[lg policy] Guyana: Educational leaders should revisit our language education policy

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Thu Apr 9 15:42:29 UTC 2015

Educational leaders should revisit our language education policy
April 9, 2015 · By Staff Writer <http://www.stabroeknews.com/author/layout/>
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*Dear Editor,*

Please permit me to raise once again the issue of language rights and
language education policy in Guyana. In spite of abundant evidence to
contradict it, the persistent idea that the people of the ex-British
colonies have a ‘common grounding’ in the English language still wins
support in influential circles at the University of Guyana and the Cyril
Potter [teachers’] College. This idea is further exalted in the concept of
‘International Englishes’ (a term referring to the various ways in which
speakers of languages other than English have influenced English), as well
as in Richard Allsopp’s ‘Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage’ (published
in 1996). More recently the idea has found an articulate voice in the
person of Mr Ian McDonald (Sunday Stabroek, March 29, page 7).

Mr McDonald argues that cricket and English are two powerful uniting forces
of the ex-British Caribbean, (he uses the term ‘West Indian’) declaring
English to be the “imaginative possession which defines our nationhood even
more basically than cricket.” I agree that our literary and musical artists
have expanded and enriched the English language. But adherence to the idea
without recognition of the true nature of our linguistic ‘bedrock’ makes us
pawns in a racist, hegemonic agenda that underlies it. Albert Memmi’s
definition of racism serves my argument:

Racism is the generalized and final assigning of values to real or
imaginary differences, to the accuser’s benefit and at his victim’s
expense, in order to justify the former’s own privileges or aggression.

Sir Hilary Beckles writes of an elite class of descendants of slaves in
Barbados, who “learned English and through it separated themselves from the
masses of Creole speakers.” I argue that this elite class exists everywhere
in the ex-British Caribbean and the manner in which value is assigned to
the real differences in our linguistic inheritances privileges this class,
giving them an undeserved advantage in the socio-political and
socio-economic order.

Unlike cricket, language is a natural possession acquired in childhood,
perhaps in vitro, from parents, caregivers and community. The mother
tongues of the majority of Caribbean speakers originated in the (16th, 17th
and 18th century) contact situations between the colonists and speakers of
certain African languages on the west coast of Africa, were further
developed on the slave plantations with linguistic inputs from other
immigrant groups, and acquired naturally by children on the plantations and
subsequent post-emancipation societies. In grammar and phonology, the
differences between these mother tongues and the colonists’ have disproved
the proposition that they are dialects of English and other European
languages, although they have borrowed much of their respective
vocabularies from them.

The shaky ‘dialect’ argument is used to justify the continuation of
colonial language policies in the region. Our Guyanese (Creolese) is
assigned inferior value to English in the education system. In fact, it is
illegitimate to use it even orally to teach the content areas. It is
assigned dialectal ‘folk’ value, in written form; it is skilfully used by
English-speaking creative writers who seek individual recognition of their
Caribbean specificity abroad; it appears in print media verbatim reports of
interviews with the Guyanese speakers; and it is exploited by the business
elite in advertising. But the most damaging aspect of the agenda is that
although Guyanese appears occasionally in English language textbooks, it is
assigned negative educational value in the assessment of students’ speech
and writing.

Mr McDonald blames the education systems of the region for the “uniformly
poor CXC results in English,” suggests that there is a “shortfall in
quality or quantity of English teachers in the schools” and concludes that
the authorities do not place a high priority on the teaching of English. My
first-hand experience discredits this criticism. A great deal of frenetic
energy is spent chasing after the English ideal, even in the nursery
schools. Hours upon hours spent on English phonics in our primary schools
and pages upon pages of English text copied from books or chalkboards in
our secondary schools are testimony to this English monolingual agenda.

In our multi-lingual situation a child may acquire more than one mother
tongue. But the reality is that English is not a mother tongue for the vast
majority. Because of their captive audiences and Guyanese teachers’
facility with the children’s mother tongues, schools are potentially
powerful spaces where children can learn together. Schools also have the
potential to enhance the linguistic power of their pupils, both with
respect to their mother tongues as well as any ‘other’ languages. For
Guyana, we can safely assume English to be the most highly desired ‘other’.

If schools are to realize their potential, educational leaders will need to
understand that their grand idea founders upon its own misconstrued
pillars. For the convenience of public administration and social control,
the minority British colonialists had imposed their shared language on the
educational institutions in their colonies because they had the power to do
so. Shouldn’t our language idea/ideal be driven by the quest to liberate
the people’s voices and to involve them in the decision-making of our
imagined nation? What kind of democracy would we be constructing if the
people were forced to deny this vital and inalienable possession—their
languages—by disempowerment through non-recognition? What kind of
educational leaders would shroud linguistic differences in a smokescreen of
assumed commonality and blame the victims for the results of discriminatory
educational policy, the flagship of racist, capitalist hegemony?

And if the idea/ideal of a single, standardized language is so compelling
for the unifying of an imagined nation, whose language should it be? In
this time of new coalition politics in Guyana, “… driven by a compelling
sense of urgency and by national outrage” (Moses Bhagwan, Stabroek News,
April 2) I urge that our educational leaders understand the urgency of
revisiting our language education policy with more genuine commitment to
inclusive democracy than we have done in the past.

*Yours faithfully,*

*Charlene Wilkinson*

*Lecturer, Department of*

*Language and Cultural*


*Faculty of Education and*

*the Humanities*

*University of Guyana*


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