Sun | Jul 5, 2020

Glenn Tucker | Bun ‘Patwah’

Published:Sunday | December 15, 2019 | 12:00 AM

Seven years ago, in response to concerns expressed by then education Minister Ronald Thwaites, a distinguished university lecturer joined with the then president of the Jamaica Teachers’ Association (JTA) in suggesting that Patois/ ‘patwah’ be taught in schools.

In an article entitled ‘Stop this teach Patwah nonsense’ (August 29, 2012), I stated my objections as strongly as my editor would permit. And I gave reasons. I thought my point was taken.

But – like dengue – this seems to be a seasonal affliction. Now, another university lecturer is suggesting that radio and other media be used to teach ‘Jamaican’ – the dressed-up name for ‘patwah’.

I am even more determined that this should not happen. And with very good reason.

We live in a country where standard English is the accepted language. Children use it every day of their lives. But after 16 years, barely a third of them are able to attain a passing grade in Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate Exam. Patwah, or ‘Jamaican’, is the chief culprit contributing to this problem.

It’s not just that they fail English; that’s just the beginning of the problem. Schooled in this grammatically anaemic Creole, they enter school greeted with a new language – standard English. They are confused, and the first casualty is reading. If one does not read, one can never be a good student. Never.

Some years ago, I was watching a court case on a United States TV station. A witness took the stand, and, shortly after doing so, there was a break in transmission. Then the presenter came on, apologised, and explained that the witness was a Jamaican and could not understand English. However, they were trying to find an interpreter so that he could continue.

In July of this year, I called a woman. She lives in a community that has embraced ‘Jamaican’ as the language of preference. Her young son was bawling in the background. She explained that his report had just been received and that the school stated that his performance was ‘well below’ the standard for his class, so he would be required to repeat the year. I asked her certain questions then sought her permission to have him attend classes with a reputable reading specialist during the summer holidays. Three weeks into the new school year, I had reason to call her. She spoke with pride about the all-round change she was seeing in her son. He was reading. He seemed to have a thirst for knowledge. He was ‘behaving’. Last month, she called me. She was ecstatic. The school had summoned her to tell her that her son would be promoted to the next grade as he was performing ‘well above’ the grade he was in.


When business leaders promised the ‘5 in 4’ growth arrangement, I wrote as I did about ‘Patwah’ because I did not think we had the workforce to drive this sort of economic activity. This sort of growth cannot come from Parliament. It has to be a national effort. So Andrew Holness and Ed Bartlett can go around the world looking for investors and tourists. But we are expected to ‘run wid it’.

I find it worrying, therefore, that academia – in the face of a variety of nationalities turning up here is not helping us to communicate with it instead of trying harder to communicate with ourselves.

The world is now a global village. Only 0.0421 per cent of the world’s population speaks ‘Jamaican’. Just us. Should our leaders tell those with which we wish to do business that they need to learn ‘Jamaican’ before coming?

What is most troubling is that the main proponents of this initiative are highly educated professionals who know the dictionary from cover to cover. Yet they want to inflict this millstone around the necks of poor people.

One politician who appeared on TV to support this plan is, I think, particularly hypocritical. I knew his parents and I can say with conviction that not one syllable of ‘Jamaican’ was ever spoken in his home. He is now well educated, well spoken, and in a profitable profession. I would encourage him to reflect on the fate of his constituents who go into exams armed with ‘Jamaican’.

One supporter mentioned the Somalia experience and the efforts of poets, writers, and folklorists to help Somalis understand words that appear on TV. But would this be necessary if they were introduced to standard English? May I also remind that supporter that the experience to which she refers was 76 years ago and also that seven years ago, the UNDP said Somalia “....had some of the lowest development indicators in the world” and a “strikingly low” Human Development Index score of 0.285. A closer investigation of their history will reveal that it is the heavy reliance on their ‘Patwah’ that is at the heart of their problem.


I keep wondering about the positive changes that would take place in our nation if the efforts of these learned folk were devoted to a national effort that would improve reading.

And what about second-and-third language acquisition, while local scholars are preoccupied with developing ‘Jamaican’? Academics worldwide are making exciting discoveries about foreign-language acquisition on human brain organisation. Much more needs to be done, but it has been established that foreign-language acquisition results in increases in cortical thickness and hippocampal volumes, further resulting in better decision-making skills, improved memory, an increased attention span, improved ability to multitask, better cognitive abilities, improved first-language skills a bigger brain, and delayed onset of dementia.

Academia would make a memorable contribution to this country’s growth by swapping ‘Jamaican’ studies for these other projects.

In closing my last article on this subject, I gave the professor and the JTA president an assignment – to translate two questions from one of my exams at the University of the West Indies. I will make it easier this time.

Here goes:

6a. Some argue that the method of payment in a merger (stock-for-stock transaction at one end of the spectrum and cash-for-stock at the other, with various combinations of bonds, convertibles, etc., for stock in-between the two extremes) is the most important factor in determining the price of the acquired firm. Explain this position.

Translate this into ‘Jamaican’ and answer the question.


- Glenn Tucker, MBA, is an educator and a sociologist. Email feedback to and