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Daniel Thwaites | Patois activism and ulterior motives

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

Recently there's been a lot of writing and tweeting about Jamaican Patois, whether it ought to be recognised as a separate language, and whether it ought to be integrated into the school system as the primary language of instruction, thereby making English a second language that would be taught as a foreign language.

What happens, particularly on this Patois debate, is better called 'quarrels', which is what happens when people approach a controversial subject with completely formed opinions, nostrils flaring, barking at each other, and where the possibility of changing one's mind has already been ruled out.

One position is that the way most Jamaicans speak ordinarily, if it assists in content-transmission and comprehension, has to be used to teach students.

But then there is another school of thought(lessness) where English is, if not dispensable, not so important. This is the idea that "why shouldn't we operate in our 'heart language' the same way the Englishman operates in his?" This far more extreme position scares people who know that proficiency in English is usually an important component of success, and certainly increases the life chances of the student.

Sceptics, like myself, worry that the Patois activists really have the latter view as their endgame, and that worries us because we have a very robust appreciation of the value of English, and of the basic fact that time and resources are limited. Hours and attention spent hacking through a 'Patwa' rendition of the Bible, or a textbook duly translated into Jamaican, is time and attention that would be taken away from other tasks.

None of this is to say that Patois isn't worthy or capable of expressing beauty and abstract concepts. We even agree that it ought to be used as a scaffold to prepare Jamaican students to thrive in English, which is the language that rules the world.




It has been a great blessing to me that my Jamaican teachers managed to teach me how to communicate in English. It meant I was able to make myself (reasonably) clear in a number of contexts where, despite the brilliance and wonderment of our Patois, using it would have been the equivalent of turning up to a black-tie affair in Speedo swim trunks and a pimp-daddy purple hat. Sincere apologies for that visual, but the point had to be made.

By the way, what's the criteria for determining when a way of communicating has become a distinct language? Proponents of the Jamaican Creole theory hold that variations in grammar, syntax and vocabulary earn our native way of talking that distinction.

I don't claim to have absorbed much of the literature surrounding this, but I can say that if Jamaican is to be ruled a distinct language, the 'English' they speak in India, Nigeria, Kenya, and a host of other countries will likely have to be called different languages as well.

Have you ever called the helpline to give someone 'the business' about a bill and been linked to some kind lady in Delhi or Bangalore? God help you! I've been floored by the incomprehensibility. But if you beg them to slow down and you listen keenly, there's no question that they're speaking some (variant of) English.

I haven't even mentioned the different ways of talking found throughout England and the United States, where in northern England and the southern US, I've had cause to marvel at what to me is gibberish.

I'm also not wholly convinced that Jamaica's children, who are absorbing thousands of hours of North American television programming, don't know or understand fully what they're watching.

My own admittedly limited experience tells me that the problem is quite the reverse, and that they understand only too well all of what they're seeing and hearing on the telly, including all the psycho-sexual subtexts that are drilled in every TV show. Why are we to believe that all that understanding of English evaporates as soon as they step into a classroom?




The trouble is that there's so much more going on in the quarrels about Patois than the strict demarcation of a language. I feel like there's a huge element of national self-assertion that's bound up in the desire to demarcate 'Jamaican' as a distinct language. There's also, I believe, a deep desire to say we can rid ourselves of the colonial heritage, and the English language, for better or worse, is definitely part of that.

And naturally, there is self-interest. Academics would stand to make a tidy packet if there's a bunch of translation work to be done, and every book of value in the library needs a translation from English to Patois.

Now I have yet to come across anyone who believes it improper for teachers to use Patois, as necessary, to teach any subject effectively, and certainly none who say that if Patois can be helpful to bring students to better English writing, speaking, and comprehension, that it shouldn't be used. That character is a bogeyman.

I do read, though, people who at least appear to be saying that valuable instruction time should be spent teaching the kids how to decipher the script that academics have fashioned for patois. Or perhaps even further, that we few million Jamaicans might perform a glorious act of linguistic marronage and isolation by demoting English and putting the colonial relic in its proper place.

I think the more Patois activists convince us that the goal really is English proficiency and not some romantic and nationalistic investment in an isolating Creole, people will get on board. If it works to teach English as a second language, let's do that. The objective, though, is to get English taught.

- Daniel Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to