Papiamentu, language ideology and language use in Curaçao

15 minutes to read
Ashna Coster

As you may already know, islands like Aruba and Curaçao were Dutch colonial territories. On October 10, 2010, Curaçao became a country within the Netherlands. Even though Curaçao is a former colony, there are still some issues regarding language equality that make you wonder whether colonialism has truly ended for Curaçao. Many locals feel as though the language Papiamentu is not considered equal in comparison to Dutch. 

In this article, I will present two cases that are good examples of Papiamentu not being considered equal to Dutch. This causes an unease among citizens between those who speak Dutch and those who speak the native language of Curaçao, Papiamentu. Both cases lead to the conclusion that Dutch is considered a high language and Papiamentu a low language.

Why Dutch people don’t want to speak Papiamentu

The first case is a conflict that started during a press conference between the organizer of a music festival and a Dutch journalist who was present. The press conference was held to explain to the public why a big music festival that was scheduled to take place, was suddenly canceled by the organization. The press conference was live on Facebook and at a certain moment, a Dutch journalist asked the organizer of the event a question in Dutch. The organizer of the event began to answer the question in Papiamentu, but the journalist interrupted him by asking if he could address his question in Dutch. The organizer refused to do so and replied:

"We are in Curaçao. Therefore, I will speak in Papiamentu, you simply have to adjust"

“We zijn in Curaçao dus ik ga Papiamentu spreken, je moet je maar aanpassen.” (We are in Curaçao, therefore, I will speak in Papiamentu, you simply have to adjust) 

This statement immediately caused controversy and tension between those who attended or watched the press conference live. The video went viral amongst people in Curaçao, online and offline. It became a linguistic battle between those who agree or disagree with both parties. The issue escalated to the point that the journalist had to release a public statement addressing the issue. Later in this article, I will come back to this situation.

The second case is the following statement, posted by a news outlet on their Facebook page: “How is it possible that a Chinese living here in Curaçao for 10 or more years can speak Papiamentu but a Dutch person living here 10 or more years still refuses to speak the language?” 

Just like with the earlier case, those who decided to reply to this statement expressed a feeling of uneasiness towards Dutch “citizens”, who refuse to speak the language. Both cases are targeting the Dutch language. In order to understand and analyze the language concerns on the island of Curaçao, we have to go back in history. The main question will be: “Why don't Dutch people want to speak Papiamentu?

Colonialism and its linguistic consequences

In 1634, the Netherlands captured the ABC islands (Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao) from Spain. Curaçao immediately became the most important hub for the international slave trade. In 1634, the Dutch established the West India Company (WIC) on the island of Curaçao. The Chamber of Amsterdam administered the WIC, which meant that most businesses were in Dutch. 

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor west indische compagnie logo

Dutch, however, was not the most common language to speak on the island. Back then, less than 10% of the population spoke Dutch. During the 17th 18th century, Papiamentu grew to become the dominant spoken language. It was even spoken by the white European upper-class in Curaçao. 

Papiamentu is a Portuguese based creole language. The exact historical origin of Papiamentu has not been established. There are several theories explaining its origin. One of them being that Papiamentu developed in the Caribbean as a Portuguese-African pidgin used for communication between African slaves and Portuguese slave traders. The language may have had Dutch and Spanish influences later on in its development.

So the 17th and 18th century witnessed the beginning of the bilingual situation Papiamentu-Dutch. Dutch became the official language used by the government and the native language of the upper élite group. It grew beyond the master-slave relationship, into something bigger.

La Isla Refinery

All business, politics and judicial processes would be conducted exclusively in Dutch. So anyone who wanted to do business in Curaçao had to be fluent in Dutch (Jacobs, 2013). Besides business, there were other factors, such as religion and education, to promote Dutch even more in the community. 

Dutch was so highly valued during this time that students would get punished if caught speaking Papiamentu at school. 

Later on, in the early 20th century, the oil refinery 'Refineria Isla Curaçao' (1985) encouraged immigrants from the Netherlands to come to the island. This heavily influenced the introduction of Dutch into the Curaçaoan school system.  Dutch was so highly valued during this time that students would get punished if caught speaking Papiamentu at school. 

Don't do with another what you would not wish someone to do with you

These strict teaching methods caused a rise of “anti-Dutch” sentiments and even rebellion. This caused Papiamentu to grow in its role, because locals opted to voice their concerns in Papiamentu, instead of using Dutch (Jacobs, 2013).

According to Jacobs (2013) and Oostindie (2008) “in the Antilles, Dutch is only an unpopular second language”. Keep in mind that other languages such as English, Spanish, Sranan Tongo, Portuguese, and Hindi are spoken on the island. Citizens have no problem to code-switch between languages. 

According to 2001 census figures, Papiamentu is by far the most widely used language on the island. More than 80% of the population of Curaçao uses Papiamentu as their home language. Dutch is only used in the home by 9.3% of the population (Dijkhoff & Pereira, 2010).

Languages and independence

On October 10, 2010, Curaçao became an independent country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Therefore, it was no longer a colony. Curaçao is the largest of the Dutch-speaking islands and it has a strong social and political relationship with the Netherlands. 

Dutch did not become the main vehicle for communication; Papiamentu emerged instead.

Dutch remained the official language and the chief medium used for education and laws of the country (Martinus, 1975). However, Dutch did not become the main vehicle for communication; Papiamentu emerged instead (Jacobs, 2013). A good example is that notes are written in Dutch during important parliament meetings, even though the meeting itself is held in Papiamentu. On March 7, 2007, Papiamentu became the official language of Curaçao. The everlasting contact with Dutch left traces in the language, with up to 30% of the vocabulary being of Dutch origin. 

Over the centuries, Papiamentu has had a relatively strong impact on all social classes and ethnicities. Moreover, a feeling of uneasiness towards the Dutch language and those refusing to speak Papiamentu was also present.

Contemporary language ideologies

Curaçao is home to a multilingual community. Most of its residents speak four languages: Papiamentu, Dutch (the country's official language), Spanish, and English (Joubert & Perl, 2007).

Today, Papiamentu is generally used on the island, but its role continues to start emotional debates. Apart from four Dutch-spoken schools, most primary schools in Curaçao use Papiamentu in the lower grades and some schools apply both Dutch and Papiamentu in higher grades. In secondary and vocational education, Papiamentu is taught as a subject and generally used to support Dutch (Dijkhof & Pereira, 2010). 

The level of education in Papiamentu is very reasonable, but differs when compared with the level of education in the Netherlands. Due to lack of school materials in Papiamentu and with the knowledge that many people will want to continue their studies in the Netherlands, there is a high demand for schools using Dutch as their primary language. At the same time, the majority of the children speaks Papiamentu in classes and after school. School teachers use materials in Dutch and they give explanations in Papiamentu when needed (Hubentut & Enseñansa, n.d.).

Generally, only children of Dutch and Surinamese origin have knowledge of Dutch when starting school. Most Curaçaoan children have no knowledge of Dutch words or Dutch grammar when starting their school career at age four. English is taught as a subject from the 6th grade on and Spanish from the 7th grade on (Dijkhof & Pereira, 2010).

As mentioned previously, there is an ongoing discussion whether or not Papiamentu should become the only language of education, or if there should be a bi-lingual system of Papiamentu-Dutch. Because of the limited school materials available in Papiamentu, it is currently not possible to make Papiamentu the official language of education.

Another reason that the decision-makers refer to, is that some people see Dutch and English as prestige languages. What this means is that these languages allow one to advance in their careers or in their education. 

If people want to succeed, being fluent in Dutch and/or English is a must.

If people want to succeed, being fluent in Dutch and/or English is a must. An example of this would be students moving abroad to continue with their studies. This reasoning leads to the belief that just speaking Papiamentu doesn't give you the best prospects for your future.


This belief creates a distinction between Papiamentu and Dutch, i.e., Papiamentu is seen as a low language by most people, and Dutch as a high language. Both languages are divided by function and prestige. Papiamentu is referred to as a 'dialect' and is considered unsuitable for education. While Dutch, in contrast, is considered more suitable (Dijkhof & Pereira, 2010).

This causes the language ideology that those who are able to speak Dutch or only speak Dutch are from an upper elite class in society and those who cannot are from a lower societal group. This way of thinking causes frustration and negative sentiments, which can be seen time and again in the media, on social media and even in parliament. This friction can go so deep that locals will complain if people, and specifically Dutch people, refuse to speak Papiamentu.

Keep Calm and Speak Papiamentu

Over the years, several Curaçaoans migrated to the Netherlands in pursuit of a career or further studies. Those who have done so become well-aware of how important the Dutch language is for the Dutch community. Curaçaoans who emigrate into Dutch society expect that knowing Dutch already will make their integration problem free, but the reality is different.

These Curaçaoans are also confronted with the reality that their version of Dutch is completely different from Dutch in the Netherlands. For this reason, most Curaçaoans do their best to fit into the Dutch mainstream to succeed. Consequently, Curaçaoans expect Dutch people to do the same when they go to Curaçao. Unfortunately, this is not the case for everyone.


The two cases mentioned before show how locals express a feeling of uneasiness regarding the issue that some Dutch members of the Curaçaon society refuse to learn or speak Papiamentu. When the organizer addressed the journalist during the press event with the statement “we are in Curaçao, so you have to adjust yourself,” everyone immediately interpreted this as a language problem between a local toward a Dutch citizen refusing to speak Papiamentu and requesting a more prestige handling by answering the question back in Dutch. The problem escalated very quickly and became a linguistic issue between both parties. For this reason, the journalist decided to write a statement addressing the situation and his choice for using Dutch.

A screenshot of the public statement by the Dutch Journalist

In the statement written by the journalist, he expressed how he has participated in several cultural events in Curaçao by speaking and even singing in Papiamentu. He also stated that he is filming the press conference for at least 175 people who are all Dutch speakers, just like the rest of his target group. He continued expressing his disappointment with the way the organizer reacted to his question, because it caused a language issue which had nothing to do with the real issue of the press conference. He ended his statement by saying how he has no problem with receiving an answer in Papiamentu, or addressing anything in Papiamentu. 

The other case, a news media outlet asking about Dutch people in Curaçao not speaking Papiamentu on Facebook, also received several people commenting on what they think Dutch people who don’t speak Papiamentu would answer, when asked ‘why they don’t speak the language’. The question and some answers are included below. 

Screen Shot of the facebook post of Curaçao media page expressing language uneasiness towards Dutch members of the society

Translation of the text: "A Chinese or whichever other race comes to Curaçao and within 6 ½ months they can already speak Papiamentu. But there are certain Dutch people who live about 10 years in Curaçao and don’t want to speak our language"

Translation of the comments: "Start by learning how to write the mother tongue properly and write the name of your country how it should be written... Kòrsou"; "If you are interested to learn you will learn it"; "No interest" that is what they will say.

Such cases keep popping up every now and then. They split the community into two parties: those who see the Dutch language as a high language and those who just want to see equality for all languages on the island.

What should we expect in the future?

As mentioned before, Curaçao is a multicultural and multilingual society. People speak several languages in their daily lives, including Papiamentu, English, Spanish, and Dutch. At the moment, people are already code-switchingbetween several languages and borrowing from them as well. Can we expect this to grow even more or will Curaçao remain a former colony in which there is a sharp distinction between what is seen as high language and what is seen as low language?


Society of Curaçao

To answer the main question of this article, about why Dutch people don’t speak Papiamentu. Simply put, because Papiamentu is not seen as a high language. If you want to make it in your career, you have to know either Dutch or English and this is reflected in the Curaçaoan education system. Dutch remains the main language for education on the island, and this also means that Dutch will remain an important language in the society and is not going away any time soon.

Additionally, Dutch people don’t have to know Papiamentu. This goes back to Curaçao’s colonial history and the connection the island still has with the Netherlands. Dutch is still the dominant language for education and laws today. For this reason, the Dutch and the Dutch language have more power, money, and resources and this makes the usage of the language more sustainable. In the end, the Dutch can decide which role each language has.

The feeling of uneasiness that occasionally comes to the fore could be seen as the first step towards a policy change. In other words, it can be seen as the start of finding solutions to the problem of uneasiness between speakers of Papiamentu and speakers of Dutch.

Curaçaoans feel that the best thing would be for all languages on the island to be equal. Papiamentu should become as important as other languages. This also means that everyone should agree to speak Papiamentu to some extent. A movement like this could be the starting point for creating policy that would make learning Papiamentu compulsory for everyone.

The aim of such a policy would be to create a better balance between and maintenance of all languages on Curaçao, and including rather than excluding Papiamentu in the process. This can be achieved by first accepting both Papiamentu and Dutch as equally important languages. Measures like this will change the perception of Papiamentu as a low language. Secondly, one of the issues in Curaçaoan education right now is that is still favors Dutch. If funds were attracted, in order to create sustainable school materials, so that both languages can be taught from an early age on, this can change. Thirdly, laws could be created that state that you need to be able to speak the language - Papiamentu - to a certain degree in order to receive citizenship or be able to live on the island for a certain amount of time.

Beautiful Papiamentu Language

Policy like this can also help with establishing a bilingual or multilingual system in society and schools. This will definitely not happen today or tomorrow, but it might be a possibility for the next ten to twenty years.


What can be agreed upon is that those who claim that they are unhappy with people refusing to speak Papiamentu want equality. That basically means not having any distinction between people and the languages they speak, and isn't that something we all want?


Dijkhoff, M., & Pereira, J. (2010). Language and education in Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao. In B. Migge, I. Léglise, & A. Bartens eds.), Creoles in education: An appraisal of current programs and projects, (pp 237-272). Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Hubentut & Enseñansa (n.d.)

Jacobs, B. (2013). Thoughts on the linguistic history of Curacao: How Papiamentu got the better of Dutch. Revue Belge de Philologie et d'Historie, 91(3), 787-806.

Joubert, S., & Perl, M. (2007). The Portuguese Language on Curacao and Its Role in the Formation of Papiamentu. Journal of Caribbean Literatures, 5, 43-60.

Martinus, F. (1975). Papiamentu. Oceanic Linguistics Special Publications, 14, 147-209.

Papiamento. Wikipedia (2018, June 19)

Refineria Isla Curaçao B.V. (n.d.).