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What about freedom from language discrimination?

Published:Tuesday | April 12, 2011 | 12:00 AM
Hubert Devonish, GUEST COLUMNIST

This is the first instalment in a two-part series.

The Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms is about to become law without any specific provision for freedom from discrimination on the grounds of language. This is against the background of a society in which two languages are used - English and Jamaican Creole. The former is the official language, but one in which all, except the educated minority, have limited competence. The latter is the native language of the vast majority of the population and is used with facility by all sectors of the population.

English is the only language the institutions of government and state are required to use in the provision of services to the Jamaican public. We have a clear case of discrimination on the grounds of language, so why was freedom from language discrimination not included in the charter?

A standard writing system, developed by Cassidy (1961), was already in existence at the time The Jamaican Language Unit (JLU) was set up. The JLU set about modifying it slightly to resolve some minor problems. This has become known as the Cassidy-JLU writing system. The JLU has proceeded to educate the public on how to use it. The main vehicle for this public education drive was the development of a handbook on how to write the Jamaican language, Writing Jamaican the Jamaican Way, which was launched in June 2009. Several hundred copies of this work are now in circulation.

Between 2004-2008, the Bilingual Education Project was introduced, with the blessing and support of the Ministry of Education, into four schools in the Corporate Area. This involved the formal instruction of children in both Jamaican and English, orally and in writing, as well as the teaching and exercise of literacy in both languages. Teachers were trained to deliver formally in both languages, language arts, science, mathematics and social studies textbooks translated into Jamaican, and the programme successfully implemented over four years.

Public attitudes to language

The Language Attitude Survey of Jamaica (2005) was carried out involving 1,000 informants across Jamaica, controlled for age, gender, and region of origin. The sample included a spread of people from across the social, educational and economic groupings within the country. The following were the findings:

● The majority (79.5 per cent) of Jamaicans recognise Jamaican as a language.

● The majority (68.5 per cent) of Jamaicans think that Jamaican should be made an official language alongside English.

● The majority (71.1 per cent) consider that schools in which English and Jamaican are used side by side as mediums of instruction and of literacy.

● The majority of Jamaicans thought that the prime minister or minister of finance would communicate better with the public if their speeches in Parliament were delivered in Jamaican.

The Language Competence Survey of Jamaica (2006) carried out by the JLU as a follow-up to the Language Attitude Survey of 2005, shows that 36.5 per cent of the population surveyed showed no demonstrable ability to produce English.

See Part Two in Wednesday's Gleaner.

Hubert Devonish is professor of linguistics and coordinator of The Jamaican Language Unit. Send comments to hubert.devonish@uwimona.edu.jm.