Jamaica: Patois as language or broken English?

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Sat Jul 5 14:01:01 UTC 2008

Patois as language or broken English?

Friday, July 04, 2008

Suddenly it seems the old debate on the status of our primary mode of
expression as a legitimate language versus what has been called the
"accepted" English tongue, has again broken into the open. Kadene
Porter in a recent article in the Observer and a letter in the
Gleaner, has very ably put the arguments on the table. I hope readers
will avail themselves of her reasoning. She herself has capability in
three foreign languages and is not as limited a judge as most of us.
Ms Porter suggests what our linguistic experts have been urging all
along, that is, we are moving towards bilingual status. This prospect
horrifies some of us to whom Standard English is sacrosanct. The
common "patois" as an evolving language in its own right is seen by
some as a threat to the preservation of "accepted" Standard English.
Indeed, the prejudice is hardly disguised when standard English is
referred to as "proper" English.

Thus "improper" English is what most Jamaicans in fact speak, since
our creole and truly first language is fully intertwined in the daily
oral interchange we have with one another. English is reserved for
formal print and formal speeches. Very few Jamaican households insist
on standard English as the primary mode of speech. We are coming close
to the English of whom it was said, "Why can't the English learn to
speak English?" In my own lifetime, many years of which were spent
abroad, I have seen the ascendancy of our creole from the vernacular
of the lesser educated groups to become the everyday language of
choice of most of the more educated classes. This is living proof that
language is an ever-changing product of a people's culture.

We have seen Latin fade and die as a "proper" language of
well-educated European peoples. Who wants to take any bets that our
creole language is about to fade and die? At one time my critique was
that our primary oral Jamaican language lacked formal grammar and
syntax and therefore did not meet the test of a language that could be
acquired by a visitor new to it. I used the comparison of Swahili in
East Africa. On my first visit to Kenya, I was able to buy a book of
Swahili grammar and syntax. With that grounding, it was relatively
easy to add vocabulary. Had I continued to reside in the country,
within months I would have been able to converse with some fluency in
the acquired language. A daughter of mine hated French in high school.
After a year in Switzerland immersed in the language, she was
described in her term report as having acquired "an excellent mastery
of French". As we know, when one is comfortable in one language, this
comfort aids the acquisition of other languages. Note that European
children in school often acquire three or more languages.

In Jamaica, the majority of our people are not fluent in reading or
writing Standard English. Some very bright university students still
need remedial English in order to handle their work. Contrast the
example Porter's article cited of a child who arrived in Jamaica with
French only and who was able in one year to pass CXC exams with
distinctions. I return to my former critique that our creole lacked
formal written structure, and now formally withdraw that critique. For
indeed, there has been a formal written grammar and structure of
patois for over 30 years, backed by a body of substantial scholarship
on the language. I refer to Jamaica Talk by Frederic Cassidy and
Robert Le Page, available in the UWI bookshop, and no doubt elsewhere.

There is also a scholarly dictionary of the Jamaican creole, the
Dictionary of Jamaican English of over 500 pages. An overseas visitor
asked me recently why the UWI Linguistics Department isn't more active
in promoting the distribution and use of the two works mentioned.
Probing that concern, I have discovered the simple truth. The
Linguistics Department at UWI is simply not funded sufficiently to
undertake this necessary duty. It would be easier to get funding to
study why tree frogs croak in a certain way. And the real truth behind
that truth, is that we have a colonial hangover in which the language
of the former master is the only one worth legitimising. Never mind
that it is patois which is more correctly termed our mother tongue
while English is our second language. The real issue is the necessity
to recognise the importance of the emerging bilingual status of our
country and to legitimise that status through the early teaching of
English as a second language.

Indeed, the Ministry of Education has officially started on this
inevitable road of bilingualism. The Bilingual Education Project was
approved and implemented by the Ministry in two project schools in
2004. It involves full and equal use of Jamaican (creole) alongside
Standard English in all aspects of the education process from Grades 1
to 4 (so far) at the primary school level. They both function as
languages in which literacy and other subjects are taught, and as
media of instruction. Results of the Grade Four literacy tests are
pending, but indications to date are that the "guinea pigs" are
achieving better than the classes before them. This project strongly
challenges the traditional negative attitudes towards Jamaican creole.

Perhaps someone should bring Prime Minister Bruce Golding up to speed
in view of his recently expressed scepticism of any usefulness in
promoting Jamaican creole. A survey of 50 of the 60 members of the
Lower House of Parliament in 1999 indicated that 60 per cent of them
would support legislation giving official status to Jamaican alongside
English. (Quoted from Society for Caribbean Linguistics, "Full
Bilingual Education in a Creole Language Situation", Occasional Paper
Number 35). The Ministry of Education has an official policy promoting
the use of creole as a language of instruction in the early years,
even if funds are yet unavailable to effect texts to support this
respect for first language.

Let us face facts and act accordingly.

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