By Susan Haskins
Walk down any street or narrow village lane in tiny Belize (only about the size of the U.S. state of Rhode Island) and you’ll hear any one of a half dozen or more languages—pretty remarkable in a country that’s less-populated than many U.S. cities (320,000 inhabitants).
But this little country is far more diverse than most U.S. cities. (Happier, too, I’d say, judging from the infectious smiles.) And most of its population is not just bi-lingual, but tri-lingual.
English is the official language of the country, formerly known as the colony of British Honduras. In 1980 it won its independence from Great Britain and has appeared on maps as Belize (or Belice in the Spanish language) ever since.
Spanish is another language you’ll often hear, thanks to the country’s borders with Mexico and Guatemala. Most Belizeans speak both English and Spanish.
Some Belizeans speak Mayan. The Maya were the original inhabitants of this part of the world, and they’re still here in large numbers. (If you think Belize is just a Caribbean diving and snorkeling destination, think again. The traditional Maya communities and ancient archaeological sites that have been uncovered in its dense, lush jungles should be on the “must-see” lists of any travelers to Belize.
Many shopkeepers, especially in Belize City and Corozal are of Chinese descent (with a sprinkling of Taiwanese and Korean, too). Some are descendants of the 480 Chinese immigrants that were brought to British Honduras in 1865 as indentured laborers on the ship “The Light of the Ages”. They went to work in the timber camps, but a year later, about 100 of them deserted. Another group came just before the outbreak of World War II. Controlling much of the economy, they’ve become dominant players in the grocery, restaurant, fast food, and lottery trades.
More than 10,000 conservative Prussian Mennonites live near an inland town called Spanish Lookout in the Cayo district, where farms and grazing land stretch for miles. Known for their cheese-making and carpentry skills, they speak German. You can outfit your Belizean home with furniture made by these fine craftsmen or even commission them to make a complete exquisite cabin for you out of Belizean hardwoods that virtually last forever. (A decent-sized cabin will cost less than $30,000.)
You’ll Find a Vibrant Culture in Belize
There’s one more language spoken in Belize—it’s the most common of all. While Belizean children are taught English at school, out and about, everyone speaks Kriol. It’s heavily influenced by the Garifuna people, descendants of African slaves, who escaped captivity in the Western Indies and settled in Belizean coastal villages like Dangriga and Seine Bight in the early 1830s. They have a strong, vibrant culture and language all their own.
This melting pot of cultures is what makes Belize unique in Central America…in the world, if truth be told. Nowhere else can you find such diversity, such tolerance, and yes… cheesy as it sounds… such love for people of so many different ethnic and economic backgrounds. Belizeans may be the friendliest people on the planet. And I’m guessing they got that way because they learned early on that we all have to live together and the best way to do that is happily.
What it all boils down to is this: no matter what language you speak, chances are good you’ll find someone to talk to in Belize. Even better odds are that they’ll have a great big happy smile on their face.