Jamaican Prime Minister Proposes Spanish as Second Official Language, Locals Uncertain About Fate of Patois

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Andrew Holness, Jamaica's new Prime Minister speaks after being sworn in by Governor General Sir Patrick Allen, in Kingston, Jamaica, Thursday, March 3, 2016. Photo by Collin Reid/AP
Andrew Holness, Jamaica’s new Prime Minister speaks after being sworn in by Governor General Sir Patrick Allen, in Kingston, Jamaica, Thursday, March 3, 2016. Photo by Collin Reid/AP

KINGSTON, Jamaica — What is Jamaica’s true “official language”? Does it have two? Should it acquire a “second language” and if so, what should it be? These questions have had Jamaican commentators tied up in knots for the past week, ever since Prime Minister Andrew Holness remarked in Parliament that he would like to see Spanish as Jamaica’s “second language”, along with compulsory Spanish teaching in schools.

The prime minister made his comments on his return from a meeting of the Association of Caribbean States (ACS) in Cuba, referring to plans for enhanced cooperation on language learning with that country. His remarks plunged Jamaicans straight into the unresolved and sometimes fierce debate over the use — and acceptance — of Jamaican patois versus the English language.

The discussion continues to reflect considerable divisions in Jamaican society and culture, as well as perceived inequities in its educational system.

If you were to hop from one Caribbean island to the other, you might be surprised at the number of tongues the region speaks. The official languages of Caribbean territories are English, Spanish, Dutch and French, reflecting the region’s colonial legacy, as well as Haitian Creole (Haiti’s official language — along with French — since 1987) and Papiamento (which became the official language of Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao in 2003, alongside Dutch). There are also several forms of Creole — including Jamaican patois/patwa — and languages such as Garifuna, spoken by indigenous minorities in St Vincent.

So, some territories do have two official languages, while others, like Jamaica perhaps, have one official and one semi-official language. The debate as to whether Jamaican patois is a language quite separate from English is an old one, but the argument that patois should be recognized as Jamaica’s official language has not gained traction in officialdom.

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