Trinidad & Tobago

Mala Morton-Gittens
Curriculum Planning and Development Division, Ministry of Education
Peter Smith
Division of Educational Research and Evaluation, Ministry of Education

Language and Literacy

Two linguistic systems coexist in Trinidad and Tobago: English and English‑based Creole. English, the countryʼs official language, is the language of instruction and assessment at schools and universities. English also is the language of print and electronic media, the courts, and official documents. English typically is used in formal situations and is central to national curricula at every level of preprimary, primary, and secondary school.1

English‑based Creole is the most commonly spoken language in Trinidad and Tobago, and is the first language of much of the countryʼs population. The vocabulary of English Creole draws largely from English with influence from West African languages, French, Spanish, and Bhojpuri (an Indo‑Aryan language spoken in parts of India and Nepal). The structure, pronunciation, and grammar of English Creole are distinct from English.

Because Spanish is recognized as the country’s first official foreign language, it is included in the primary and secondary school curricula. French is offered at some secondary schools, and Hindi is an integral part of the curriculum in Hindu primary schools and some Hindu secondary schools. The curricula in some Muslim primary schools includes Quranic Arabic.

Heritage languages from Africa and India—including Arabic, Hindi, Sanskrit, and Yoruba—are used primarily during religious ceremonies. Trinidad and Tobago’s rich oral tradition dates back to the period of slavery and indentured servitude, and is expressed through communication forms such as folk storytelling, Quranic recitation, panchayat, “talk tent,” “robber talk,” extempo, calypso, and rapso.a These traditions manifest the richness of the Creole language.2

The Ministry of Education prioritizes literacy education by emphasizing students’ literacy development while bridging learning gaps. The coexistence of two dialects has an impact on teaching and learning, and contributes to the literacy challenge. Thus, the Ministry focuses on building content knowledge and pedagogical skills among teachers and on deploying staff with specialized training in reading instruction. Literacy coaching was implemented at schools on academic watch from 2014 to 2016 to support the implementation of the primary school curriculum. Among other things, these coaches modeled effective literacy practices and organized on-site workshops specifically targeting reading instruction.

Libraries have long been partners in literacy development in Trinidad and Tobago. The National Library and Information System Authority operates the library system, managing all libraries in the public sector (e.g., public, special, and school libraries). Students and parents have access to reading materials through a variety of services including digital, educational, heritage, mobile, and special education libraries.3 The National Library and Information System Authority has collaborated with the Ministry of Education, the Trinidad and Tobago National Commission for UNESCO, and corporate sponsors to host projects. Librarians in the public system organize “readathons,” readings by visiting authors, storytelling, and other activities to generate interest in reading. Libraries have been established in most schools.

  • a Panchayat refers to a system of assistance that involved five persons from the village who would help solve problems; it came to Trinidad during East Indian indentureship. Currently, it can be taken to mean giving someone assistance. “Talk tent” refers to a forum in which local storytellers and personalities dressed as traditional Carnival folk characters and comedians participate, to give an entertaining but enlightening portrayal of aspects of life in Trinidad and Tobago. The term “robber talk” is derived from the speech used by the Midnight Robber Carnival character, who is known for his monologues expressing empty threats. Extempo refers to the art of impromptu composition of Calypso; the artiste is given the topic a few minutes before he or she is expected to perform. Calypso is a type of folk song originally from Trinidad but also sung elsewhere in the Caribbean. The subject of a calypso text usually is witty and satiric, and the lyric often incorporates Spanish, Creole, and African phrases. Rapso is a unique style of street poetry from Trinidad and Tobago that originated in the 1970s; it was created to relate to the everyday experiences of people.