Mon | Sep 21, 2020

Colin Steer | Teaching Patois? Seh wah?

Published:Thursday | October 11, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Colin Steer

One day in the early 1990s, a group of teachers from a high school visited the KLAS radio station where Wilmot Perkins was host of the 'Straight Talk' radio programme. Having been welcomed by Perkins, one of them decided to speak on behalf of the group and introduced himself thus: "I am one of those who teaches at the Manchester High School." To which Perkins replied: "Oh? And what do you teaches?"

Amid the cyclical debate about the necessity or imperative of teaching our children in Patois as against or alongside English language to aid their comprehension skills, my question is, what are we going to do with the teachers who are themselves uncomfortable with English? How do they teach English or in English as a second language?

Many trained linguists have pointed to other societies, including territories in the Caribbean, where native languages are used as the primary means of instruction instead of those of their former colonial masters, i.e., Dutch, French or Spanish.




The challenge I see with our Patois/Jamaican Creole is that it is primarily an oral language. I am well aware that Carolyn Cooper et al have tried to popularise an orthography of Jamaican Creole, and no doubt many can read it reasonably well. But I contend that reading Patois does not reside in a familiarity with Cassidy or any other Creole orthography. The facility comes from an ability grounded in their familiarity with English, to which our Patois is closely aligned or, dare I say, "from which it is derived?"

And yes, I know there are words from Twi and others we have created, but a child who cannot read English is unlikely to read Cooper's orthodox Jamaican Creole (LOL) or "prappa" spelling any better. A Martinican friend once asked whether Jamaican Patois was "malformed English", and notwithstanding our cultural warriors' objection, there would be some truth to that descriptor.

Every so often as I hear this debate, my mind goes back to the children of my primary-school days. Most were from gritty, inner-city areas and grew up hearing the Jamaican language in all of its unlettered, unrefined rawness. They spoke it equally well. But in school they had teachers - 'good-good teachers' who helped them navigate between the two, and so they were able to function bilingually.

We used Patois/Creole 'outta road' and in the schoolyard, and English in the classroom and in schoolwork. Many went on to high school and are well-established professionals, locally and overseas, in medicine, law, education, business, etc. None of this made us devalue our Jamaican culture or identity.

The problem with our children's discomfort with English is primarily twofold. Many are not reading as much as a previous generation did and, too often, they are being instructed by teachers who are themselves challenged in the use of the language.

Teaching English, or even in Patois requires specialist skills that may well be lacking to a significant degree within the profession, especially at the primary level. That requires a special fix not likely for the next few years.

- Colin Steer is a communication specialist. Email feedback to and colin.steer at