Wed | Feb 19, 2020

Alfred Dawes | Those cunning linguists!

Published:Sunday | January 19, 2020 | 12:32 AM

Somehow I have foolishly inserted myself into this whole Patois in schools debate. Of all the people I could have picked an argument with in life, I chose the ones who study the power of words for a living. I, therefore, have no choice but to tek weh miself.

But before I go, let me pass on whatever advice I can to those who will continue the fight for the prevailing of good sense.

The Patois people are very motivated and skilled in wielding words, more than I am with wielding a scalpel. It will take a lot of preparation on your part to go toe to toe with them. Furthermore, they have a huge monetary incentive for the acceptance of Patois in schools, whereas your incentive is probably that yuh just nuff.

In trying to sway any large population, there are tried and true tactics.

First, you create a problem and then convince them that the only solution to said problem is the adoption of what you are proposing.

We all know that we have an English problem in Jamaica. Our population generally struggles with what is our official language. We know that English is the international language of commerce, so it is essential that we master it if we are to be competitive as a people on the global stage.

The problem created is that we are going about teaching English the wrong way. Somehow, the only solution to learning English in schools is to first teach Patois and then teach English as a second language. This method has been done in other countries with good effect, and we assume that this will work perfectly in our society and with our language.

The proponents quote a mystical study that supposedly showed students performing equally or even better at English when taught in Patois.

Now, any half-decent scientist knows that not all studies are reproducible or applicable to the real world. Nobody has volunteered to share the full study so we can dissect it to see how the classes were taught: were the teachers speaking Patois (as is already common practice), or were the students reading and writing in Patois and then translating Patois to English? Huge difference there.

As I said in my own Orwellian manner, the problem is not speaking in Patois, it is writing and reading it that will create another layer of difficulty to already stressed, under-resourced teachers and students.

Let them convince you with measureable facts that teaching, reading, and writing Patois in schools will result in better Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) English passes and lead to a workforce that is globally competitive.

Anyone who has lost a ‘buy’ election knows that it is easy to concentrate state resources on a small target group to achieve desired results. How much in man hours and dollars were spent on these pilot studies, and is it economically feasible to replicate that on a national level?


Word on the street is that the translation of the Nyuu Testiment cost over $14 million. How much will it cost to translate the troves of Government documents and textbooks to facilitate the teaching of Patois and its adoption as a language of instruction and commerce?

We need to know the price tag before we can commit to this experiment. How will we retrain teachers to teach Patois? How much time and money will be dedicated to such a retraining exercise? Which subjects will be sacrificed so that children will have more hours in the school day to dedicate to learning Patois?

Next time you are arguing with the Patois peeple dem, ask about their budget and implementation plan repeatedly because they will try to change the subject.

That is the other pillar in population brainwashing: misdirection.

Whenever the conversation comes up and they can’t answer the questions, they change the topic to discussing the merits of Patois as a language. They will speak about the features that make it so, and before you know it, you’re hearing about the history of the resistance to other languages being written alongside Latin. Do not fall for this, my friends. Just agree that Patois is a language (which it is), and ask about the money again.

The other common strategy is to attack you instead of your argument. You will hear that you are a brainwashed colonial apologist, ashamed of your language and identity.

If you are black, that means you are an Uncle Tom. If you are light skinned, you are racist and believe in the old Backra status quo.

Your defence: Ask them about the studies and whether their methodology is reproducible on a national scale. If you don’t, you will spend the rest of the argument defending yourself.


I remember my primary school principal, Tekla Hylton (who was much more than just Patrick Hylton’s mother), insisting that we all speak English every chance we had as practice made perfect. This immersion approach led many students whose parents never spoke anything beyond the mesolect to excel in the festival speech, reading competitions, and later on in high school, English.

Yours truly was horrible at Spanish and hated the subject with a passion. Yet through immersion, I was able to learn Spanish and Portuguese enough to survive on my solo travels in Latin America. To this day, I cannot write them well but give me some mojitos or caipirinhas and I’ll wow even myself.

Now, I would never advocate giving children rum while they watch BBC, but we must consider immersion as an alternative to teaching Patois in order to learn English.

Many of my Brazilian friends spent summers working in the US just so that they could immerse themselves in an English environment. I forbade the Cubans at Sav-la-mar Hospital from speaking Spanish while I was operating or on the wards. They must speak English and Patois! And they did. Many Cubans there “chat bad”!

So there you have it. My two cents before I leave the debate. You know what to do when caught up in another argument about Patois in schools.

Suh dawg, wen dem a braff an deal wid di ting a way an a bare rae tae, jus guh boom an mek dem affi bill back an ole a medz. Yuh zimmi!

- Dr Alfred Dawes is a general, laparoscopic and weight loss surgeon; Fellow of the American College of Surgeons; former senior medical officer of the Savanna-la-Mar Public General Hospital; former president of the Jamaica Medical Doctors Association. @dr_aldawes. Email feedback to and