Finding My Tongue: On (Not) Speaking Kriol

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.


2 thoughts on “Finding My Tongue: On (Not) Speaking Kriol

  1. At least this stuff is on your mind, which puts you a long way ahead from lots of English native-speaking foreigners who may not even consider the possibility that they’ll develop skills in speaking Kriol.

    If you happy to accept unsolicited tips, one suggestion I’d have it to start letting Belizeans you are fairly friendly with that you’re interested in learning to speak Kriol. That will (a) give them a hint that you want to be taught and (b) give them a chance to be lenient when you try to speak Kriol and sound like a numbskull. If you are developing good relationships with Kriol speakers, then I think they will be encouraging and forgiving with your inevitable mistakes.

    And that’s the other bit of advice which is more about your mindset rather than anyone else’s actions. Any adult who is learning a new language has to accept that they’re going to sound stupid and inarticulate. That they’ll be laughed at – though usually good-naturedly, remember. It’s really hard to step down of the pedestal we’re on as adults when we’ve mastered our mother tongue and put ourselves on the bottom rung again, like we’re two years old.

    But you can do it! Give it a go and don’t forget the most helpful thing: your sense of humour 🙂

    (Who the hell am I anyway? I’m an Anglo Australian who has managed to learn the *other* Kriol – the one spoken by Indigenous people in Northern Australia… I search for Kriol things on the web now and then and more often than not, something about Belize pops up. Haha. I liked your blogpost so thought I’d comment).


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