Sat | Aug 19, 2017

Hubert Devonish | Of Patwa, progress and prosperity (Part 1)

Published:Sunday | January 22, 2017 | 1:00 AM

Between 1990 and the present, the performance of the education system, in spite of its numerous problems, has clearly improved. This is true of the percentage of the age cohort enrolled at all levels of the system; the percentage of the cohort taking examinations at the various levels; and the percentage passes, particularly in that magical subject, English.

Disappointingly, none of these improvements have reflected themselves in the productivity of the labour force. According to the governor of the Bank of Jamaica, between 1990 and 2010, "... labour productivity, which measures output per worker, contracted at an average rate of 0.5 per cent per year ... ". Furthermore, between 2009 and 2013, the fall in productivity averages 0.8 per cent. This is terrible when compared with the average global annual increase in the productivity of labour of 1.8 per cent over the last 50 years or so.

Why would a marked improvement of the performance of an education system seem to have the opposite of the expected effect on the productivity of workers in Jamaica? Maybe the answer lies in the absence from the education system of the formal use of the Jamaican language, the native language of the vast majority of those in the school system.

The first thing people say in the discussion about what language(s) should be used and taught in schools in Jamaica is that our economy depends on the outside world and that that world operates in English. English, they argue, is the pathway to progress and prosperity.

In reality, the wealth needed for progress and prosperity is being produced in declining quantities by the workers of Jamaica at precisely the time when they are much better educated. Their education is, as we know, provided by a system that officially uses English as the only medium of instruction from grade three onwards. The system also employs English as the only medium for learning and practising literacy. Perhaps, education almost exclusively in English is a barrier, rather than a bridge, to progress and prosperity, hence the falling productivity rates.


What's the Competition Doing?


Jamaica and its workforce are wide open to regional and international competition. This is a result of the country having made international trade commitments via the WTO, the European Union, and CARICOM to open up its markets. Jamaican workers directly compete with every other worker in the world. It means that the best practices globally in workforce education, training, and preparation are needed to keep Jamaica in the race. Jamaica cannot survive if the value of what every Jamaican worker produces keeps falling every year. In such a situation, Jamaican workers and the Jamaican economy would be wiped out by global competition, with Jamaicans reduced to being impoverished consumers of imported goods and services.

Education is passed on through language, with reading and writing being learnt and exercised through it. Language is also the medium by which all other non-language subjects, including science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are learnt. An appropriate language education policy is the base on which all other workforce education can be built, or from which it can fall.

Is education exclusively in English helping in the fight to make Jamaican workers competitive? Falling productivity in Jamaica suggests that the answer might be no. One way to check this out is to look at international best practice. Put another way, what are our competitors ahead of us in the race for progress and prosperity doing that we are not?

What is the situation with the top 20 countries and territories in the per-capita GDP (PPP) rankings in the area of language policy and language education? Seven - the USA in fifth place in the rankings, Singapore in seventh, Australia in ninth, Ireland in 11th, Canada in 12th, the UK in 16th, and Hong Kong in 18th use English as at least one of their languages of education. Four of their seven - Singapore with Chinese (Mandarin), Canada with French, Ireland with Irish, and Hong Kong with Cantonese - have other languages of education in official use alongside English.


Second languages not disastrous


Employing English as a major language of education does not prevent these economically prosperous countries from having another language of education coexisting with English within the education system. This suggests that the bilingual education option, involving both English and Jamaican as languages of education, may not have the disastrous economic effects its critics suggest.

The top four countries in per-capita GDP are Luxembourg with French/German/ Luxembourgeois as languages of education; Switzerland with French/German/Italian/Romans in that role; Qatar with Arabic, and Norway with Norwegian as languages of education. The fact that English is the language of education of the USA has not, given its fifth-place ranking, granted it any particular advantage in the per capita GDP rankings.

Furthermore, for countries to be in the select group of top 20 in per capita GDP, there is no need for English to be a medium of instruction, or for any single language to be used as a medium either.

What is really important, however, is that there is no country in the top 20 that pursues a language education policy similar to Jamaica's. No country uses as its only language of instruction one that is not the native language of the majority of pupils in the school system and at the same time refuses to teach literacy skills in a language identified as native to that population.

Of special interest is Singapore, at No. 6, with English as its medium of instruction. 'Singa-rich', as some of its admirers have dubbed it, is often touted as the economic model for Jamaica, and as a model for language education, too. Education in Singapore is multilingual. The country has four official languages - English, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil. Of these, English is promoted as the common language, binding all language groups, and as the main language of education, administration and business.


Learning from our Competitors


English is the medium of instruction, used to teach all non-language subjects right throughout the school system. In addition, depending on ethnic background, children study one of the other official languages - Chinese, Tamil, or Malay - and are taught literacy in those languages. The most academically gifted 20 per cent of secondary-school students are targeted to develop the highest levels of competence in Chinese in addition to the proficiency in English required of the entire school population. It is only the academically less able that are expected to have high-level proficiency in English and no other language.

Language-education policy and practice in the countries that Jamaica holds as models of progress invariably include a mass vernacular as one of the languages of education. The labour productivity rates of those countries are increasing while those of Jamaica are decreasing. Meanwhile, Jamaica has lauded itself over the past decade and a half on achieving one success after the other in its education system.

There has been marked improvement in the literacy skills of children in the education system as measured by the Grade Four Literacy Test results, significant increases in the percentage of higher-level performances at CSEC, notably in English, and a much larger age-group cohort completing secondary school. If all your indicators are signalling improvement in education, but productivity, which should be linked to education, is heading in the opposite direction, why are we fiddling while the economy burns?

Addressing the language education issue, by formally including the Jamaican Language, alongside English, in a fully bilingual education system is the only option. This inclusion of a mass vernacular in bilingual and multilingual education systems is what our competitors have done, and they are beating us hands down in the area of worker productivity and economic competitiveness.

- Professor Hubert Devonish is coordinator of the Jamaican Language Unit. Email feedback to and