Fri | Jul 20, 2018

Hubert Devonish | Of Patwa, progress and prosperity (Part 2)

Published:Sunday | February 12, 2017 | 12:00 AM
Hubert Devonish

Every proposal to have the Jamaican language function as a formal language of education alongside English in a fully bilingual education system is met by the clearly irrelevant point that 'English is the global language'.

Every UNESCO research paper and recommendation consistently makes the point that failure to include the native language of a child in the teaching of literacy and as a medium of instruction interferes with the child being able to learn a second language, English in this situation. This is conveniently ignored in the cry about English being THE international language. This position is presented as a clear, commonsensical argument against the proposal for a bilingual education system for Jamaica.

In spite of its obvious irrelevance, let's dare to question the 'common-sense' position, as succinctly expressed in 2012 by Ronald Thwaites, then minister of education. He stated, "The language of employment, of instruction, of professionalism, the language of world view is the English language, not anything else."




Well, of the top 20 countries in the world by GDP based on purchasing parity power (PPP), only five - the USA, India, the UK, Canada, and Australia - use English, at least to some degree, as an official language and language of education. The other 15, including China, the country with the largest share of world GDP, do not. In the top 20, the group of countries that have English as official language and/or main language of education represent approximately 27.87 per cent of global GDP and the other 15 countries, 46.8 per cent.

English may be the main language used to facilitate international trade and transport. However, most people in the world who produce the goods and services traded and consumed do not have any knowledge of English. English is the language of international air traffic control. However, the vast majority of people transported by international commercial airlines speak little or no English.

It is easy to be fooled by the elites of the major countries, many of whom, even during riots and disasters, appear on our television sets speaking English. To the casual observer, it seems like 'everybody' in a particular country speaks and understands English. Rather, of course, our BBC or CNN broadcaster has sought the few people in the crowd who can speak English. Even in the so-called 'English-speaking' group within the top 20, in the case of India, the country with the third largest GDP at PPP, the vast majority of producers and consumers have no knowledge of English.

The situation is not much different in Jamaica, promoted by JAMPRO to the global investment community as " ... the third-largest English-speaking country in the Western Hemisphere". Advertising on the electronic media in Jamaica for products of mass consumption, from beer to Lotto, takes place using the Jamaican language rather than English. The marketers and advertisers in Jamaica and the world at large all know that the route to the hearts, minds, and pockets of consumers is through their 'heart-languages'. This is true even when the consumer may have some understanding of a foreign or second language such as English. On the streets of Kingston, on King Street or in Half-Way Tree, the Jamaican language, not English, dominates. That Jamaica, India, or South Africa are English-speaking countries is nothing but an elitist illusion.




The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has developed a test known as PISA for evaluating and comparing the quality of educational output across countries. Fifteen-year-olds are tested in reading, mathematics, and science across its member and partner countries. The test is NOT administered in English, but in the language of education of the countries within which the test-takers reside.

The global standards for quality of education are NOT standards for competence in reading, mathematical skill, and scientific knowledge in English, but in ANY language used in the education systems around the world. Among the top 20 here, which include China, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Lichtenstein, Switzerland, Netherlands, Estonia, Finland, Canada, Poland, Belgium, Germany, Vietnam, Austria, Australia, and Ireland, we again find NO country 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, while failing to teach literacy in a language identified as native to that population.

In a study of the 2009 PISA Reading test results, Soh (2014) separates the scores of the 80 per cent of test-takers for whom the test language was their home or native language from the 20 per cent for whom it was a second language. He finds that the group that did not have the test language as their home or native language performed, on average, significantly worse on the test when compared with those for whom the test language was their first language.

At the level of the international standards for education, what is being measured as making one competitive is not what language you have reading skills and knowledge in, but the level and quality of those reading skills and knowledge. There is no requirement, either in the tests themselves or in common sense, that in order to meet international standards, these skills targets must be met exclusively in English, regardless of one's native language.

The standards used as a measure of the international competitiveness in education refer to skills and knowledge as expressed in the language(s) used by the education system of the country being studied, whatever the language(s) may be.


One-Legged Hop in the Two-Footed Race


The falling labour productivity figures for Jamaica require explanation. Jamaica, like the rest of the world, has experienced a revolution involving the application of technology, particularly information and communications technology, in production and in everyday life. In the vast majority of countries, this has reflected itself in an increase in output per worker. Almost everywhere else, it seems, other than Jamaica.

The decline in worker productivity in Jamaica is particularly puzzling given that there have been indeed major improvements in the provision of education and training to the Jamaican workforce. An increasing technological environment creates a demand for a workforce with higher and higher levels of literacy and communicative skills as well as knowledge. This is in a situation where these skills are being taught ONLY in the language that is not native to the general workforce.

The language education policy adopted by Jamaica clearly is operating as a handicap on the ability of the workforce to efficiently operate in an increasingly educationally demanding environment. Thus, Jamaica moves forward with a one-legged hop, hopping much faster than before, as evidenced by the important improvements in the delivery of education. However, being competitive in the race requires running on two feet. Hopping faster and faster on one leg will still result in the runners on two feet leaving the hopper further and further behind.

In light of the above, the existing language education policy in Jamaica is puzzling. As progress and prosperity continue to elude us, why are we handicapping the children of the country by providing them with education and literacy but only in a language that is not their native or home language? Aren't we unknowingly, by our language policies, making of Jamaica that one-legged hopper in that global two-footed race for progress and prosperity?

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