Sunday | March 1, 2015

Stop this 'teach Patois' nonsense!

Published:Wednesday | August 29, 2012
Glenn Tucker, Guest Columnist

By Glenn Tucker, Guest Columnist

Distinguished professor of linguistics and coor-dinator of the Jamaican Language Unit at the UWI, Hubert Devonish, is supporting the JTA president in his claim that English is not the native language of the vast majority of Jamaicans, and that Patois be taught in schools.

This is partly a response to Minister Thwaites' feeling that too much emphasis is being placed on memorisation and not enough given to higher forms of intellectual activity, partly to blame for poor exam performance. This is not a reason. It is an excuse!

The professor advocates: "... A fully bilingual or dual education programme involving the use of both 'Jamaican' and English as languages of education in the same roles, side by side." Textbooks would be translated into 'Jamaican', teachers would be trained to deliver the same lesson TWICE - once in Jamaican and once in English.

Professor Devonish quotes well-known scholar, Jim Cummins, who said, "When children are forced to go through education in a second language, while their mother tongue is wholly or largely excluded from the classroom, they grow up to be semilingual. They do not have the higher-order thinking and language communicating skills developed in their native language."

When I entered high school, one of the languages I was required to learn was Latin. Why? I suspect because about 80 per cent of the entries in any English dictionary are borrowed, mainly from Latin. More than 60 per cent of English words have Greek or Latin roots. But we got rid of Latin.

Another subject I was required to learn was grammar - the system of a language. It is the structural foundation of our ability to express ourselves. About four decades ago, we parted company with that subject, too. Oh! All teachers spoke standard English only. Students were required to do the same, and I cannot remember many students failing exams.

The result of us divesting ourselves of all these critical subjects has the same effect as if we were building a structure - we leave out the steel because it is too expensive. We do no excavation because it takes time. We build on sand because it is easier. When the building shows signs of instability, we call in the experts who suggest we design more attractive windows. Now, it seems, the culprit for our poor results is standard English.

globally irrelevant?

Electronic technology has contracted the world into a global village. The 'Jamaican'-speaking population is only .041 per cent of the world's population. Who are we going to convince to learn Patois in order to do business with us? Our relevance in the world depends on our ability to supply a need and negotiate a reasonable price.

I remember two exam questions I got years ago:

1. If the desire of a company in selling convertible securities is delayed equity financing, would not it be wise to establish at the time the security is sold a 'set-up' in conversion price every few years?

2. Why do callable bonds typically have a higher yield to maturity than non-callable bonds, holding all other things constant? Is the yield differential likely to be constant over time?

Would the professor and the JTA president knock heads and translate those to 'Jamaican'? While they are at it, could they answer the questions in the same language?

I do not mean to say that the claims of these gentlemen concerning the ease with which one learns in one's native tongue and the difficulty in working with a second language is incorrect. They are dead right. This is because the language (standard English) isn't rooted in a web of associations and memories as the social variety.

(Patois) English - if it is so foreign - would not set off emotional resonances as would Patois. That's because the associative links are fewer and weaker. The solution, then, is to deepen the associative links through experience with the language, remembering that part of the solution is to be found in cognitive psychology and education.

The effects of this failure has had a devastating effect on education. The reading section of libraries has become a graveyard. Our children have stopped reading. This is the genesis of our problem.

May I suggest that we wade - backwards - through the sea of baseless excuses for the poor performance in the classroom.

All teaching is ultimately a matter of getting to grips with meaning. When teachers teach, students learn. When students learn, they feel no need to memorise. Why not reintroduce the teaching of grammar, the glue that holds the language together? A successful future depends on our ability to talk to the world - not to ourselves.

Glenn Tucker is an educator and sociologist. Email feedback to and