Gordon Robinson, Contributor
My favourite Jamaican newspaper columnist is Martinet (oops, sorry, 'Martin') Henry.
I call him 'Martinet' (behind his back, of course) because of his disciplined style of writing (sometimes a tad too 'disciplined', for me). That apart, his command of the language and grammar; his clear and logical thought process; and his obvious passion for truth make him a top-class columnist whose commentary is always a must-read.
The columnist's purpose is to provoke independent thought, but too often, writing columns becomes a read-and-regurgitate exercise oozing boredom and lacking substance. Not so Martinet, whose essays on governance and education, in particular, ought to be required reading at the tertiary level.
'Smile an everlasting smile,
a smile can bring you near to me.
Don't ever let me find you gone
'cause that would bring a tear to me.'
All this brings me to the latest fashion which includes a fixation, in some quarters, to incorporate Jamaican Patois (pronounced 'Patwa') into our formal education as our 'first language'. Attempts to have Patois taught as our official language having failed miserably, desperate voices are talking about teaching English as a second language only. Give me a minute to get up off the floor upon which I'm rolling with laughter.
'This world has lost its glory.
Let's start a brand new story now, my love.
Right now, there'll be no other time
and I can show you how, my love.'
Let's get something straight. Jamaican Patois isn't a 'language', properly so called. 'Language', an English word, is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as 'the system of communication in speech and writing that is used by people of a particular country or area'.
Our Patois is derived from Twi, a language spoken by the Ashanti tribe and still spoken in much of Ghana. It's a language which is very difficult to write, because, like our Patois, its meaning is more dependent on tone than structure. Legend has it that the slaves deliberately blended Twi and English to produce Patois in order to be able to speak, yet not be deciphered outside their own circle. Slave masters were unable to understand. At least, so I get it from Miss Lou. I wasn't present at the time.
Twi features the 'serial verb' and, hence, is the foundation of common sayings like, 'How it a go, go?'; 'I'll come play'; or the delightfully intricate 'Carry go bring come'. Neither Twi nor Patois was ever Jamaica's 'first language'. Jamaica was a Spanish colony (Spanish was its first language); then an English colony (English, its first language) and, since Independence, nothing has changed in that regard.
Patois, a 'language' deliberately invented to ensure that others couldn't understand it, still has that effect on most persons outside Jamaica and many within. It has no consistent spelling, grammar or construction rules. Its vocabulary isn't contained in any accredited dictionary. As a 'language', we all learn it by ear and hone our skills by practice among a circle of Patois-speaking friends.
Save for quotation, most of us don't try to write in Patois. Some English-speaking intellectuals do produce awkward, affected Patois essays whose meaning is a struggle to grasp. Generic use is by the spoken word only. That eliminates it as anybody's 'first language'.
Most English words are derived from Latin. English grammar and structure are Germanic. Both Latin and German are very precise languages most susceptible to the written form. So, for education purposes, we have two distinctly different 'languages'. One derived from the tone-dependent African Twi, and the other, a Germanic language with an extensive Latin-based vocabulary structured to emphasise discipline, precision and form. Perhaps somebody more scholarly than I can explain how on God's earth one can be the basis of an education in the other.
'You think that I don't even mean
a single word I say.
It's only words, and words are all I have,
to take your heart away.'
In my nightmares, I see it all unfolding before me. A special session of Parliament is called. Patois is declared Jamaica's official first language. All constitutional and legislative processes are rushed through to make the declaration law. Thereafter, Patois becomes the nation's first-choice language. English subtitles can be used if desired.
Soon after this historic proclamation, three graduates of Gungo Walk High who achieved an average grade of zero from their attempts at CSEC English, but who are diehard Facebook friends, get together to form their own business. They manufacture and programme GPS systems for export. A progressive Government, understanding that small business is the foundation of any economic growth, facilitates their start-up with low-interest loans, repayment moratoriums and tax incentives.
The first Jamaican GPS shipment lands in Ohio. Because of the curiosity about anything Jamaican, especially after the Olympics, they sell like hotcakes. A truck driver carrying cargo to Ontario is a proud first owner. He programmes the device and sets off on his journey. During the trip, his GPS' first instruction is, "Tu'n ya so."
While he's jiggling the instrument to see if what he thinks is atmospheric interference will clear up, the GPS, in a testy tone, says, "Yu no hear me sey tu'n ya so? TU'N YA SO!!" Days later, when authorities fish the truck and the driver's body from Lake Erie, the pathologist can't understand why the deceased's face is so contorted even in death. Foul play is suspected.
By the time a New York taxi driver is arrested for ploughing into a crowd of pedestrians on a crossing controlled by lights, the fledgling industry has already been destroyed. The taxi man (an Iranian immigrant) blames his brand new GPS which, he alleges, told him to "Mek a 'U'!" Again, jiggling was the repair tool of first resort.
According to the taxi man's story,
which he sticks to despite the most rigorous cross-examination at his manslaughter trial, the GPS wouldn't give up. "Me know sey de sign sey 'No U'; Mek a 'U'; yu no see sey no Babylon no di dey?" Completely confused as to what was a 'U', and with his focus on trying to fix the GPS, he insists that, having obeyed the 'safety instructions' from a GPS seminar his company had hosted to "position your GPS low and near the dashboard and out of key driving sight lines", he didn't even notice that he was upon a pedestrian crossing.
Don't get me wrong. Both (Patois and English) are realities that should be equally recognised. However, it's a fact of life during this mortal toil that English dominates the communication skills of almost every single nation in the global village, regardless of other 'first languages'. Furthermore, educators worldwide have learned (through trial and error) that language immersion is the way to teach 'foreign' languages. The best way to learn Spanish is to live in Spain, where, generally, you should hear no other language. The best Spanish teachers today speak no other language in class.
So, even if we regard Patois as our 'first language' and English as our 'second', Patois has no place in the teaching of English. The twain ought never to meet. To learn English, we must be immersed in English from we enter the classroom until we're sufficiently proficient to carry it off as a 'first language' when communicating outside our village.
It's time to stop the silly squabbling about which language to teach in our schools. We have much bigger and more immediate problems, including in schools. Students are learning all about conflict and are passing exams in that subject with flying colours.
'We teach the young our differences
yet look how we're the same.
We love to laugh, to dream our dreams.
We know the sting of pain.'
How do we think we look to these modern teenagers, with their Facebook walls; Twitter accounts; and iPads, quarrelling over an ancient linguistic dichotomy soon to be rendered obsolete by computer technology? Why aren't we discussing how to mould young minds and hearts to compete in a global environment where understanding of our differences and tolerance of 'foreign' cultures will be the difference between success and failure? Don't believe me? Ask Buju.
From Leningrad to Lexington
the farmer loves his land.
And daddies all get misty-eyed
to give their daughter's hand.
Oh, maybe when we realise
how much there is to share,
we'll find too much in common
to pretend it isn't there.
If there's any new subject that needs introducing to schools' curricula, it's love and tolerance. Our children need to be taught to love themselves, so they can love their neighbours likewise. This process begins with classes in a language that'll enable them to enter the world with self-confidence; self-esteem; self-belief; and a genuine, exportable feeling of self-worth.
Those of a former generation constantly thrusting the concept of Patois as a 'first language' down the nation's collective throat are only transferring their insecurities on to a generation that suffers no such apprehension. This generation knows the only relevant language is the social networking language of love. The basis of that abbreviated but unifying language is English.
Love in any language
straight from the heart
pulls us all together,
And once we learn to speak it
all the world will hear.
Love in any language
fluently spoken here.
This is not to say Patois has no place in our schools. It has a significant place as a subset of a history or social studies curriculum called 'culture'. It must be taught in schools as what it is - part of our indigenous culture. No need to reinvent history and declare Patois our 'first language'.
Words, written by the Brothers Gibb (Robin, Maurice and Barry), was first recorded by them (as 'The Bee Gees'), while the seminal recording of Love in any Language, created by the songwriting team of John Mohr and John Mays, was sung by the great Sandi Patty (aka 'The Voice'). Sandi - inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame (2004); as an Indiana Living Legend (2007); winner of five Grammys, four Billboard Music Awards, three platinum records and five gold records - is the most awarded female vocalist in contemporary Christian music history.
Peace and love.
Gordon Robinson is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.