Language transmission in a Garifuna community: Challenging current notions about language death

1. Introduction

Corozal is a Garifuna community of approximately 3,000 people in the Atlantida Department of northern Honduras. This population estimate by local leaders and NGOs does not include community members who spend most of the year away from the village for employment, on cruise ships, and who spend only two to three months of the year in the village. Like most Garifuna communities in Honduras, Corozal has a relatively young population; more than 60 percent of its inhabitants are under the age of 21.

The adult population consists primarily of Garifuna speakers, and they also have good command of Spanish. Spanish is mainly used for socioeconomic transactions with the mainstream ladino/mestizo society and to talk to the children at home, because Garifuna parents want to make sure that their children have a good command of Spanish by the time they reach primary school age (6 to 7 years old). The child population in Corozal thus speaks Spanish as the primary language and understands some Garifuna; only the very young among them do not understand Garifuna at all. As these children grow, however, they gradually begin to acquire competence in the heritage language, so by the time they are 13 they are competent not only in understanding the language, but also in speaking it, at least at the level of basic dialogue. Therefore, Corozal can be classified in general as a bilingual speech community.

One of the apparently paradoxical phenomena in the maintenance of the Garifuna language in Corozal as well as in other Garifuna communities in Honduras is the fact that while Garifuna parents tend to teach their children Spanish as their first language, most Garifuna youth end up learning their ancestral heritage language after completing secondary school. This phenomenon seems to go against predictions made by sociolinguists that without vertical transmission from parent to child, heritage languages cannot be maintained.


To understand this phenomenon, qualitative data were collected in Corozal. These data were gathered primarily from participant observations, in which the key participants were household members and children in the playground. Language use and preference among adults and youth on the streets and in other public settings were also observed. In addition to participant observation, quantitative data were obtained from a questionnaire-based survey, as well as a comprehensive socioeconomic and demographic survey conducted in the entire village.

Members of 40 households and 5 groups of children between the ages of 7-13, all originally from Corozal, participated in the study. This number of surveyed households represents around 10 percent of the total domestic units in Corozal. One characteristic common to the selected households is that at least one family member was either currently attending high school or had completed high school.

3. Trends in Language transmission in Corozal

That 50 percent of the informants (heads of households) have at least attended high school is important, in the sense that these parents have already personally experienced how hostile the high school environment can be for culturally and linguistically diverse students, especially for Garifunas and any others of indigenous or Afro-Caribbean origin. These parents are more aware of their children’s needs in order to succeed academically in high school, including the language skills necessary to help them avoid linguistic discrimination. Therefore, they have a clear idea about what should be the first and primary language of the children at every stage in their lives to succeed in mainstream ladino/mestizo Honduran society.

The adult members of the household (i.e. 20 and above), speak Garifuna among themselves, and they switch to Spanish when addressing the younger family members. Moreover, one of the informants stated that many parents in Corozal, especially the most educated (i.e., those with at least a high school diploma) talk in Spanish to their infants even before they are born.

In 90 percent of the households included in the study, a female parent was the person responsible for the household. This high percentage of female heads of household points to the crucial role played by the mother in the entire decision-making process with regard to language choice in Corozal families. Mothers are the key players in the processes of language use, preference, maintenance, revitalization, and even language shift in Garifuna communities.

One mother, who described herself as an ‘uneducated’person (i.e. someone who does not hold at least a high school diploma) reported that it was Garifuna professionals who were the first to introduce the idea of teaching Spanish as the first language to the children in Corozal. According to the informant, the argument generally used by these professionals for teaching Spanish as first language to their children was that competence in Spanish would position Garifuna children in an advantageous way in their future dealings with broader Honduran and global society. Parents without a secondary education (or high school diploma) tend to follow the examples set by parents whose children have succeeded better in the local and national formal educational system and in mainstream society.

Ironically, those formally educated members of Garifuna society who intiallly promoted the use of Spanish as first language with children seem to be the same ones who are now setting the new trend of encouraging their high school children to learn and speak Garifuna as their primary language. This novel tendency, which was initiated by more educated young parents, has inspired other less educated parents as well to motivate and encourage their children to learn Garifuna, as well as to give them autochthonous names (e.g. Anigi, Nirisin, Naruni, Emeri, Darina, etc.).

4. The strategic thinking behind parents’ language transmission practices

Almost 100 percent of parents reported speaking in Spanish to their children, especially to the toddlers and youngest ones, stating that Garifuna language would eventually be learned by their children in the future. Parents’ decision to teach Spanish to their children as the primary language in the very initial stage of their lives was confirmed not only in all the conversations during the interviews but also during all of the participant observation activities carried out in each and every household visited. As result of these linguistic behaviors, almost all adolescents in Corozal speak Spanish as their primarily language.

In her interview, the informant JF mentioned that the differences between the linguistic competences and preferences of the speech community under 20 years old and those in their 20s and above are remarkable. The teenagers of the families are Spanish-dominant speakers, while the adults are mostly dominant Garifuna speakers, even though they may also have some competence to converse in Spanish. The different levels of linguistic preferences and competences among these groups can frequently be correlated with the group’s age and level of education. It seems that the younger the child, the higher the possibility that Spanish is his or her strongest language.

There has been a general belief among parents in Corozal in the last two to three decades that children must learn Spanish as their first language and Garifuna as their second language, usually after finishing high school. Parents strongly believe that for a child to be successful in life, she or he must do well at school, and in Honduras this depends heavily on whether she or he has a good command of Spanish by the time she or he reaches school age (usually six to seven years old). Therefore, this linguistic decision does not so much reflect a preference on the part of parents as much as it represents a strategy that they have developed to cope with the Spanish monolingual and mono-cultural perspectives that characterize the educational system in Honduras. It is only after children have successfully finished primary school and started their secondary education that parents begin to actively teach and encourage their children to learn the native language.

This linguistic practice may be seen by many as leading inevitably to language loss, citing abundant evidence from endangered language speaking communities around the world (Crawford, 2001; Crystal, 2000; Dorian, 1998; Fishman, 1991; and Wurm, 2001). In Corozal, however, the expected permanent language shift from Garifuna to Spanish does not seem to be taking place. Instead, the Garifuna have adopted a very practical, temporary, and reversible linguistic strategy in order to guarantee their children success at school, while at the same time protecting the children from suffering the negative impacts of a national educational system that is typified by severe monolingual and mono-cultural myopia. If, at some future date, changes in the school system were to make it evident to parents that their children would not be negatively impacted if they learned Garifuna as their first language, this strategy would no longer be necessary and it would thus probably be abandoned.

The informant RF told the investigator that Garifuna mothers must speak to their children in Spanish rather than in Garifuna by necessity, because they do not want their children to go through the same humiliations that these same mothers went through at school for not being fluent in Spanish. RF also mentioned that Garifuna school children were labeled as ignorant and incompetent by the teachers and Ladino/Mestizo classmates for their lack of a good command of Spanish.

However, when asked their opinions about the possibility of teaching Garifuna to the children at school sometime in the future in Corozal, both mothers as well as almost everyone who was asked the same question in Corozal, said that they would strongly support the idea of bilingual education (Garifuna-Spanish) not only in Corozal, but also in Honduras in general. But isn’t there an apparent contradiction here? While these “modern mothers” in Corozal are obviously speaking only Spanish at home and teaching it as the first language to their children, they are at the same time expressing total support for the idea of a bilingual education (Garifuna-Spanish) program in the public school system.

No, there is no contradiction, because the Garifuna mothers in Corozal are not and have never been opposed to the use and development of their heritage language, but instead they are against the discrimination suffered by Garifuna students at school for not being native Spanish speakers. Therefore, the apparent contradiction would dissolve at the very moment that Garifuna is incorporated as language of instruction in the school system. The discrimination against the Garifuna-speaking children would automatically disappear and with it the reasons that have forced the mothers in Corozal not to speak in their native language, especially to their small children. Moreover, the use of Garifuna as language of instruction in the school system in Corozal would increase the language’s prestige, so that neither the school teachers nor the society in general would consider it to be language of uneducated and illiterate people.

5. Vertical language transmission in indigenous communities: Challenging received notions about language death

The assumption that culturally and linguistically inclusive curricula could eliminate most of the causes that induced Garifuna mothers to teach Spanish their toddlers and strengthen the conditions for the development of the Garifuna language is not groundless, but rather can be supported not only by Grenoble and Whaley (1998), but also by Bernard Spolsky’s (1998) statements with regard to the role of literacy in relation to language status.

The process of the transmission as well as the maintenance of the Garifuna language in the village of Corozal and throughout Honduras in the last three decades cannot be explained and understood unless the basic organization of Garifuna extended family social structure is taken into account. As in many indigenous communities worldwide, the extended Garifuna family structure differs from the Western nuclear family structure and thus allows for both vertical and horizontal intergenerational language transmission.

In indigenous societies, vertical transmission is far more complex than the unidirectional parent-to-child language transmission model proposed by Western social scientists. In the case of the Garifuna, the extended family allows for transmission from grandparents to grandchildren, from uguchuhaña (as second mother) to nieces and nephews, from uguchihaña (as second father) to nieces and nephews, from uncles to nieces and nephews, from aunts to nieces and nephews, from godparents to godchildren, from adult neighbors to youth and child neighbors, and so forth.

The roles of grandparent, uguchuhaña and uguchihaña in the Garifuna culture is radically different from the relatively marginal ones assigned to such ‘peripheral’ family members in Western society where their involvement is usually limited to attendance at annual family gatherings and gift exchanges for birthdays, Christmas, graduations or other special occasions. In Garifuna society, these roles can include actual hands-on parenting responsibilities as well as financial responsibility for childens’ health and education. In fact, if an uguchuhaña or uguchihaña can afford it, they are expected to assume full care for their nieces or nephews. But even when the uguchuhaña and uguchihaña are not required to have full responsibility for a child, they are still active in language transmission to their nieces and nephews. This complex family social structure explains why the disruption of one aspect of vertical intergenerational language transmission, that from biological mother-to-child, has not posed a significant threat to the use, maintenance, and preservation of the Garifuna language in Corozal.

The use of the Garifuna in every domain of everyday life among adults and younger populations in Corozal is another important factor that explains why the Garifuna language has been preserved, even though direct transmission from biological parents to children has technically been suspended in the village in last three decades. The preference of the adult population to use the heritage language as the primary medium of communication in everyday conversation among themselves in Corozal cannot be classified as a vertical language transmission per se, even though, it represents an invaluable opportunity for language exposition and acquisition by children. This language transmission mode cannot be properly defined as vertical transmission in the sense that the purposes of those conversations among adults are not primarily oriented to meet children’s linguistic acquisition needs. The primary interlocutor, or listener, is the other adult, as is evidenced not only by the content, but also by the vocabulary used in this type of interaction. Therefore, child exposure to the language in such contexts represents a secondary effect. Nonetheless, adult preference for the use of the native language in conversations about different domains and aspects of their everyday lives is an important variable for language transmission to children, even as secondary listeners.

6. Language transmission and Afro-Indigenous traditions of leadership and resistance

Although it is a recent phenomenon in the process of transmission and maintenance of the Garifuna language in Corozal, a new type of community youth leadership has come to play a significant role in language transmission. These community leaders are committed to the promotion of cultural activism and awareness, to the promotion of Intercultural and Bilingual Education programs, as well as to the promotion of entrepreneurial initiatives among Garifuna youth. Their influence has become a relevant factor in the history of language transmission and maintenance in Corozal, and it represents a key component of a sustainable maintenance tradition for the heritage language.

The role of the tradition of resistance of the Garifuna, as a people that incorporates in its history the experiences of two traditions of resistance to colonialism and domination (the Afro-Caribbean and the Indigenous Caribbean), cannot be underestimated as we attempt to understand the variables that have contributed to the process of successful transmission, maintenance, and even revitalization of the Garifuna language in the village of Corozal. While some aspects of African ancestral traditions are manifested through Garifuna autochthonous religious practice, spirituality, music, dance, and phenotype, aspects of American indigenous ancestry and tradition are manifested in the Garifuna language, significant elements of the system of beliefs, gastronomy, fishing, and marine life tradition, as well as the holistic cosmovision of the relationship between human and nature, including the approach to land use and property.

The traditions of resistance of the African indigenous and American indigenous people provide extraordinary testimony of the indestructible spirit of freedom of the human species, embodied in the unbreakable sovereignty and resistance to colonization and domination by the Garifuna people, first in Saint Vincent and later in Central America. Some scholars of Garifuna history contend that there is no evidence of colonization, domination, or slavery in the history of the Garifuna people (Cayetano and Cayetano, 1997) either in the African or in the American indigenous ancestry. This historic tradition of resistance of the Garifuna people to any form of domination and colonization becomes another important variable that contributes to understanding the phenomenon of preservation, use, transmission, and maintenance of the Garifuna language and culture in Corozal in the last hundred and fifty years.

7. Colonization and threats to the survival of Garifuna language and culture

The role of religion in the use and maintenance of the Garifuna language is limited to the acceptance by some churches in Garifuna communities of the use of the heritage language for some aspects of liturgical celebration, particularly the songs. Preaching and readings of the Gospel can sometimes also be delivered in Garifuna by community lay ministers in the absence of priests, nuns or pastors.

Even though the use of the Garifuna language in the religious domain was initiated by the Catholic Church in Honduras in the late 1970s, the practice continues to be strongly censured and opposed by most priests, nuns, and pastors in the country, particularly by those who maintain the incorrect and colonizing idea that the use of Garifuna and any other indigenous language in the religious service is a profanation of the sacredness of the ceremony and the holiness of the space. In Honduras, the opponents to the idea of inculturation of the Gospel or the use of the vernacular languages in religious services and the contextualization of Biblical interpretation have up until now outnumbered supporters of pastoral reform proposed by the Vatican II Council. As a result, church authorities, especially those settled in Garifuna and indigenous territories, continue to condemn the practice of Garifuna language and culture as sinful and pagan.

The public school system has, up until very recently, played no constructive role in the process of Garifuna language preservation in Corozal. Just as church leaders have maintained a position of condemnation toward indigenous languages and cultures, the schools have historically mounted a systematic campaign of fierce opposition to the preservation and development of Garifuna language and culture. The school system has inculcated both teachers and students with the erroneous idea that Garifuna and other indigenous languages are for primitive, non-educated, and ignorant people, and therefore the use of these languages on school premises has been totally prohibited.

Nonetheless, during the last decade there has been some very slow progress in the incorporation of Garifuna culture into the curriculum and the use of the Garifuna as a language of instruction in the public school system via the initial stages of implementation of Intercultural Bilingual Education programming in the public schools of Corozal. However, the current non-native principal of the public primary school in Corozal has taken specific actions oriented toward reversing any possible advances in terms of the implementation of the Intercultural Bilingual Education approach at the school. For instance, ladino/mestizo teachers have replaced Garifuna teachers in nearly all decision-making administrative positions.

Although there is a legal framework for the national implementation of the Intercultural Bilingual Education approach in Honduras, the actual process of implementation in the classroom still depends on the good will of the local educational authorities and school principals, many of whom, like the above mentioned principal in Corozal, have demonstrated no interest whatsoever in the implementation of culturally and linguistically pertinent school curricula. The situation becomes even worse when national educational authorities, such as the Ministers and Vice-Ministers of Education and their administrative staff also demonstrate a lack of knowledge of and interest in the provision of culturally and linguistically appropriate education.

Consequently, both schools and churches have played a similar role in the annihilation of the language and culture of the Garifuna as they have played in the annihilation of indigenous languages and cultures worldwide. Therefore, the continued use and maintenance of the Garifuna language in Corozal has not occurred because of the support of these institutions, but has happened despite the destructive impact of these two traditional advocates and propagators of the colonization of indigenous peoples and their territories.

Nonetheless, these institutions are currently being forced to come to terms with the increasing demands of the Garifuna people, who are questioning the very existence of institutions of religion and education in their communities, unless these institutions are prepared to make some significant and fundamental transformations in terms of their traditional and colonizing approach to the language and culture of the Garifuna people. The need for a new approach could become inevitable as church and school authorities begin to confront well educated Garifuna leaders in these communities, some of whom have achieved formal credentials and degrees that are equal to or superior to those held by national educational and religious authorities themselves. This new image of the Garifuna and other indigenous peoples is challenging the unquestioned authority that priests, nuns, pastors, and school authorities exploited in the past. These traditional figures used to present themselves to indigenous peoples as the undisputed holders of the Truth; therefore, they were considered by the villagers as infallible spiritual, academic, and even cultural and linguistic mentors. Therefore, the presence in the village of a new generation of highly educated and culturally conscious Garifuna could bring about a new relationship between schools and churches and Garifuna communities, based on respect for the dignity and culture of the Garifuna and other indigenous people.

In fact, a promising current example of this new relationship are the considerable achievements of the National Program for the Education of Autochthonous and Afrodescendent People of Honduras (PRONEEAAH, for the Spanish acronym), which was created in the early 1990s as an implementing unit of the Ministry of Education of Honduras.

The major achievements of PRONEEAAH, especially in the last three fiscal years (2006-2008), under the administrative management and leadership of Rony L. Castillo, a well educated young Garifuna who is currently pursuing a doctoral degree at the Catholic University in Tegucigalpa, include the following:

8. Theoretical implications

Fishman (1991) places particular emphasis on unidirectional and vertical transmission scenarios for language transmission by making intergenerational transmission the primary focus of his work on RSL (reversing language shift). As Fishman states:

The priorities at various points in the RLS struggle must vary but they must, nevertheless, derive from a single, integrated theory of language-in-society processes that places intergenerational mother tongue transmission at the very center and that make sure to defend that center before setting out to conquer societal processes that are more distant, dubious and tenuous vis-a-vis such transmission (1991:6).

The linguistic practices over the last three generations in Corozal, as well as the current status of the heritage language in that northeastern Honduran village, raise important questions and doubts with regard to the effectiveness and adequacy of the dominant conceptual categories and theoretical frameworks used by Western social scientists to analyze language endangerment, particularly in the context of indigenous languages. This highlights the need for incorporating new and socioculturally appropriate analytical and conceptual categories to questions of language transmission and death in indigenous communities, some of which have already been introduced or highlighted in this study. For instance, the concept of extended family, a social structure of the Garifuna culture, must be employed as a fundamental analytical category for the identification, analysis, and interpretation of sociocultural phenomena like language preservation and endangerment in Garifuna and indigenous communities.

The absence or relative weakness of structures of domination and hegemony, such as the centralized state, the nuclear family, and the mass media in indigenous communities creates a favorable environment for horizontal transmission (among children: child-to-child; among youth: teenager-to-teenager, etc.) and diagonal transmission (between children and teenagers, between cultural agents and youth, etc.) which differ from the vertical scenarios for the transmission of language and culture from biological parents and biological children that is taken for granted by dominant Western social science. Dominant Western theories also take for granted the uni-directionality of language transmission: adults-to-children, institutions-to-children, mass media-to-children; children are always passive in the process. In Corozal, however, teenagers and youths have played an active role in the process of reversing language shift and revitalizing their heritage Garifuna language, just as Maori teenagers and youth have played a critical role in the process of reversing language shift and the revitalization of their indigenous heritage languages halfway across the globe in New Zealand (Grenoble and Whaley 1998:49-52). The Corozal study therefore cries out for current unidirectional vertical scenarios for language transmission and reversing language shift to be supplemented by multi-directional vertical, horizontal, and diagonal scenarios for the transmission and preservation of language and culture.


Cayetano, Sebastian and Fabian Cayetano. Garifuna history, language, and culture of Belize, Central America and the Caribbean, Belize, Bicentennial Edition, BRC. 1997, 229 pp.

Crawford, James. At War with Diversity: US Language Policy in an Age of Anxiety, Clevedon, UK, Multilingual Matters, 2001 [2000], 143 pp.

Crystal, David. Language Death, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002 [2000], 198 pp.

Dorian, Nancy C. Western Languages Ideologies and Small-Language Prospects. In Endangered Languages: Language Loss and Community Response. Lenore A. Grenoble and Lindsay J. Whaley, eds. Pp. 3-21. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press,1998, 361 pp.

Fishman, Joshua. Can Threatened Language Be Saved?, Clevedon, Multilingual Matters, 2001, 503 pp.

Fishman, Joshua. Reversing Language Shift: Theoretical and Empirical Foundations of Assistance to Threatened Languages. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 1991, 431pp.

Grenoble, Lenore A. and Lindsay J. Whaley. Toward a Typology of Language Endangerment. In Endangered Languages: Language Loss and Community Response, Lenore A. Grenoble and Lindsay J. Whaley (eds), Pp. 22-54. Cambridge, MA, Cambridge University Press,1998, 361 pp.

Endangered Languages: Cambridge, Cambridge University Press,1998, 361 pp.

Spolsky, Bernard. Sociolinguistics, New York, Oxford University Press, 1998.

Wurm, Stephen A (ed.). Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger of Disappearing (2nded, rev., enl. and upgraded). Paris: UNESCO Publishing. 2001 [1996].