Language shift among West Indian Panamanians

Catherine Laliberté | Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München

Between 1850 and 1914, thousands of anglophone Caribbean workers migrated to Panama to build the Panama Railroad and the Panama Canal, as part of the most significant trans-Caribbean movement the region had ever seen (see Conniff 1985, Senior 2014). Today, many of their descendants are Panamanian citizens and constitute a small linguistic minority of English users, all of whom also speak Spanish fluently. The research presented here focusses on the bilingual West Indian population of Panama City and aims at describing and explaining the process of language shift towards Spanish monolingualism which the community is undergoing.

Answers to a language choice questionnaire administered to 90 bilinguals in 2019 give an overview of the domains in which both languages are used by individual speakers and show a striking generational decline of English-only interactions. These findings correspond to my observations in the field and statements by speakers themselves, whereby users of English are rather elderly and the use of English is generally limited to the family circle and religious settings.

The shift is traced to the rather unique sociolinguistic history of West Indian Panamanians. For most of its existence, the community essentially straddled two countries: the Republic of Panama and the Canal Zone, the U.S.-controlled territory which bisected the isthmus for most of the 20th century and in which thousands of people of West Indian descent lived and worked. In its fight to establish its nationhood and regain sovereignty over the Canal Zone, Panama developed a sense of national identity which was fundamentally anti-West Indian (Guerrón Montero 2020) and, I argue, steeped in linguistic nationalism and anti-bilingualism in particular.


Conniff, Michael L. 1985. Black labor on a white canal: Panama, 1904-1981. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Guerrón Montero, Carla. 2020. From temporary migrants to permanent attractions: Tourism, cultural heritage, and Afro-Antillean identities in Panama. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press.

Senior, Olive. 2014. Dying to better themselves: West Indians and the building of the Panama Canal. Kingston: The University of the West Indies Press.