been calls recently for Spanish to be added to the curriculum as well. In Belize, where almost half of the population speaks Spanish, the language is taught in school, some lessons are in Spanish and multilingualism is widely accepted as a national trait. Speaking English is not a requirement for citizenship in Belize. In 2012, the Spanish Ambassador to Jamaica declared that Spanish should become Jamaica's official second language in order to attract new business opportunities. This call has recently been taken up by intellectuals and business circles.

In September 2015, The Jamaica Observer stated that given the weight of Spanish in the world, being number 2 only to Chinese, and the fact that the US is becoming a bilingual country, Spanish should become Jamaica's second language. The article also points at language being at the heart of economic success in countries such as India, and how Cuba is preparing for new times by introducing English in its curriculum. Historically, there has been a flow of Jamaican immigration into Cuba, where Jamaican English Patois is still spoken by the older generation.

In an interview with the Jamaican Observer newspaper, the ambassador said: "I get the impression that people in Jamaica see the language (Spanish) from an academic point of view. I see it as a professional tool that could empower the youth with access to many professional opportunities. Jamaica is looking to diversify its economy, is looking to attract tourists from countries in Latin America, and looking to expand its trade and investment." Geographically, it also makes sense as Jamaica’s neighbors, Cuba and the Dominican Republic, have 20 million Spanish-speaking inhabitants. Jamaica itself has 43 embassies and consulates. With such a large number of Spanish-speaking countries, the language has more than 410 million speakers worldwide.

In today’s global labor market, the ability to speak multiple languages is becoming the norm. Language is now at the heart of most education systems across the world. Chinese school-children learn English, and Cuba recently announced that all university graduates must be able to speak English. In the Netherlands, English is compulsory in all schools, which results in around 86% of the population speaking the language. While, experts agree that English remains the international language of business and politics, there is gathering evidence of the importance of being able to speak a second “international” language, such as Spanish or Mandarin.