Sun | Mar 29, 2020

Peter Espeut | Jamaican Creole as national heritage

Published:Friday | October 19, 2018 | 12:00 AM

Days after the celebration of National Heritage Week, it is appropriate to focus on those aspects of our culture that give us our Jamaican identity, which make us feel comfortable in our Jamaican skin. Our Jamaican language is definitely part of our heritage, of which we should be proud.

Of course, Standard English is also a valuable part of our heritage, and proper use of the two languages can coexist. What we should not encourage is bad English and bad Jamaican Creole. To listen to some of the experts, there is no such thing as 'bad English'; non-Standard English is the same thing as Jamaican Creole or Patois, as some people call it. This, of course, is nonsense.

Jamaican Creole is a separate language from English and is not 'bad English'. It has its own vocabulary, grammar, and syntax. It is a language to be respected and cherished. However, I have heard persons trying to speak Jamaican Creole and make a hash of it. And I have heard persons - including teachers and radio announcers - who think they are speaking Standard English - fail miserably, succeeding only in being 'speaky-spokey'. That should not be encouraged either.

Our Jamaican language is dynamic and adaptive and exists in different versions. There is the version used by older folk canonised by the poetry of Louise 'Miss Lou' Bennett, an 'I-man' version used by aficionados of Rastafarianism, and there is an inner city sort of youth lingo supported by dancehall. I do not believe each of these is a different language, but they are distinct and do have different vocabularies, grammars and syntaxes.

The experts speak of Jamaican Creole as if it is one undifferentiated thing. Those who advocate that the language of instruction of Jamaican children be Jamaican Creole, need to be more precise: maybe the patois of Jamaican teachers is different to the patois of the students, which does not take us much closer to a solution to our literacy problem.




For those whose first language is Jamaican Creole, English is best taught as a foreign language, which it is. Yet, many hundreds of thousands of Jamaicans have learnt Standard English through the regular school system, mediated by teachers who were either strangers to English or for whom English was a second language. Not to be discounted was the requirement for primary/prep students to read (story) books written in Standard English. We learnt what 'sounded' right from novels we read for pleasure, not homework. School libraries and the parish library were often visited and were probably more useful than English classes.

In my view, it will be difficult to teach Standard English, mathematics, social studies, and Spanish, to name a few subjects, using Creole-speaking teachers. This will present its own difficulties. There are no textbooks to facilitate this, and some teachers may not speak Creole well enough. We need to focus on improving the quality of school libraries and strategies to encourage children to read more. Maybe we need to encourage Jamaican authors to write more stories for Jamaican children and make them more available.

To support our language heritage, poetry, prose, and drama in Jamaican Creole should remain part of the school curriculum. Jamaican students should be encouraged to compose and recite in the Jamaican idiom. Operating primary schools with Jamaican Creole as the language of instruction is an interesting academic idea, without possibility of practical application. Those who know better should not cause unnecessary confusion.

- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and school board chairman. Email feedback to