Thu | Apr 19, 2018

Carolyn Cooper | Not a word on Mother Language Day!

Published:Sunday | February 26, 2017 | 12:00 AM

Last Tuesday, February 21, was UNESCO's International Mother Language Day. As usual, this anniversary didn't make the headlines in Jamaica. I searched the topic on both The Gleaner and Observer websites. What came up on the Observer's site was a random list of irrelevant articles.

A reassuring message said, "Didn't find what you were looking for? Try again using Google." I did. The first result was a little more promising. It was a June 13, 2016 column with the headline, 'Linguistic identity and TESOL' (Teaching English as a Second Language). It had nothing to do with International Mother Language Day. It was about Prime Minister Andrew Holness' short-lived scheme to make Spanish a second official language.

The Gleaner results weren't much better. The first one was my own column, 'If pikni no understand, how dem a go learn?', published on March 20, 2016. That headline was my version of UNESCO's theme for International Mother Language Day 2016, 'If you don't understand, how can you learn?'

In that column, written in Jamaican, I made the following observations, which I've translated into English for the benefit of those readers who have not been taught literacy in their mother language: The UNESCO report says that children should be taught in a language they understand. In November 2001, our Ministry of Education put out its own report on how schools should deal with language issues.

Lots of very important people wrote that report. They admitted that we must use the mother language in schools. But only for oral communication! It seems as if our Jamaican language isn't good enough for us to 'waste' money teaching children to be literate in the language. That's only for English.

I don't agree with this policy at all. Children should learn to read and write in their mother language as well. That's precisely why I'm abused every month when I write this column in Jamaican. Some people can't read it and they get vexed. With me! They shouldn't be mad at me. It's the Ministry of Education.




The other Gleaner article on International Mother Language Day, published on March 6, 2016, was written by Professor Hubert Devonish, head of the Jamaican Language Unit (JLU) at the University of the West Indies, Mona. It took the form of letter to the new minister of education. And the headline summarised Prof Devonish's lucidly argued case: 'End prejudice against Patois'.

The JLU was established in direct response to the issue of language rights as human rights. In May 2001, the joint select committee of Parliament on the draft Charter of Rights was asked to address the injustice that all government business is routinely conducted in a language that the majority of the people do not understand.

Yeah, yeah! English is the official language and everybody speaks and understands it. Lie. Or to use a 15th-century English word of French origin: trumpery. Donald Trump has spectacularly revived this old-fashioned word. The root meaning of trumpery is deceit and trickery. By the 16th century, it got a new twist: 'showy but worthless finery'. That's the Trump Tower aesthetic!

Mek mi tek mi mout outa America business! Mind you, it will soon be our business when all the undocumented non-saints come marching in - if Donald Trump has his way. According to the Pew Research Center, there are approximately 100,000 undocumented Jamaicans in the US. How are we going to cope with all these new deportees? How are they going to be reintegrated into Jamaican society? And how are we going to manage without their remittances?




Instead of deceiving ourselves about the English language competency of most Jamaicans, we should face the facts. English is not being taught efficiently. That's largely because the powers that be assume that the mother language of most Jamaicans isn't actually a language. They insist that it's nothing but a 'corruption' of English. Even so, they don't seem to know how to cure the disease.

Another article about International Mother Language Day on The Gleaner's website was by Professor Maureen Warner-Lewis, a linguist. The headline, 'Patois not enemy of English', goes straight to the heart of the problem. In a culture where clashing is the norm, whether in politics or in the dancehall, we tend to see war where there is none.

Like Professor Devonish, Professor Warner-Lewis makes the case that English and Jamaican are distinct languages: "One of the most significant differences between English and [Jamaican] Creole lies in their grammar. Each language has a grammar: its speakers would not understand each other if words were juggled together in a haphazard manner. Creole, therefore, is a language because it has a grammar."

Furthermore, both languages must be used for instruction in primary education. Professor Warner-Lewis elaborates: "The 'learning of Patois' in school is, therefore, not aimed at teaching most Jamaican children to speak a language which they already know. What is intended is for them to differentiate between the structures of the language they speak and the structures of another language which they are attempting to learn."

Why is it so hard for some of us to get it? The theme of this year's International Mother Language Day is 'Towards Sustainable Futures Through Multilingual Education'. When are we going to listen to Marcus Garvey and emancipate ourselves from mental slavery? Liberate our language!

- Carolyn Cooper is a consultant on culture and development. Email feedback to and