Wed | Sep 19, 2018

Jamaican Patwa and English as a second language

Published:Thursday | September 1, 2016 | 12:00 AM


I have found that the rationale for teaching English as a second language is built on the intersection of two premises: 1) Patwa is a language; 2) English is not the mother tongue of Jamaicans.

To support these premises the main arguments raised are:

(1) Linguists claim including, please note, linguists from England and Canadabased on the structure of Patwa that Patwa is a ,language;

(2) English is not the mother tongue of Jamaicans, and to say that English is the mother tongue is elitist and colonial minded;

(3) There are remnants of African language in Patwa;

(4) On occasions, we have heard Jamaicans carry on a conversation and we could not understand a word. Indeed, in a panel discussion on the subject, one linguist stated that the distinction between English and the "Jamaican language" is greater than the distinction between Spanish and Portuguese.

I will acknowledge that I am not a linguist, but based on my experience and knowledge of English, the Jamaican culture, and living among people whose first language is not English, I ask as a test of the status of Patwa as a language: how would you translate into the Jamaican language since it is a language apart and distinct from English?

I wholeheartedly agree that we have come a long way which I think is very positive in the use of what I will term the 'Jamaican dialect'. At Wolmer's, (which I attended) as in all high schools then, we had to at all times meet the requirement of speaking proper English. It is wonderful that we now have greater freedom to express ourselves using Patwa.

I cannot, however, agree with the stance that Patwa is a language and that English is not the primary language of Jamaicans.

I am not a linguist, but 99.9 per cent of the nouns, verbs, adjectives, including numerals used in Patwa are English ones. English is the native language of Jamaica. Compared to the English as a second language speaker there is not one Jamaican who will not recognise when spoken, words or expressions, such as eyebrow, eyelash, kidney, liver, scalp, dandruff, hair oil, steering wheel, keep off the grass, headlight, sink, gas pedal, don't drink and drive words and expressions that you will not normally find in a language textbook.

If we are to take the Jamaican dialect as a language seriously and Jamaica becomes a bilingual country, which I think is what is being promoted, then every law, every edict, every book will have to be translated into Jamaican dialect. Ask a medical doctor to write a prescription, and a pharmacist to read that prescription in Patwa.




The reality is that we have been colonised almost 300 years by England, and to claim that English is not our mother tongue is to deny an integral part of our heritage. If asserting that English is our native language is an indication of colonial mentality, then we would have to think seriously about the language and structure of many aspects of our culture, such as our laws, economic and political systems, including the names of our parishes, our names, schools, and university, including the linguistic department, which are European constructs.

Currently, there are people from all over the world who cumulatively are spending billions of dollars to learn English. At least, we have the advantage of not having to learn English as a second language. While robbing us of our African language and culture was oppressive, burying our heads in the sand will not overcome that fact.

There is a lot we can take pride in, including the mastery and the creative use of the English language in spite of the barriers that were imposed to hinder many Jamaicans from learning standard English.

Let us discontinue the drive to further marginalia and patronise, with our condescending attitude, a sector of our Jamaican children by telling them a) what they speak at home is not English; b) they have to be taught in Patwa while children in more affluent homes are taught in English; c) they are incapable of learning.

Our Jamaican children are very intelligent and bright and very capable of learning just as how many Jamaicans years ago, in

spite of their surroundings and environment of Patwa, became doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, accountants and professors.

Zay Green