Wed | Sep 19, 2018

Jamaica lost in translation

Published:Tuesday | April 7, 2015 | 12:00 AMParthe Edwards

Tiny Singapore has shown us how, by dint of hard work, discipline and re-educating minds, its people were able to throw off the shackles of colonialism and, in a few decades, propel a small island state from Third World to First World status.

Our minds need to be reprogrammed. Our education system needs a good shake-up. It has to be completely revamped. We simply have to stop trying to put new wine in old bottles.

And can we please teach our children to think? Capture their imagination? We are crying out for entrepreneurs to transform the economy when they are right here under our noses. Teach them to connect the dots that nobody else notices. Throw some foreign languages at them, broaden their horizons. The little ones, in particular, are like sponges and could absorb Spanish, French, Chinese, Japanese or Portuguese in no time if the languages were attractively presented to them in songs, dances, etc.

I am concerned, in fact, alarmed that in 2015, we are still stuck in a little monolingual pond. When most of us think of going overseas, we limit ourselves to the United States, Canada or the United Kingdom, but in various ways these three countries have made it clear that we are not really welcome within their borders.

world beckons

Yet the rest of the world is wide open, beckoning. What we have done really is to cut ourselves off from what the non-English speaking cultures can teach us. Why are we restricting ourselves? What are we afraid of? What place are we going to occupy in an increasingly globalised world? How do we interact with the growing number of foreigners among us?

Do we embrace them or do we look at them suspiciously when they speak their languages because we feel they might be talking about us? What if we spoke some of their languages and could interact freely with them and avoid the embarrassment of looking everywhere else but in their eyes when we are forced to communicate with them? Or do we stay on our little island speaking only English, fold our arms, and yell, "Why doesn't everybody speak English?"

When you reach a certain level of development and sophistication, you are expected to be competent in a foreign language or two. P.J. Patterson is comfortable and competent in Spanish. With my own ears, I heard President Fidel Castro converse with Prime Minister Manley in English. I imagine our African ancestors must have spoken more than one language.

Certainly, modern-day Africans are fluent in several languages and move with ease into other countries and settle there. If you go to the market in Kenya, Senegal or Angola, expect to hear different languages. In some European countries, you are considered illiterate if you don't speak at least three languages. Closer to home, in CuraÁao, many people routinely speak three or four languages. In short, the world is a multilingual place.

Whenever Nicaraguans, Haitians, Chinese or any other foreign nationals run afoul of the law and have to appear in our courts, Jamaica is required to provide interpreters for them if they don't understand English. The challenges are many. Can we find enough people with the necessary language skills to do court interpretation, or will we be obliged to import foreigners to do the job?

I have travelled to many countries and lived in quite a few and I have yet to meet a group of people anywhere who are more intelligent than Jamaicans. When the informal commercial importers used to go to Panama, Haiti and Curacao to shop, they were forced to haggle in Spanish, Creole and other languages and navigate their way around the various currencies of the region: peso, gourde, guilder, etc.

Are the students of international public law, international private law and international relations fluent in languages like French, Spanish and Chinese? Some jobs in United Nations agencies right here in Kingston are off limits to otherwise qualified Jamaicans because they lack the working knowledge of a foreign language. The United Nations has six languages: English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Russian and Chinese.

Are we bold and smart enough to come out of the little linguistic corner that we have boxed ourselves into and embrace this brave new world and its marvellous opportunities? Are we ready, or are we content, to continue hopping through life on one leg? Sorry, I meant one language.

- Parthe Edwards is a former interpreter to Prime Minister Michael Manley. Email feedback to and