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Takutu Bridge linking Guyana and BrazilTakutu Bridge linking Guyana and Brazil
Source: Stabroek News


Before Guyana gained its independence from Great Britain in May 1966, we knew more about Britain than we did about our own country. In high school, we studied British history and literature. Until the publication of Geography of Guyana by Guyanese Professor Leslie P. Cummings in 1965, we had no geography textbook on Guyana. In Form I, our first French and Latin classes began with the conjugation of the verb to love.

Although located on the mainland of South America, Guyana remained an island of English-speaking people on a continent dominated by Spanish and Portuguese. Learning French guaranteed our isolation from our continental neighbors.

After Guyana gained its independence, high school students had the option of choosing between French and Spanish. Latin lost its relevance for our new nation.

While I never had the chance to show off my French, it proved quite useful when learning Portuguese. I observed several similarities between the two Romance or Latin languages: sentence construction, verb conjugation, and gendered nouns and adjectives.

In the 1980s when the Guyanese government banned the importation of a wide range of consumer products, language was no barrier for the rise of a new type of Guyanese entrepreneur: the huckster. While the majority of hucksters traveled to the English-speaking Caribbean islands of Barbados and Trinidad to purchase food and other consumer products for resale in Guyana, others ventured into neighboring Suriname (Dutch) and Brazil (Portuguese). Dense forest terrain along the Venezuelan border deterred this type of informal trade in contraband goods.

Over recent years, Guyana’s relationship with its southern neighbor, Brazil, has grown immensely. Since its completion in 2009, the Takutu Bridge now links the two nations, across the river where hucksters once illegally sneaked across the border under cover of darkness. In February 2010, Guyana became a signatory member state of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR).

On 17 October 2013, Guyana finally committed to a long-term relationship with Brazil. The Ministry of Education launched its Portuguese Curriculum for schools. Until more Portuguese teachers are trained, only five high schools in Georgetown will offer this additional option. Guyanese business owners or their representatives and trade professionals who seek to do business with Brazil should have some degree of fluency in the language.

From my own experience in Brazil when acting as an English/Portuguese interpreter for visiting clients, I can tell you that a lot gets lost in translation. A whole new world of understanding and appreciation for another culture opens up to us when we can communicate with our business partners and the local population in their native language.

French, Portuguese or Spanish: Which foreign language should I learn? This is the question young Guyanese high school students must now ask themselves. Perhaps it’s none of these three options. Considering China’s rise as an economic power, their choice might well be Mandarin or Cantonese.