Yesterday, April 23, was International Spanish Language Day, but it probably went unnoticed by most Trinis. One not-often-used measure of the success of British colonial rule in the Caribbean, and particularly in the island of Trinidad, is the eradication of the languages spoken by indigenous groups, by the Spanish – our longest colonial rulers – by the once dominant French, and by all new arrivals.
English became the only permissible language, and a high price was to be paid for not commanding it – my mother, now aged 100, was threatened as a child with having her tongue cut out for using another language. It did not matter once, because the world map was mainly coloured pink, but today's world, it’s a disservice to oneself and one’s country to be so utterly colonised linguistically.
Language is not a thing in itself, it is core to our tribal affiliation and cultural identity, but it is critical, too, to our ability to manage the world in all its complexities. In fact, being bi or multilingual is the norm worldwide, speaking a single language is not. Many native Latin Americans still speak indigenous pre-Columbian languages, but the majority now speak Spanish as well. The UN dubbed April 23 the Day of the Spanish Language to celebrate multilingualism and cultural diversity, and with good reason. After Mandarin, Spanish is the second most-spoken language in the world – around 500 million people use it as their first language. And we are part of the hemisphere where it is most spoken – 19 of our neighbours have Spanish as their official language. Then there are another 100 million people worldwide who speak it as their second language.
From personal experience, I would argue that a second language expands one’s understanding of others and adds another dimension to our engagement with the world. It builds confidence and self-esteem, which help in one’s career. As an employer, I would always favour a multilingual candidate, since I can expect enhanced cultural awareness and intellectual curiosity, an ability to adjust to situations, think creatively and have unique insights. The cognitive advantages of young people learning more than one language are proven by academic research and, of course, there is the question of pure practicality. If you happen to be an English-only professional in Miami the disadvantages are already palpable and will increase with time because Spanish is already the most studied language in the US, and projections are that by 2060 the US will be second only to Mexico in the number of Spanish speakers.
Notwithstanding the present technical and commercial dominance of English, for us, speaking Spanish – by far the easiest of the Romance languages – should be a given, considering our geographical location. We (Trinidad, precisely) are on the same tectonic plate as Venezuela and we have the whole of Latin America on our doorstep, with the endless potential for cultural exchange, but we seem to recognise it only intermittently. When I was at school Spanish was compulsory; later it was not. Then we joined several regional organisations and our city’s street names appeared bilingually. At one time we saw our location as an advantage, perhaps as a gateway to the Spanish-speaking Americas and made all the airport signs bilingual. Then we changed gear. Maybe some politicians did not share that view of our situation. The half-hearted street signs now remind us of our inconsistencies and the degree to which we have turned away from the south. Apart from the linguistic tyranny of our English masters, our tribal heritage ethnicities pull our gaze to the north and across the Atlantic. Language is, therefore, profoundly reinforced by culture.
Spain’s Miguel de Cervantes is the William Shakespeare of Spanish culture. His Don Quixote is the most-read book in the world after the Bible and, like his universally esteemed English contemporary, he has peppered Western cultures with modern sayings and thoughts, but I wonder how many TT children know of Shakespeare, let alone Cervantes. The most popular and influential international writers of the last century include Latin Americans, from Garcia Marquez of Colombia to Isabel Allende and Pablo Neruda of Chile; from Argentina’s Jorge Luis Borges to Peru’s Mario Vargas Llosa. Spain boasts some of the most alluring contemporary writers. Nearly all are translated into English, which gives us access to their cultural milieu but few of us take it. We should not discount how our Caribbean music has travelled throughout the Caribbean basin and infused contemporary Latin sound, and the extent to which Venezuelan food and music have integrated into our own Trini culture. Flamenco and salsa get us going too. It remains a great curiosity that we love our pastelles at Christmas and our parang, but most of us understand none of the words or care about their origin.
Maybe the way to consider this conundrum is to accept that money talks, that trade drives everything and maybe we need more of it with our geographic partners. Our main trading partner, the US, accounts for nearly half our imports and exports. In 2015, however, according to the World Bank, our next big export countries were Argentina, Colombia, Peru and Chile, with Spain in the top ten, most of the products being fuels and chemicals. The data could have changed more recently but they are indicative of the potential for greater trade. So what is holding us back?
A local businessman explained that language, per se, is not the issue since so many international business people now speak English, but, rather, the many hurdles TT manufacturers face in getting into the Latin American market, from non-tariff barriers to the mismatch in manufacturing standards. On the latter point, many countries have stringent food safety and other standards that can be difficult for small local producers to meet and still offer competitive pricing. Size matters but so, too, does the fact that we produce many of the same agricultural products, for example, as our neighbours, and they enjoy the economies of scale that we lack. Then we have the licences, pre-shipment inspection rules, transport costs and other hurdles to overcome. It totals a lack of monetary incentives for many manufacturers.
It’s complicated. Maybe we should refocus on sport, culture, tourism and education and the benefits of soft power. As one Latin American pointed out, TT Carnival and steelpan are hardly known in South or even Central America. It is uncharted territory for cultural exchange, and it is a two-way street.
How much contact does UWI have with Spain and other Spanish-speaking countries, after the US has proven the influential benefits of offering scholarships? Literature and film are obvious avenues for cross-cultural fertilisation. The reader might be surprised to learn that many of our top writers are not translated into Spanish, although the stories would resonate regionally.
Global events do not happen by accident, including the use of language, and new communication technologies present new opportunities. Quite apart from the richness of the Spanish language and Latin culture, there are some good reasons we should and could actively add Spanish to our arsenal of advantages An open panel discussion on this topic takes place tomorrow at the National Library’s AV Room, Abercromby Street, Port of Spain, from noon-1 pm.