At Aruba’s weekly Bonbini festival, tourists come to marvel at the Carnaval costumes and take in a bit of the island’s folklore. A petite solo singer in a slinky red dress takes the stage, and is belting out a song dedicated to her island and its beloved language – Papiamento.
Most Arubans speak three or four languages fluently. As a colony of the Netherlands, Dutch has been the official language for centuries. But the native language is Papiamento – an Atlantic Creole that combines Spanish, Dutch and African-Portuguese (the language of the slaves brought from Cape Verde and other Portuguese colonies).
English and Spanish are indispensable in the tourism industry – which accounts for almost 80% of the island’s revenues. Aruba’s 100,000 residents play host to more than 1.2 million tourists every year – the vast majority of them English-speaking. The demand for low-wage jobs in the hotel industry has also fed a steady flow of migrant workers from Venezuela and Colombia, just 29 km away. There is growing resentment because many don’t even try to learn Papiamento.
‘Papiamento is definitely being eroded by so much Spanish,’ says 33-year-old Freddy Hardy Orozco, a Colombian migrant married to an Aruban. ‘My own wife and kids confuse Spanish and Papiamento a lot. I’m sure that in a few years, Papiamento will disappear altogether.’ The death of indigenous languages is a global problem. Linguists predict 90 per cent of the world’s 6,000 languages will be endangered by the end of the century. And small language communities are at the greatest risk.
Papiamento is only spoken in Aruba, and the neighbouring Netherlands Antilles Islands of Bonaire and Curacao. All-told, their populations total just over 300,000. But Aruba has started taking the threat of language extinction seriously. Kids learn Papiamento at home, but Dutch in school. They only get Papiamento in kindergarten, then begin formal language classes in secondary school. Children even get English and Spanish in grade 5. But a draft law is moving through Aruba’s Parliament for bilingual schooling. The Government has trained teachers to begin teaching grade one in Papiamento, as of this August.
Teaching kids in their mother tongue should also help counteract rising drop-out rates, says Ramon Todd Dandare, a well-known linguist with Aruba’s Department of Education. He says Papiamento has been struggling against Dutch for centuries, and has survived.
‘The real threat for us today is English,’ says Todd Dandare. ‘That’s because CDs, DVDs, music, are all in English and that’s where our youth live.’
Still, some argue that Aruba’s multicultural nature is what makes it unique. ‘I find that we are very schizophrenic people who don’t know really what we are,’ says Todd Dandare. ‘But I always say that culture is not one culture. Culture is the sum of all cultures in this country.’