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Balancing cultural literacy and academics

Published:Sunday | March 17, 2019 | 12:00 AMWendy-Ann Brissett - Contributor

A curious situation arose for me once in a teaching practical when a child in the class uttered the word “mango”. To the dismay of the practical supervisors, the teacher corrected the child’s pronunciation of “mango” to “mongo”.

This episode, however alarming, is not a surprising occurrence when examined in the Jamaican language context and the varying macro- and micro-level cultural, sociolinguistic, and political challenges resulting from the presence of Creole and English in a Creole-speaking environment such as Jamaica. These challenges also are not limited to the English language classroom but are present, and must be addressed, in all subject areas over the entire education landscape.

For Jamaican teachers, it is critical to be not only aware of the language situation, but also appreciative of what it means to be a bilingual, or as some contend a multilingual nation, with two dominant languages, Jamaican Creole (JC) and Standard Jamaican English (SJE). Culturally and pedagogically it is imperative that teachers in the Jamaican classroom acknowledge and accept the socio-linguistic characteristics that define JC and SJE as separate languages.

This has fundamental implications for the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts (EMCVPA), where education in the arts must be informed by and be relevant to the cultural context in which those arts emerge. The challenge is to integrate the teaching of academic literacies with a cultural, yet discipline-specific, focus. As a teacher-trainer institution, the EMCVPA has a responsibility to ensure that graduates in education have the capacity to balance their expertise and relevance in their discipline-specific area with “pedagogical content knowledge”.

My approach is informed by my experience as a secondary school English language whose focus was primarily based on facilitating students’ acquisition and use of language skills for effective communication. In my present capacity as lecturer at the EMCVPA in the School of Arts Management and Humanities, it is this philosophy of “language teaching” that grounds my practice.

My underlying assumption in entering any classroom in Jamaica is that the students are bilingual (or multilingual) or have used, at some point, both Creole and English in their social interactions. Therefore, how do we use Creole and cultural circumstances to facilitate the learning objectives of globally significant academic material?

How, for example, can we use the popular Jamaican Broadcasting Commission’s advertisement, “Pinchy Dead/Weh Fake News A Guh?” to present the importance of evaluating sources? In this advertisement, the news of Pinchy’s death from eating dumpling is quickly spread by means of an obscure television news report, a telephone conversation, a WhatsApp broadcast message, and a nosy neighbour’s overactive imagination. In actual fact, a friend who checks with Pinchy’s wife confirms that Pinchy “just done wash down some brown stew fish wid lemonade and not even did eat dumpling todeh”.

Addressing fake news

The Jamaica Broadcasting Commission’s objective of addressing fake news and encouraging “online users to be more careful when consuming and sharing content online”, may be applied to classrooms with the learning objective of choosing, evaluating, and using appropriate sources for varying types of academic papers. Similarly, in examining the production and context of DJ Powa’s mash-up viral videos – “Nobody Canna Cross It/Di Bus Can Swim”, “Call Di Contracta/Tutty Gran”, and “The People Dem Are Deading” – what knowledge can the students gain from a discussion of the legal, moral, and economic implications of the use of free-to-air information in their creative outputs? All of these examples take their cue from specific cultural situations where culturally unambiguous language is important to the messages transmitted.

Wilton Lodge, a science educator in England and Jamaica for over two decades, in supporting the notion that “the Creole-speaking child needs to first encounter and experience science in their own language”, posits that students’ use of less arbitrary Creole words/terms such as ‘knee cap’ (patella), ‘nose hole’ (nostrils) or ‘seed bag’ (scrotum) before “negotiating the more arbitrary vocabulary and grammatical challenges in learning science … (will) provide a platform for moving students from their everyday ways of talking, thinking, and doing to becoming competent in the ways of scientific thinking and scientific discourse”.

Applied to any Jamaican classroom, the use of Creole, and cultural experiences, to communicate instructions and content knowledge is critical in providing a more meaningful teaching and learning experience in and outside the classroom. Yu nuh believe mi? Try it fi a month and write dung weh yu find.


Wendy-Ann Brissett is the acting head of the Department of Humanities in the School of Arts Management and Humanities at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts. She is the copy editor of the Jonkonnu Arts Journal, a publication from the biennial Rex Nettleford Arts Conference. Send comments and feedback to