Even though I’ve been living in Belize for nine months, I still don’t speak Kriol. Often when I am out and about, buying something or making small talk with folks, people address me in Kriol. Though I understand what they are saying, I don’t respond in Kriol, which then makes them speak to me in carefully enunciated English. I’ve learned not to take it personally, and still like to think that I am not one of “them” – those American expats who come across as an outsider and expect to be catered to. I don’t want to stand out, I want to blend in.
I have tuned my ear to understanding Kriol quite well. Yesterday I attended a training in Belize City about gender-based violence and decreasing violence against women. I was the only non-Belizean, as I usually am when I go to these events with the women’s empowerment organization I have been consulting with. I really enjoy sitting in a room full of Belizean folks speaking to each other and me in Kriol, yet am still hesitant to respond in the dialect.
When I lived in Nigeria, I was hanging out with Nigerians all the time and was immersed in Yoruba culture and language, so much so that I felt comfortable speaking pidgin fairly quickly. And interestingly, I have noticed some similarities between Nigerian pidgin and Belizean Kriol, overlaps between certain words and phrases. Occasionally, I practice speaking Kriol privately, for my own amusement. I am not good at it, and still struggle with the cadence and pronunciation.
Recently, my friend Simone asked me why I don’t speak Kriol and encouraged me to do it more. I explained that because my Kriol is awful it feels disrespectful to speak it to Belizeans. I want it to be perfect, which I accept it may never be considering my New York accent and black American vernacular. Still, I hope to get to that point where I can casually slip a Kriol phrase in conversation without being self-conscious, rather than just smiling and nodding like a foreigner.