Fri | May 29, 2020

Nadine Muschette | From 'patwa' to Spanish - lost in translation

Published:Tuesday | June 14, 2016 | 12:00 AMNadine Muschette

The last week's articles, letters and commentaries about language education in Jamaica are testament to the passion we have for this aspect of our identity and our awareness of the role of language and its opportunities in the global society. For me, the discussions need to come down to the importance of the home language for literacy, especially in the early years, and how this facilitates the learning of multiple/other languages.

Last Friday's Letter of the Day, 'Don't neglect the people's language', by Louis Moyston, mentioned the language policy enacted in Singapore and the national benefits of teaching English as a second language to their Creole-speaking groups. Online commentators who frown upon 'patwa' in schools have mentioned Europe and that many Europeans comfortably speak multiple languages. This is true.

What is also true is that Europeans are made literate in their own national language - it is taught as a subject and it is their instrument of general instruction. Additionally, they have the advantage of 'natural' exposure to these multiple languages without much hassle. They can take weekend trips by bus, car or train to a neighbouring country and they don't generally need a visa!




But since this debate was (re)fuelled by a mention of Spanish becoming our official second language (because of our geographic locale), let us not go too far. Consider some of our Spanish-speaking neigh-bours who have also struggled with literacy and similar debates about home/indigenous languages in education - Peru, Guadeloupe, Honduras, Guat-emala, Colombia, Para-guay all come to mind.

Peru's case is probably the most recent, so let's look at that.

In November 2015, The Latin Correspondent reported that an estimated 'one million primary students in Peru speak a language other than Spanish in the home'. It was only last year October that their Ministry of Education took the bold policy decision to educate these children in their mother tongue with a goal of fluency/literacy in both their home language and the official Spanish by the end of primary school.

The surprising thing is that the appreciation for the recognition of indigenous, home languages and bilingual education was written into Peru's 1979 constitution. Funding, political will and the social attitudes towards the teaching of the home language in schools challenged the enacting of this policy. Parents in the very regions of the country that used different home languages feared that their children would be at a disadvantage in a country where Spanish was the official language. Citing their own experiences with socio-cultural discrimination, these parents preferred that their children learn in Spanish and leave their mother tongue behind. Sounds familiar?




So, why now for mother tongue policy implementation? Generations of their children have not mastered the official language, and simply put, they want literacy. If we want the same, we must not only make our neighbours' language ours, but we should also consider their own struggles and triumphs with home and official languages in education.

Are we willing to reach back for our own home language, and so ensure our children are literate and can leap into multi-language learning (English, Spanish, Mandarin ... )?

May we choose literacy for our children. May we become a truly multilingual nation. In that order.

- Email feedback to and