THE EDITOR: A few days ago, I had a fascinating encounter at a restaurant-bar in Arima. Shortly after arriving at the establishment, I waved to a waitress to make her aware that I was ready to place my order.
When she came over, before I could start elaborating on the feast that I had planned, she quickly informed me in her best English that she did not speak any English. Fortunately, I was able to quickly switch to Spanish to complete my order. The interaction, however, left me in deep thought afterwards.
Firstly, it occurred to me that my nonchalant interaction with the waitress was a stark reflection of the very real socio-demographic and linguistic transformation that is currently underway in TT.
There is no doubt that in the very near future Spanish will become commonplace, be it formally or unofficially, in every sector of society, whether it be in local restaurants, government offices, the banks, companies, and schools etc, due to the unprecedented new wave of Venezuelan immigration to TT.
I also wondered how different my experience at the restaurant would have been had I not been fluent in Spanish. This led to me also pondering how other nationals would fare in a similar scenario, and how much the country in general was prepared to provide goods and services to our Spanish-speaking residents. Unfortunately, we are far from prepared. But we should have been.
In 2007, there was a national plan called Vision 2020 – Operational 2007-2010 – which promoted the introduction of Spanish as second language in TT with the aim of preparing “our citizens for better opportunities in a globalised environment.” According to the document, the teaching of Spanish would be included in the primary and secondary schools throughout the country.
The Government’s plan was to “intensify efforts to make Spanish the first foreign language of Trinidad and Tobago…[which] will enhance the ability of exporters to exploit opportunities in the Latin American market…”
Fast forward to the present day: 22 years after the first iteration of Vision 2020, Spanish is far from being our first foreign language. Furthermore, learning, and being able to speak, Spanish is no longer an abstract goal but has become a matter of survival as we usher in what can only be described as our new normal.
With the amnesty that is being extended to all Venezuelan nationals, regardless of their legal circumstances – which will see that successful applicants receive an identification card, allowing them to live and work in TT and be protected by the labour laws of this land, among other things – the playing field is now equal for both Venezuelans and Trinidadians/Tobogonians as it relates to employment, at least in theory.
This particular reality has caused much panic in many quarters of society for fear that jobs will be “taken away” from locals.
In this regard, a 2018 OECD/ILO study has since disputed that negative perceptions on immigrants in developing countries are unjustified as their impact on the labour market, economic growth and public finances are generally positive.
Furthermore, in theory, the identification card, which will be given to successful Venezuelan applicants, will prevent employers from exploiting migrant workers by offering lower wages and so on. Therefore, if Venezuelans are hired over locals it would not be because they are cheaper source of labour, as this would now be illegal.
The harsh reality is that if Venezuelan migrant workers are hired over locals it would be due to the fact that we are still not prepared for “opportunities in a globalised environment.” If we do not speak Spanish, how can we compete for a job in a country where Spanish will undoubtedly become, and already is, a mode in which we conduct business?
ANDRE BLACKBURN via e-mail