Hola! Trinidad drops English and learns to speak Spanish

English is the language of almost all of its inhabitants. Football and cricket are its national sports. And its main business hub is called Scarborough. But, eyeing the markets of Latin America seven miles off its shores, the former British colony of Trinidad and Tobago is rejecting its Anglo-Saxon past and aiming to be Spanish-speaking by 2020.

Children returning to the classroom this month will take obligatory Spanish lessons, and civil servants are also expected to reach a basic level of Spanish, at present spoken by just 1,500 of Trinidad's 1.3 million citizens. Thirty per cent of public employees are to be linguistically competent in within five years.

The move, mooted in 2004 and put into action in March, is motivated by the government's desire to align itself with the markets vital to its economy in Latin America. By encouraging its business circles to adopt the language of Venezuela, the hemisphere's biggest oil producer, Trinidad hopes to strengthen its own oil and natural gas industries.

Sharlene Yuille, spokes-woman for the government's Secretariat for the Implementation of Spanish, told The Independent: "It makes sense. People in the private sector can see the benefits learning Spanish could have on their businesses." Another driving force, some say more important, behind the government's initiative, is Trinidad's mission to be the seat of the Free Trade Area of the Americas, an economic block of 800 million consumers, most of them Spanish-speakers.

So far, many inhabitants of this Caribbean nation, with its calypso beats and hedonistic carnival seasons, have responded willingly to the government's encouragement. Numbers learning Spanish have soared. Schools which used to specialise in English have diversified into Spanish as well, and Patrick Wong, co-ordinator of Angel's Academy, says demand is rising. "The business world is our main target and as more businesses become more competitive the numbers taking classes will increase."

It may seem surprising that the introduction of a new language has met little resistance in a country which, before March, had had English as its official language since Britain gained control of the islands from Spain in 1797. But Trinidad, with 40 per cent of its population Hindi-speaking East Indians and a good smattering of other ethnic groups with their own languages, has never been a monolingual society.

Mr Wong, one of many British nationals who moved to Trinidad years ago with his family, believes that, rather than wiping out all traces of colonial influence, its new linguistic status will add to its already diverse society.

"British influence is integrated into Trinidad society and it's not something that can be forgotten overnight," he says. "The point of a cosmopolitan place is that different people speaking different languages can mix and feel good. It's a question of being open-minded and of adapting to what's needed."

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