Curaçao is a polyglot society. The languages widely spoken are Papiamentu, Dutch, Spanish, and English. Many people can speak all four of these languages. Spanish and English both have a long historical presence on the island alongside Dutch and Papiamentu. Spanish remained an important language throughout the 18th and 19th centuries as well due to the close economic ties with nearby Venezuela and Colombia.
The use of English dates back to the early 19th century, when Curaçao became a British colony. In fact, after the restoration of Dutch rule in 1815, colonial officers already noted wide use of English among the island. Recent immigration from the Anglophone Caribbean and the Netherlands Antillean islands of St. Eustatius, Saba and Saint Maarten, where the primary language is English as well as the ascendancy of English as a world language, has intensified the use of English on Curaçao. For much of colonial history, Dutch was never as widely spoken as English or Spanish and remained exclusively a language for administration and legal matters; popular use of Dutch increased towards the end of the 19th century and the early 20th century.
Historically, education on Curaçao, Aruba and Bonaire had been predominantly in Spanish up until the late 19th century. There were also efforts to introduce bilingual popular education in Dutch and Papiamentu in the late 19th century. Dutch was made the sole language of instruction in the educational system in the early 20th century to facilitate education for the offspring of expatriate employees of Royal Dutch Shell.
Papiamentu was tentatively re-introduced in the school curriculum during the mid-1980s. Recent political debate has centered on the issue of Papiamentu becoming the sole language of instruction. Proponents of making Papiamentu the sole language of instruction argue that it will help to preserve the language and will improve the quality of primary and secondary school education. Proponents of Dutch-language instruction argue that students who study in Dutch will be better prepared for the free university education offered to Curaçao residents in the Netherlands.
Effective 1 July 2007, the Netherlands Antilles declared Dutch, Papiamentu, and English as official languages, in recognition of the Dutch-speaking, Papiamentu-speaking and English-speaking communities of all the islands.