This language business ... Teaching in Jamaican creole?

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Mon Jul 14 12:43:43 UTC 2008

*This language business ... Teaching in J'can creole?
published: Sunday | July 13, 2008 *

*Peter Maxwell, Contributor*

I have real sympathy with those who are surprised that anybody in a school
would want to make use of the Jamaican language (which the academics call
Creole and the rest of us call Patois). After all, most of us have been
socialised into believing that it isn't a language at all, that it is at
best a dialect of English - suitable for entertainment, perhaps, and for
chatting with your family and friends - but that it should have nothing to
do with education<>.

What is true, though, is that a number of wise people have been trying to
show us another side of the story for two or three generations already.
People like Beryl Loftman-Bailey, D. R. B. Grant and Dennis Craig taught a
lot of others that the Jamaican language is not just a dialect, since it has
its own system of rules, both for grammar and for pronunciation, and that
while most of its words are derived from English words, it is as different
from English as Portuguese is from Spanish, or as Haitian is from French.

*Target language*

Others, like Mervyn Alleyne, Hubert Devonish and Pauline Christie have, for
decades, explained that it is known all over the world that if your home
language (Jamaican, for instance) is recognised and respected, you will
learn a target language (English, for instance) more easily. This is why
organisations such as the National Association of Teachers of English (NATE)
have encouraged
help children to learn English by noting the similarities and
between the languages.

Clearly, it is to our advantage to have all Jamaicans proficient in the use
of English. Unfortunately, too many adults who claim to be speakers and
writers of English set a very poor example for others, never having
understood those differences, and getting confused about singular and plural
form, about the agreement of subject and verb, or of pronoun and antecedent,
and about the accepted form of idiomatic expressions.

At the beginning of this 21st century, the Ministry of Education set up a
committee to develop a language-education policy for Jamaica. A careful
document was drawn up, with the assistance of able and concerned educators
and other stakeholders, and circulated for comment in 2001, prior, we were
told, to being submitted for executive approval at

*Official language*

According to this document, the proposed policy retains Standard Jamaican
English (SJE) as the official language and advocates the policy option of
transitional bilingualism, promoting oral use of the home language in
schools until skills in SJE are developed. Within this option, emphasis is
placed on the employment of bilingual and bidialectal
particularly at the early primary level and again at the early
secondary level, where numerous language and literacy needs are also

It is a pity that the scholarship and good intentions of that
transformational exercise appear to have come to nought. Nothing further was
heard of it.

*Peter Maxwell is an educator and editor of the publications of Jamaica's
National Association of Teachers of English.*

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