Tiny nation set to go bilingual
Los Angeles Times

Sept. 4, 2005

Carol J. Williams

PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad and Tobago - After 200 years of turning its back on geography, this English-speaking former British colony is searching for its Latin American soul.

Just seven miles off Venezuela and dappled with Spanish place names bestowed half a millennium ago by Christopher Columbus, Trinidad and Tobago has set the lofty goal of becoming a Spanish-speaking nation by 2020.

With this month's start of the new academic year, Spanish instruction will be compulsory in public schools from first grade through high school. Civil servants also are expected to attain basic proficiency in the language of the conquistadors.

The effort to transform the predominantly Indian- and African-origin islanders into bilingual citizens of Latin America is motivated by shifting trade ties, officials say. Today, Chile, Brazil and Costa Rica are more important partners than the Europeans with whom the Caribbean nation has long been politically aligned.

The oil and natural-gas industries also stand to benefit from bridging the linguistic gap with Venezuela, the hemisphere's biggest oil producer, whose president wants to reduce dependence on U.S. refineries and markets. Trinidad has more processing capacity than oil, and it would love to get the job of refining Venezuelan crude.

The strongest driver, however, may be the quixotic quest of Port-of-Spain, the capital, to be chosen as the seat of the emerging Free Trade Area of the Americas, an economic bloc of 800 million mostly Spanish-speaking consumers.

"A Venezuelan colleague told me that for years we've been like Siamese twins joined at the back. We never see each other," said Sharlene Yuille, an official with the government's Secretariat for the Implementation of

Spanish. Noting the geographic proximity to Venezuela, she said foreigners looking at a map of the Americas often assume that this is a Spanish-speaking country.

Only about 1,500 of Trinidad's 1.3 million citizens are Spanish-speakers, said Pedro Centeno, academic director of the Caribbean Institute of Languages and International Business.

Before March, when the government's Spanish program kicked off, English had been the sole official tongue since the British wrested control of the islands from Spain in 1797. East Indians, who make up 40 percent of the population, often speak Hindi, and smatterings of Chinese, French, Syrians and other ethnic groups also maintain their own linguistic traditions here in one of the most diverse countries in the Caribbean.

Some Trinidadians are skeptical of the Spanish initiative, arguing that too few Latin American tourists travel here to justify such an undertaking.

Tour guide Abder Jumar conceded that the language would probably be useful for those employed in international business but added, "I don't really see what it will do for most of us."