Language changes in Belize have been closely tied to historical events. Originally populated by Mayan civilizations, Spanish explorers arrived in the 16th century shortly after claiming Belize as a Spanish colony. In 1862, the British claimed Belize as a British colony. When Belize gained independence in 1981, Guatemala sought ownership of the territory. This dispute has caused some hostility between Belize and Guatemala, which affects languages across Belize.
While English is the official language of Belize, English is often reserved for business and the professional sphere whereas Kriol (Creole) is used for less formal occasions. The majority of newspapers, radio, and television broadcasts are produced in English and most churches use English as the primary language of communication. As the 2010 census point out, “only 63% of Belize’s population over the age of three years old speak English well enough to have a conversation”(Bolland, p. 210). Most English speakers live near Belize City and are between the ages of 20-29.
Nevertheless 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. The government of Belize also recognizes the importance of Spanish and supports efforts for students to gain functional Spanish skills as well.
Many Spanish speakers have moved to Belize; in fact, large numbers of Mexican immigrants migrated to Belize during the 1800s (Bonner, 2001, p.82). Today, Mestizos, those with mixed Spanish and Mayan ancestors, make up the largest ethnic group in Belize. Prior to the Caste War in Northern Belize, mostly British workers and Creoles lived in Northern Belize. For this reason Spanish remained a minority language. During the 1980s, large numbers of immigrants from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras moved to Belize and since that time, Spanish-speaking Mestizos became the largest ethnic group in the country (Balam, 2013, p. 249).
The anti-Spanish prejudice in Belize has been tied to a variety of factors including “colonial-era competition between the British and Spanish empires and a more recent history of competition between English Creole speakers and Spanish speakers over scarce economic resources” (Bonner, 2001, p. 82). Today, tension remains between native Belizeans and foreign Spanish speakers (Bonner, 2001, p. 82). This prejudice is built on the history of Guatemala’s claim to Belizean territory which has also added to the negative attitude towards Spanish speakers.
While the increase of Spanish speakers migrating to Belize has caused concern to some residents, few residents are switching to Spanish. In fact, most immigrants have chosen to quickly learn English or Kriol (Decker, 2005, p. 3).