Written by Fenna Eelkema
Aruba is one of the six Caribbean islands that are part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The island has 100 thousand inhabitants who identify themselves as multilingual individuals who live in a multilingual society. The majority of the population speaks the local language, Papiamento, as their mother tongue. Nevertheless, Dutch has been the official and dominant language in administrative and educational systems since 1636. This ramification is due to the fact that, for 360 years of colonialism, the colonial authorities advocated the idea that everyone in Dutch colonies had to speak Dutch. It was only in 2003 that the Aruba government legally recognized both Dutch and Papiamento as official languages for Aruba. Additionally, due to migration, tourism, the influence of social media, and Aruba’s location (off the coast of Venezuela), global languages such as English and Spanish have also become important parts of the island’s linguistics. Because of this, the language situation in Aruba can be very complex, as the four dominant languages—Papiamento, English, Dutch, and Spanish—all play a role in individuals’ daily communication. According to census figures (2020), the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) found that the majority of the population of Aruba (92%) speaks Papiamento at home; this is followed by English (15%), Spanish (14%), and then lastly Dutch (10%).
Aruba’s Education System
Aruba’s education system is characterized by its comprehensive structure and commitment to quality education. The Aruba education system is based on the education model used in the Netherlands. Education is compulsory for children aged 4 to 16. Children start kindergarten when they are four. When they are six, they move on to basic education for children, and then when the children are twelve, they move on to vocational education, which lasts 4 years, or they move on to general secondary education, which lasts between 4 and 6 years. General secondary education prepares students for higher education, while vocational education emphasizes practical skills and prepares them for the job market.
Up until the age of 10, the dominant language in education was Papiamento mixed with some Dutch; after this, it switches around to Dutch being the dominant language mixed with some Papiamento. Specifically, nearly all of secondary education is conducted in Dutch, except for one sector, which is fully taught in Papiamento.
Aruba faces a unique language challenge in its education system. While the majority of education is conducted in Dutch, the most widely spoken language at home is Papiamento. The dominance of Papiamento at home contributes to lower proficiency in Dutch, a crucial language for academic success in Aruba. Only 10% of the students speak Dutch at home; thus, a lot of students do not have prior knowledge of Dutch when starting school. This linguistic disparity poses a significant obstacle for a lot of students. Expressing themselves and demonstrating their knowledge in Dutch becomes a challenging task, leading to missed opportunities and hindrances in their academic progress. Additionally, it is evident that Dutch is not the language of choice for everyday communication and that, outside of academia, there is minimal necessity for the Dutch language. A survey conducted in Aruba revealed that most individuals do not have positive sentiments toward the Dutch language or culture. This negative perception may further discourage students from engaging with the language, making the language barrier bigger.
In Aruba, academic success is often correlated with one’s ability to express ideas fluently in Dutch rather than actual subject knowledge. This further disadvantages students who struggle with Dutch, as their true potential may not receive proper recognition. Graduation rates reflect this issue, with only one sector of secondary schools consistently achieving graduation rates of 75% or higher; coincidentally, this is the only sector of secondary school taught in Papiamento. This further shows the impact of language on academic outcomes.
Teaching predominantly in Dutch poses challenges due to students’ limited comprehension and possibly teachers’ proficiency in the language. Effective communication and learning may be hindered. Additionally, Aruba students have to take the same exams as students in the Netherlands, but the language barrier puts the Aruba students at a disadvantage, decreasing their chances of passing and graduating.
Overall, Aruba’s language challenge in education requires proactive measures to ensure all students have an equal opportunity to succeed. A balanced approach is necessary to efficiently incorporate Dutch alongside Papiamento. By finding this balance, students can excel academically while preserving the cultural and linguistic significance of Papiamento.
Aruba is a small island, and because of this, there are only limited opportunities. While the government subsidizes two higher education institutions, the Instituto Pedagogico Arubano and the University of Aruba, offering diverse undergraduate and graduate programs, the options remain relatively restricted compared to larger countries. And therefore, after completing their high school education, many students who aspire to pursue further studies find themselves with limited choices. To broaden their academic horizons, a substantial number of Aruba students opt to study in foreign countries such as the Netherlands, the United States, and Spanish-speaking nations, where there is a bigger variety of studies to pick from.
However, the consequence of this trend is that not all students return to Aruba upon completing their studies abroad. A survey conducted in 2011 among Aruba students studying in the Netherlands revealed that only 50% of respondents planned to return to Aruba within five years of finishing their studies. Various factors contribute to the decision of students to remain abroad. One significant reason is the employment landscape in Aruba, which is heavily dominated by the tourism industry, which produces more than 80% of the GDP (gross domestic product). While these sectors provide valuable opportunities for many people, the prospects for employment in some other fields are limited. As a result, individuals are compelled to seek job opportunities in countries where a more diverse range of industries can accommodate their education and expertise better.
This is called brain drain, which means the emigration of highly educated people seeking better opportunities abroad. To address this issue of brain drain and encourage talented individuals to return to Aruba, the Aruba government has implemented policies to encourage people to come back after their studies, such as giving a discount on students’ debts if they return after graduating.
To conclude, Aruba is doing a very good job of creating high-quality education and is, in general, not facing a lot of educational challenges. The main challenge primarily stems from the unique linguistic situation in Aruba. Aruba’s multilingual society, with Papiamento as the dominant language at home, presents obstacles in teaching and learning Dutch, which is the most used language in administration and education. This language barrier hinders academic progress and recognition of students’ true potential, ultimately impacting graduation rates and overall educational outcomes.
To address this issue, a balanced approach is crucial, emphasizing bilingualism and recognizing the cultural and linguistic significance of both Papiamento and Dutch. By promoting a supportive and inclusive environment, Aruba’s education system can better equip students for academic success while preserving their cultural identity.
The other challenge facing Aruba’s education is that, due to its small size and limited opportunities, many students seek higher education and better job prospects abroad. This phenomenon leads to the emigration of individuals who have been highly educated, potentially depriving the island of some individuals with valuable talent and expertise.
To counteract brain drain, the Aruba government has implemented policies to encourage the return of skilled individuals, offering incentives such as debt discounts for returning students. However, sustainable efforts are required to create a more diverse local job market that can accommodate the various skills that returning graduates might have.
In conclusion, addressing the educational challenges in Aruba necessitates a multifaceted approach that prioritizes language integration, cultural preservation, and initiatives to attract skilled individuals back to Aruba.
Nuffic (2015) Education system: Aruba, described and compared with the Dutch system. Retrieved from https://www.nuffic.nl/sites/default/files/2020-08/education-system-aruba.pdf.
Lo-Fo-Sang, K. (2022) The current context of the language of instruction in Aruban Education. Utrecht University. Retrieved from https://studenttheses.uu.nl/bitstream/handle/20.500.12932/42633/The Current Context of the Language of Instruction in Aruban Education – Master Thesis – Kristi Lo-Fo-Sang.pdf?sequence=1.
Upegui, J. (2011) Return Migration of Aruban Students. Tilburg University. Retrieved from http://arno.uvt.nl/show.cgi?fid=116259.
Van Dalen, H. Upegui, J. (2011) Aruba volgt heilloze weg om studenten terug te lokken. MeJudice. Retrieved from https://www.mejudice.nl/artikelen/detail/aruba-volgt-heilloze-weg-om-studenten-terug-te-lokken.
Van der Linden, A. (2017) Language Planning: Education in Aruba. Radboud universiteit Nijmegen. Retrieved from https://theses.ubn.ru.nl/server/api/core/bitstreams/67b2c6ac-daa0-4047-b96f-5e34427eaa8c/content.
Dijkhoff, M. Pereira, J. (2010) Language and education in Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao. Creoles in Education. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/300471435_Language_and_education_in_Aruba_Bonaire_and_Curacao.
Centrale examens in het Caribisch gebied. College voor toesten en Examens. Retrieved from https://www.cvte.nl/onze-toetsen-en-examens/centrale-examens-in-het-caribisch-gebied.