Jamaica: It's our language!

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Thu Jul 24 15:00:27 UTC 2008

It's our language!

Alison Irvine
Thursday, July 24, 2008

In his address to the graduates of Kingsway High School on June 29,
Prime Minister Golding said the following (apparently to much

"We've always thought that we needed a second language, but I thought
that when we were talking about a second language we were talking
about an international language, whether French, Spanish or German.
Something that can allow us easier access to other parts of the
world... But no, we're talking about patois, as if there's any other
country that will understand what we're saying. To me what this
signifies is an admission to failure. We have failed to impart our
accepted language, English, and so we have given up."
May I point out to Mr Golding that we have not "given up". In fact, we
never started at all.

In 1895, the superintending Inspector of Industrial Schools made the
following assessment of the Jamaican school-leavers in his

"With regard to English, which I look upon as the most neglected of
all the subjects taught in the schools of my district, children leave
school from the highest standard, no better equipped in the correct
use of the English language than the people surrounding them who have
in many instances never been to school at all." The Superintending
Inspector further noted that English was "very little understood,
often misunderstood and mistaught or neglected in the great majority
of our schools".

In 1916, the Jamaican Annual Report of the Education Department and of
the Board of Education identified what was described as "lamentable
weakness" in written composition in Jamaica's elementary schools.
Similar reports for the colonial government done in 1896, 1903 and
1908, made specific reference to the linguistic problems which pupils
were experiencing. In general, the archival and historical data drawn
from the Annual Reports of Her Majesty's Inspectors highlight the
systemic failure of pupils to acquire English in Jamaica's elementary

Half a century later, the results for exams in English Language show
the same pattern of underachievement as they do now. In 1949, 26 per
cent of those who sat for Senior Cambridge English Language passed the
exam; only 32 per cent passed in 1950. Just before Independence, in
1959, 45 passed the exam. According to Dr Ralph Thompson's analysis of
the 2007 results obtained by students leaving our schools, 71 per cent
of Jamaican children left secondary school unsuccessful in English
language examinations.

For well over a century we have been determined to ignore the reality
of the linguistic situation in Jamaica. For well over a century we
have preferred to squander our human potential, infringe the rights of
citizens who do not speak English and pretend, like the prime
minister, that English is our first language. We advance silly
arguments like, "People in other countries will not understand what
we're saying." Well, people in Finland, Greece, Turkey, Japan and a
number of other such places should also abandon what they speak since
their languages are confined to only one country too. Or we insist on
pretending that Jamaicans are incapable of being bilingual and will be
incapable of using two languages - Jamaican and English.

We are now startled that the Bible Society of the West Indies and
Wycliffe Bible Translators Caribbean want to translate the Bible into
Jamaican, even though it will really not be a cost to the Jamaican
taxpayer. Jamaicans should know that the Bible has been translated
into the creoles spoken in Suriname, Curacao, Haiti and St Lucia. The
founder of Wycliffe Bible Translators was William Cameron Townsend, a
missionary from the USA. While preaching to the Cakchiquel Indians of
Guatemala, Townsend was asked by one of the men: "If your God is so
great, why doesn't He speak in my language?" We Jamaicans, in 2008,
are still essentially saying the opposite: If God is so great, how
could He possibly speak our language?

Our reactions in 2008, after a century of an "English-only" language
policy that has clearly failed, say a lot about how we see ourselves.
And by the way, Mr Golding, you should know that, based on your own
criticism of Jamaican, German is a global non-starter if we are
choosing a foreign language for our students to learn.

Alison Irvine is a linguist and researcher in Washington, DC, USA.
treacle_29 at yahoo.com

N.b.: Listing on the lgpolicy-list is merely intended as a service to
its members
and implies neither approval, confirmation nor agreement by the owner
or sponsor of
the list as to the veracity of a message's contents. Members who
disagree with a
message are encouraged to post a rebuttal. (H. Schiffman, Moderator)

More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list