English was the only official language in Belize, but other languages were commonplace. The 1980 census revealed that slightly more than one-half the population spoke English as their first language, and approximately one-third spoke Spanish. In the Corozal and Orange Walk districts, Spanish was the first language of 75 percent of the population, and fewer than 20 percent spoke English by preference. Smaller numbers spoke Mayan dialects, Garifuna, and Low German. The census also estimated that some 62 percent of all Belizeans were bilingual or trilingual. As many as 80 percent of the population were able to speak some English.
The census, however, failed to differentiate between standard English and the local vernacular, Belizean Creole. Some of the people considered to be English speakers could speak only Belizean Creole or "Broad Creole," while others spoke standard English as well. Language competency was largely related to social stratification. English speakers of higher socioeconomic status and education could switch with relative ease between standard English and Belizean Creole. The English-speaking urban and rural poor possessed more limited degrees of competency in standard English.
Linguistic diversity among the English-speaking population reflected and perpetuated social inequality. In Belizean schools, for example, standard English was the sole language of instruction. Studies have shown that students who came to school lacking proficiency in standard English suffered significant problems in comprehension and were often classified by teachers as slow, or problem learners.
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