Tue | Jan 28, 2020

Jaevion Nelson | We are already sort of a bilingual country

Published:Saturday | December 14, 2019 | 12:11 AM

There has been quite a bit of discussion, lots of lazy and uninformed arguments, and way too much banter over the last couple of weeks about the petition to make Jamaican (or Patois, as we like to call it) an official language.

Unsurprisingly, the debates continue to reveal so much about us – an unpleasant side of a beautiful and diverse country laden with problematic views and classist ideals about its people and language.

People who are opposed to the petition and any kind of officialisation of the language have attempted to hide behind all sorts of ridiculous arguments about Jamaican not being standard or spoken anywhere else or one’s marketability, having been taught in Jamaican, to justify their position.

Consequently, no matter what you say, they quip with highfalutin words in poorly constructed sentences and ignore the fact that:

(1) Making Jamaican official doesn’t replace English.

(2) There are countries with official languages that are not spoken by anyone else.

(3) Using Jamaican as a mode of instruction doesn’t mean children, will not be taught to master English

(4) Humans are capable of learning to speak and learning in multiple languages, among other things.

Instead, they ramble and grab for arguments that betray the facade of thought they are trying to present. One can easily see barely anything will change their mind and that they believe the language is vulgar and should be reserved for artistic presentations and hoodlums and poor people who reside in certain communities.


Note, there are some people who are blatantly ignorant about the topic and those who are oblivious (especially after attempting to read Jamaican using the Cassidy-Jamaican Language Unit, JLU, System) but open and willing to engage and learn more. This isn’t about those persons.

Author Kei Miller wrote on Facebook recently of an experience in French Guiana with some students who studied his work and requested that he speak his language. He didn’t think they’d understand him, but they did. One student who is Maroon told him that they only use French at school. At home, another language is used with a similar grammar to Jamaican, which made it easy for them to follow. This rubbished the idea that Jamaican can only be used and understood here, as many like to say.

The fascinating and embarrassing thing about this is that it’s all the well read, learned people who keep pushing this narrative in their spaces of power, completely oblivious to the reality that there are people who can understand because of the grammar, some because they’ve studied it formally, and others because they spend a great deal of time listening Jamaican music, and then there are so many country with official languages only spoken in that country or a small remote area somewhere outside of the city.

Several years ago, there were some discussions about this very issue online. I, too, was against officialising Jamaican because, like many, I didn’t think there was any kind of standardisation that it could work. People challenged me and others who were opposed.

To help, one of my friends, Javed Jaghai, directed me to a blog he wrote using Jamaican and challenged me to read it so I could see that there is an actual system and suggested that we continue the discussion afterwards.


Thanks to that encounter, I opened myself up to the criticisms, being called out for my ignorance, and being educated about our language beyond its value as performance. My position changed.

In practice, we are already sort of a bilingual country unofficially. It doesn’t hurt to make Jamaican official as we would benefit in so many ways as a people and country.

Have you ever listened to the jokes we give or the lyrics in a dancehall song and wonder how on earth we do so poorly at English language? Would our children who struggle in this regard have a better mastery if we’re teaching them (more consistently?) in a more familiar language?

I can’t recall my English teachers ever using Jamaican sayings or anything to explain what a simile and metaphor is, for example. I managed to do well, but so many others in my classes struggled in perpetuity. Imagine how much easier life might be in certain spaces like the courts for people who primarily speak Jamaican.

A month has passed, and the petition to make Jamaican an official language does not even have a third of the 15,000 signatures required for the prime minister to take note and respond. Have you signed it? What are you waiting for?

Jaevion Nelson is executive director at Equality for All Foundation Jamaica and a human-rights, social and economic justice advocate. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and jaevion@gmail.com or tweet @jaevionn.