Belizean Tongues: The Socioeconomics of Language and Education in Belize

by Rachel Staples Guettler


 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

John 1:1



In June 2018 I traveled to Belize as an American-born, English-speaking, doctoral student with the Pepperdine University Graduate School of Education and Psychology to research aspects of a developing country in regards to education, economics, and global leadership.  I recognized an initial feeling of comfort in my travel preparation from the fact that English is the official language of Belize.  Before the trip, I began to research economics and access to educational tools in Belize.  As my research deepened, I began to reflect upon the possible discomfort many Belizean natives from non-English speaking cultures may experience because of English being the official language of the country.

Once in Belize, speaking directly with local Belizeans, I found that every Belizean I met, who told me they were indeed born in Belize, also said that English was not their native language or not their mother tongue.  Additionally, an ex-patriot who has been living in Belize for several years after moving from the US told me he chose to move to Belize because it is the only Central American country on the Caribbean Ocean with English as the official language (Personal Communication, June 13, 2018).  Having studied vocal pedagogy for many years, I know that the voice is an instrument of culture, communication, identity, and connection to others (Love & Ansaldo, 2010).  Thus, I began to wonder about the influence of globalization and language policy on Belizean educational structures and on access to educational tools in Belize with the added challenges stemming from a global rise in minority language endangerment (Olster, 1999).

Language is a powerful tool in society, it has the power to shape a person’s identity, and it has the power to shift the economy (Manning, 2006; Nichols, 2006; Olster, 1999).  Manning (2006) argues, “The subject of linguistics, the idealized speaker-hearer, a native speaker with a perfect knowledge of a language, resembles the subject of economics, the rational actor with an encyclopedic knowledge of commodities” (p. 271).  Economists, Levitt & Dubner (2005), emphasize the importance of using an inquisitive economic lens, specifically focusing on what people value, how incentives drive people’s choices, and how value-incentives influence economic trends.  Belize is a country rich in language diversity with many minority languages spoken there, which are not only an integral part of communication but also represent cultural spirituality, ritual, dance, historical value, community, and so much more (Patten, 2001; Thompson, 2004).  When a person is born and reared from birth to speak the same language spoken in the person’s home, that language is the person’s native language or “mother tongue” no matter what the official language is in the country where the person’s resides (Love & Ansaldo, 2010, p. 589).

Minority languages are under threat from the widespread global influence of standardization through majority languages, and minority languages need political and cultural support to stand the test of time in an increasingly globalized world (Moore, 2006; Olster, 1999; Yamamoto, Brenzinger, & Villalón, 2008).  Olster (1999) laments, “linguists predict that at least half of the world’s 6,000 or so languages will be dead or dying by the year 2050” (p. 16).  There are many activist groups and organizations with a mission to help and save endangered languages urging more use for minority languages in public spaces and domains (Yamamoto, Brenzinger, & Villalón, 2008).  The National Science Foundation in conjunction with the National Endowment for the Humanities created by the US Congress in 1950 has a “Documenting Endangered Languages” project, which has already funded a project specifically working with Mayan women from the Guatemalan Highland region to provide access and encouragement of the endangered Mayan “Ixil” language (Moore, 2006, p. 303).

Many scholars argue that pressure for groups of people to become bilingual or multilingual can be complex, challenging, and in some cases detrimental to cultural groups, personal identities, and can ultimately influence a cultural group’s ability to thrive (Love & Ansaldo, 2010; Ravindranath, 2009; Rubinstein, 1979).  Globalization and economics can influence languages and cultures, causing shifts in language use, and oftentimes creating environments where many minority languages are at risk of becoming endangered (Olster, 1999).  When an area has many different people who speak many different languages, the heritage, the culture, and the identity of the diverse groups of people in that region can experience negative impacts by the government and official language policy changes (Patten, 2001).  This paper utilizes the “SPELIT Power Matrix methodology” (Schmieder-Ramirez & Malette, 2007, p. 3) to analyze the social, political, economic, legal, intercultural, and technological aspects of language, education, and socioeconomics in Belize.

SPELIT Analysis: Social and Intercultural

Schmieder-Ramirez & Malette (2007) encourage researchers to explore “social cultural norms” (p. 6), as well as “how people interact with one another and how the structures they create impact how they interact with one another” (p. 33).  Schmieder-Ramirez & Malette also encourage culturally diverse groups to move away from the unhealthy denial, defensiveness, and minimization of “ethnocentrism” into healthier intercultural “ethnorelativism” (p. 97) through patterns of accepting, adapting, and integrating with other’s cultural differences.  Thus, my research on the socioeconomics of education and language in Belize explores how the government’s choice to structure a majority language like English as the official language policy of the country does impact how groups of people in Belize interact with each other through education, the economy, and conflicting social norms.

Tourists from all over the world travel to Belize to experience the ancient Mayan ruins, the diverse plant and animal species, the Caribbean coastal landscapes and jungles, and to research the indigenous and immigrant cultures, food, history, and heritage found in Belize (Thompson, 2004; Medina, 1998; Medina, 2003).  Belize has a history of diversity from the indigenous Mayan people, to the 16th, 17th, and 18th century Spanish, British, and French colonies (Medina, 1998).  The diverse history of Belize also stems from the influence of the neighboring countries of Guatemala, Mexico, and the maritime border country Honduras (Thompson, 2004).  Furthermore, the Belizean population’s diversity is influenced the by the cultures of the Mayan, Garifuna, Mestizo, African Creole, German and Canadian Mennonites, as well as the influence of globalization, industry development, and tourism bringing people, cultures, and languages from all over the world (Cox, Driedger, & Tucker, 2013; Medina, 2003; Thompson, 2004).

Immigration, tourism, and globalization has influenced Belize and continues to impact education and the many minority groups in Belize, some of which claim to be Belizean natives such as the Maya, Garifuna, Mestizo, and Creole (Rubinstein, 1979; Medina, 1998; Medina, 2003).  The Mayan people have a particular spiritual intimacy with their native language, and Mayan rituals must be performed in the Mayan tongue by someone who “speaks and understands” the language (Medina, 1998, p. 361).  For example, the Maya recognize a “cosmological core that has persisted across centuries, [which] continues to link the living with their ancestors and divine forces, and that is transmitted and activated through the use of Mayan languages” (Medina, 1998, p. 361).  However, some scholars argue, “Mayan ethnicity, language, and traditional economic strategies are rendered disadvantageous for school achievement by historical, social, cultural, and economic forces” (Crooks, 1997).

As tourism and globalization have permeated Belize, many people, cultures, and languages face the threats of widespread use of majority languages such as English (Medina, 1998; Nichols, 2006; Ravindranath, 2009).  The Garifuna people also believe their native language is an essential part of their heritage encompassing their music, dance, religious practices, what they eat, and food preparation which is celebrated annually during the national holiday in Belize, “Garifuna Settlement Day” (Ravindranath, 2009, p. 14).  However, even with a day dedicated to the Garifuna people in Belize, there are still some cultural groups in Belize that go so far as “to choose to remain insulated in their culture and language” (Spang, 2014, p. 61).  Moreover, Belizean social norms vary between groups, and each group can experience the influence of majority languages, such as English and Spanish, in different ways (Nichols, 2006).

SPELIT Analysis: Political

Schmieder-Ramirez & Malette (2007) encourage researchers to frame the analysis of political influence in groups by regarding “competing interests, views, assumptions, and values” (p. 55).  My research explores these competing interests, views, assumptions, and values of the diverse Belizean people, the influence of colonization, and the influence of a tourism economy in a developing country in Central America.  The people of Belize are diverse, the languages spoken in Belize are diverse, and the structure of power and values follow suit in their diversity.

Various languages are a part of the diverse cultural groups of Belize:  the Mayan languages of the Mayan-Yucatec, Mayan-Mopan, and Mayan-Kekchi speakers; Spanish speakers; Kriol or Creole speakers; Garifuna speakers; the Mennonite language of the low-German dialect of Plautdietsch; English; and many more languages from various ethnic groups, dialects, and socioeconomic statuses (Medina, 1998; Rubinstein, 1979; Thompson, 2004).  However, even with all the diversity of people, culture, and language spoken in Belize, the Belizean Ministry of Education declared English to be the official language of the country (Rubinstein, 1979; Ravindranath, 2009).

The language policy is in alignment with the 1862 British colonization of the country, but in a 2010 census, more than 37% of Belizeans reported not being able to speak English well conversationally, much less academically (Nixon, 2015).  Patten argues, “Language policy is an issue of considerable ethical, political, and legal importance in jurisdictions around the world” (2001, p.691).  Furthermore, minority languages are impacted and have a higher risk of becoming endangered or even extinct when language policy establishes the official language of a country as a majority language, such as English (Olster, 1999; Patten, 2001).

There is linguistic controversy over countries that declare a majority language like English to become the official language, especially in a country like Belize possessing a wide variety of cultural groups, languages spoken, and heritages preserved (Patten, 2001; Ravindranath, 2009; Nichols, 2006).  Crooks (1997) emphasizes, “The vitality of a language is challenged when individual speakers abandon it and shift to a new tongue” (p. 61).  The controversy of language policy is especially important when exploring the language taught in public school classrooms, not only from a mere educational standpoint but also from a social perspective (Patten, 2001).  Scholars concede that in Belize, “English is the primary language of instruction; students are expected to be proficient by the end of primary school.  Primary teachers are encouraged to recognize that students come to the classroom with a variety of languages and are urged to build on these experiences to improve instruction” (Nixon, 2015).

Official language policy that influences languages taught in schools has a significant impact on a student’s cognitive development, and impacts how a student may begin to judge his or her ancestors, community, and other students based upon skill or lack of skill in the language taught versus skill in the native tongue (Crooks, 1997; Nichols, 2006’ Rubinstein, 1979).  Rubinstein (1979) explores these complex sociolinguistic aspects of English instruction for Spanish-speaking Mestizo children and Belizean Creole-speaking children in his research of seven schools in Corozal Town, Belize:

“First, the child is likely to be classed as slow or lazy in school if he/she fails to keep apace of his/her classmates in the acquisition of English language skills. This classification carries with it a whole range of implications: the child’s belief in the importance of his/her efforts vis-a-vis the school environment and his/her self- evaluation may ultimately result in school failure or school leaving. Second, for those students who do stay in school through standard 6 (eighth grade), the real control they are able to exercise over English is often minimal and quickly lost” (p. 585).

Additionally, minority languages suffer from the risk of becoming endangered or extinct if they are not passed down from generation to generation, spoken by children, or shared in written word, which is similar to the ways that plant and animal species can suffer from becoming endangered or extinct from the effects of globalization, tourism, and industry development (Olster, 1999).  Furthermore, since the British colony was established in Belize, there has been a duality of church and governmental control on the educational system, which causes even greater controversy because the diverse people in Belize also have an even greater diversity within their religions, belief systems, and denominations (Rubinstein, 1979).

Moore (2006) urges governments to support official language policy that allows minority languages to continue to be taught to children so they can speak it with others on a regular basis as well as being able to write in the language or the language will decline.  Moore specifically emphasizes preserving language in written form is the most imperative, and that languages that are not written are the languages that eventually become “lost” or “dead” (Moore, 2006, p. 313).  Teaching children to speak, read, and write a language can even revive it, such as in the example of the 19th-century Palestinian movement to reintroduce Hebrew teaching in all Israeli schools and now Hebrew is the most common language of the citizens in that region (Olster, 1999).  However, language revitalization through schools may not be a realistic option for Belizeans. Often young Belizeans must leave school or choose to leave school years before high school graduation to enter the workforce.  Moreover, Belizean schools have little governmental support, poorly educated teachers, social structures that have negative attitudes towards education taught in English, and poverty creating challenges of lacking resources, textbooks, and supplies (Crook, 1997).

SPELIT Analysis: Economic, Legal, and Technological

Schmieder-Ramirez & Malette (2007) emphasize to researchers that economic analysis must explore the “factors that affect the production and consumption of resources needed to operate” (p. 63).  In a diverse country, operations vary between individuals, families, cultural groups, religions, and communities, of which all are governed by the legal boundaries set by the policy, which either creates or takes away access to technology or tools for learning and development.  This research explores the production and consumption of the majority language use in minority language settings in Belize, the legal nature of language in Belize, and the over-arching results of technological access in Belize due to language and education policy.

Scholars contend that language has value, is a commodity, effects trade, influences labor market trends, and is a significant factor of economics (Chiswick & Miller, 2003; Li, 2013; Manning, 2006).  Additionally, scholars argue that people who adapt and become proficient enough in the official language may use their native language less often and may have a greater chance at earning more money in that labor market (Chiswick & Miller, 2003).  Poverty, especially in remote areas of Belize, also influences education, access to educational tools, and the use of the English language in public areas, schools, and in the home (Crooks, 1997).

Scholars argue that even in towns such as Placencia, Belize, where I stayed during the doctoral delegation with Pepperdine University, there is an “uneven distribution of wealth, an influx of wealthier outsiders and tourists, a sometimes controversial real estate boom, and socio-economic frictions resulting from rapid change and growth” (Spang, 2014, p. 13).  In a personal interview I had with a local Belizean, anthropologist, organic farmer, and creator of Taste Belize Tours, Dr. Lyra Spang Ph.D., she shared with me how many Belizeans become stuck in a “cycle of poverty” because of lacking access to education, to basic educational tools, and due to minimal government funding for education (Personal communication, June 12, 2018).  She also shared with me how different cultural groups value different aspects of Belizean life from food grown to land choice.  For example, the Mayan people strategically built their homes, villages, and temples in the more remote inland areas away from the more populated coastal areas (Medina, 1998).  This Mayan, inland-living preference is also why it is challenging to track exactly when the Mayan people came to Belize since the British colonies did not always travel as deeply into the jungle areas where Mayan villages could be found, and there are many conflicts in the literature regarding who was first to populate areas of Belize (Thompson, 2004).  In other words, Mayans value remote areas and desire to settle in remote areas.  The cultural value of historically building Mayan communities in remote areas in Belize has put Mayan children at a disadvantage because schools in remote areas have less access to educational resources and tools (Crooks, 1997).

Tourism is also a significant contributor to the Belizean market, and Medina (2003) explores how the Belizean tourism economy has influenced changes in indigenous culture and cultural preservation efforts.  Historically and presently, the Mopan and Kekchi Mayans have faced injustice and marginalization as the lands where they claim they are indigenous to have become developed from agriculture to ecotourism with governmental strategy to capitalize on Mayan culture in the name of ecotourism efforts to grow the economy through the leveraging of the Mayan culture and Mayan ruins (Medina, 1998).  Furthermore, Medina (1998) explains that:

In pursuit of this strategy, Belize joined with El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and several states of southern Mexico in 1992 to launch the Mundo Maya or “Maya World” project. This joint public-private sector project discursively and practically constructs regional ‘Maya’ space which reflects the expanse of’ Maya civilization’ during the Maya Classic and Post-Classic periods and incorporates contemporary Maya groups as the continuing manifestation of that ancient culture. Within the regional space of Maya World — unlike the national space of Belize — the nativeness of Mopan and Kekchi as Maya is unquestioned. Further, the Maya World project constructs them as ‘native’ for an audience — tourists — to whom Maya culture and civilization have already been represented as monolithic and singular” (p. 155).

While the people of Belize are a diverse population consisting of a variety of languages, ethnicities, and religious affiliations, the legal aspects of the language policy in Belize is such that the language spoken in schools in Belize is far from diverse and is homogeneously in English (Crooks, 1997; Nixon, 2015; Rubinstein, 1979).  In Belizean schools with students from various backgrounds, cultures, religious beliefs, and native language, school instruction has been impacted since British colonization and, “a ruling of the Ministry of Education making English the only allowable language of instruction in Belizean schools” (Rubinstein, 1979, p. 584).  Furthermore, policy influences access to technology such as trained versus untrained teachers, textbooks, and funds for education (Crooks, 1997).  Belizeans in remote areas such as the Toledo District note that there are not many trained teachers or educational tools, but tourism is thriving in the area due to the Toledo Ecotourism Association’s Village Guest House Program giving tourists access to learn about remote Mayan villages (Crooks, 1997).  The socioeconomic standard here is a paradox with tourists learning about Mayan culture while simultaneously Mayan children do not have equal access to strong educational opportunities.


What are the alternatives to these conflicts of interest from the economic gain of tourism and globalization to educational loss for Belizean cultures?  What are the alternatives to the education policy set by the government in Belize?  Scholars argue in support of strategizing through avenues of ecotourism in ways that bring tourists in a respectful way to learn from and celebrate a minority group while also preserving the culture and language, with careful effort to avoid exploitation (Medina, 2002; Spang, 2014).  Economies that are thriving from tourism can find ways to integrate their culture with outsiders in ways that help others learn what is unique about their society, spiritual practices, food, and language (Medina, 2003).  If each group that claims to be native in Belize could have designated, national celebration days such as Garifuna Settlement Day, this could also draw tourism specifically tailored around the celebration of a minority culture and language, thus creating pathways for preservation (Ravindranath, 2009).

Another policy alternative could come from the legal and political spectrum of Belize with petitioning that the Ministry of Education enforce equality in resources and access to the educational systems for students in the heavily populated coastal areas as well as the more remote, inland farm areas.  Too many remote villages, cultures, and people in Belize are denied access to educational development (Crooks, 1997).  Policy change must happen so that the people in these areas can have social justice and equal access.  Furthermore, language policy changes that allow schools to teach students not only in English but also support teaching in the native languages represented in the classroom by offering opportunities for cultural celebration, historical exploration, and language study in efforts to preserve the minority languages in the area.

Lastly, an educational policy that creates pathway opportunities for students to develop skills to become teachers could result in developing teachers with real training and expertise to continue to develop current and future students.  Teachers in Belize without real educational training are a major issue in the Belizean educational system (Crooks, 1997).  If students could have an option to train as a student-teacher, instead of leaving school to work, this option could create new prospects to develop Belizean people from the classroom as students to the classroom as teachers.  Furthermore, these educational pathways could be developed such that students are empowered to learn how to teach in a variety of languages to a diverse student population.


In conclusion, lawmakers must begin to recognize how education and language policy can influence changes in social groups, which can thus influence economic trends (Patten, 2001).  The cycle of poverty in Belize needs to end, and social justice for Belizeans in imperative.  The diverse people and languages in Belize need to be celebrated, not just by tourists, but also by the Belizean people and Belizean government on a national scale.  Such language policy changes could be vital in protecting from the threat of language endangerment or extinction to the people that help to make Belize a historically diverse country.  Adopting policies that address language endangerment could be the conduit for this imperative change by developing Belizeans through respectful ecotourism targeted at cultural awareness and preservation, as well as education and language policy changes that create access to educational tools for the development and preservation of language diversity.  Belize is a melting pot of cultures, and each deserving equality, social justice, recognition, and empowerment.  Belize must preserve and maintain the unique cultural diversity that is the foundation of its history.  Finally, the Belizean people must unite in efforts to be strategic in educational and language policy that supports the development and preservation of language diversity, attracting many culturally curious people from across the globe.


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