Tue | Jun 19, 2018

UNESCO guidelines and Jamaican Patois

Published:Friday | April 15, 2011 | 12:00 AM


The language debate has surfaced again, this time in the context of the increasing concern among thinking Jamaicans about our literacy problem. Unfortunately, we have not all agreed on the solution to the problem, mainly because certain proposed solutions involve the use of Patois in education.

However, the matter of literacy is an urgent one. We must find the best solution, and we must be agreed on it. Too much is at stake. We need, first of all, to sit down together and bring the clarity of researched and tested knowledge to the issue of language in education.

The recent Gleaner Editors' Forum and reactions to it expose some of our misconceptions and lack of information about the nature of language and its role in education. This exposure must now be followed by a series of seminars, workshops and conferences where questions such as the following can be addressed:

1. How do human beings learn a language? What are the conditions in which we can become a) fluent, and b) fully literate in any particular language?

This question is of major importance in the current debate, given the fact that we have, so far, failed miserably in our attempts to enable the majority of our children to master speaking, reading and writing standard English.

2. What is the importance, if any, of the child's mother tongue where his/her intellectual development is concerned?

The mother tongue is the language the child learns at home before entering school. In our case, it is Patois.

The following statements are excerpts from principles and guidelines set out by UNESCO concerning language and education in the 21st century:

"UNESCO supports mother-tongue instruction as a means of improving educational quality ... . Mother-tongue instruction is essential for initial instruction and literacy, and should be extended to as late a stage in education as possible.

● Every pupil should begin his/her formal education in his/her mother tongue.

● Adult illiterates should make their first steps to literacy through their mother tongue, passing on to a second language if they desire and are able."

3. What exactly is bilingual education, and what are its advantages or disadvantages?

Here, too, the UNESCO guidelines are relevant to the Jamaican situation in that many Jamaican educators are coming to the conclusion that bilingual education is the way to go in our schools.

"UNESCO supports bilingual and/or multilingual education at all levels of education ... . Communication, expression and the capacity to listen and dialogue should be encouraged first of all in the mother tongue, then in the official language of the country, as well as in one or more foreign languages ... ."

Jamaica cannot afford to ignore reliable sources of information concerning sound practices in education. If we lag behind and continue to pursue outdated and unsuccessful practices, history will be our judge.

Faith Linton is a retired teacher of English and literature and a a board member of the Bible Society of the West Indies. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.