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Carolyn Cooper | ¿Qué pasa, Jamaica? Wa a gwaan?

Published:Friday | June 24, 2016 | 12:00 AM

On a recent visit to Cuba, Prime Minister Andrew Holness got the bright idea to make Spanish an official language of Jamaica. That's what's going on! I don't think the PM fully understands the implications of his sudden decision.

What makes a language 'official' is that it's used for all government business: in Parliament, in the courts, and in the general administration of the country. Do we really want Spanish to assume this function in Jamaica? It would be quite a costly enterprise.

All government documents would have to be translated into the language. Translators would make a killing. But who else would benefit from this expensive exercise? A much more sensible proposition would be to encourage more Jamaicans to learn Spanish. It's a dominant language in this hemisphere. But to insist on turning Spanish into an official language makes no sense.

Then quite a few nationalists have been up in arms because the prime minister didn't declare Jamaican an official language. Spanish would become our second official language after English. No mention of Jamaican at all. Poor fellow! Certain people wuda nyam im raw if he'd made the mistake of acknowledging Jamaican as a real-real language in which government business should be conducted.




No matter how hard the linguists beat up dem gum and beat up dem chest, there are some hard-headed Jamaicans who will never be convinced that our local language has any place in the public sphere. It is a yard language and that's exactly where it should remain. Bright! Bout official!

Quite frankly, I'm not bothered by the fact that the elites in Jamaica refuse to make our language 'official'. What the Government says and does about language is far less important than how the masses of the people conduct our lives.

Jamaican may not be official, but it's the language in which most of us at home and in the diaspora live and move and have our being. And that's what matters. One of these days, Govament will catch up with the rest of us. Until then, a lot of what Govament says will simply fly over our heads. Like election promises. And Budget speeches.

What does concern me is how children who speak Jamaican are treated when they first go to school. They are duncified because they don't know the language of formal instruction. The Ministry of Education's language policy does not appear to take into full account the fact that the home language of most children is not English. And no serious attempt seems to be made to teach English as a second language.

Jamaican is conceived as 'broken' English that just needs some patching up. It is not recognised as a distinct language with its own rules of grammar that students need to understand. And the differences between the structure of English and Jamaican are not made clear to prospective learners of the second language. Yes, Jamaican has structure.




Another important factor is that some teachers of English don't know the language as well as they should. So they cannot confidently teach it. This is an issue we don't like to talk about. But it certainly has an impact on students who cannot learn what they have not been efficiently taught.

And English grammar books have gone out of style, even in England. A June 2012 BBC report on curriculum reform has a very catchy headline: 'New Grammar Tests 'Will Impoverish English Teaching'." It quotes Dr Simon Gibbons, senior lecturer in English education at Kings College, University of London.

In a clash with the Department of Education, which wants to bring back the teaching of grammar and spelling in primary schools, Dr Gibbons dismissively argues, "Motivation and engagement are the things that help children learn, and underlining parts of a sentence, I don't think that really does it for most people."

Dr Gibbons may be right. But no matter how motivated and engaged students are, they sometimes end up making lots of grammatical errors and they fail exams. How do we find the right balance between the old-fashioned teaching of English grammar and the exciting new ways of getting students to use language creatively?




In 2003, Arawak Publications put out a beautiful little book by the Jamaican linguist Pauline Christie titled 'Language in Jamaica'. It's designed not for linguists but for the general reader who wants to understand our language heritage. That brilliant book is small only in size - 73 pages! Its sweep is broad.

One of Dr Christie's aims is "counteracting traditional social and linguistic prejudices". But some of us are quite happy with our prejudices. We don't want to be exposed to new ideas that might make us uncomfortable. We like to feel superior to those unfortunate souls who speak 'bad' English. But what if this language is not a bad anything but a good-good something else?

One day, one day, every single child in Jamaica will be taught English efficiently. And they will learn the language. No big deal! Nobody will be able to pop style on them. English will just be another language, like Jamaican or Spanish, which we'll all be able to brandish. That's what needs to gwaan, Jamaica!

- Carolyn Cooper is a consultant on culture and development. Email feedback to and