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Carolyn Cooper | Language lessons from Haiti

Published:Friday | August 5, 2016 | 12:00 AM

We're so accustomed to thinking of Haiti as the poorest country in the Americas that we often forget a fundamental truth. Wealth cannot always be measured in purely economic terms. Haiti is one of the richest countries of the world in intellectual traditions and the creative arts. Haitians know how to turn dem hand mek fashion. You should see the inventive way in which scrap metal and discarded tyres are repurposed as art.

In response to last week's column, 'Miss Lou a very happy duppy today!', Prof Michel DeGraff, a Haitian linguist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), posted this message on Facebook: "Jamaica, Haiti: sister islands. Different languages, similar chains, similar struggles of liberation, going back to Boukman from Jamaica. Yes, Carolyn Cooper, let's not fall for these mind tricks: English 'derives' from Germanic, and French 'derives' from Latin. But Jamaican Creole and Haitian Creole 'corrupt' (!?!) English and French? Oh, no!"

Prof deGraff's invocation of Boukman recalls the instrumental role that this Jamaican hero played in starting the Haitian revolution. Named Bookman in Jamaica because he was literate, and Boukman in Haiti, he militantly refused to accept the identity of slave. He asserted his humanity in acts of resistance against systemic brutalisation.

Prof Carolyn Fick describes Boukman in this way in her book 'The Making of Haiti: The Saint Domingue Revolution from Below': "He had been a commandeur (slave driver) and later a coachman on the Clement plantation, among the first to go up in flames once the revolt began. While his experience as commandeur provided him with certain organisational and leadership qualities, the post as coachman no doubt enabled him to follow the ongoing political developments in the colony, as well as to facilitate communication links and establish contacts among the slaves of different plantations. Reputedly, Boukman was also a Vodou priest and, as such, exercised an undisputed influence and command over his followers, who knew him as 'Zamba' Boukman. His authority was only enhanced by the overpowering impression projected by his gigantic size."




Prof DeGraff gave a brilliant keynote lecture at the 21st biennial conference of the Society for Caribbean Linguistics, convened last week at the University of the West Indies, Mona. He focused on 'Implementation of Kreyol as a Language of Education in Haiti'.

A recurring theme in Prof DeGraff's lecture was 'elite closure'. This term describes the way in which social and political elites across the world use language to exercise control over their presumed subordinates. Elites determine which languages are official and which are not. And access to privilege becomes dependent on how well you master the official language.

Prof DeGraff reminded us that when Queen Isabella of Spain was presented with a grammar of the Spanish language in 1492, she was confused. She wanted to know what purpose it would serve. It was the Bishop of Avila who set her straight. Here's an English translation of what he said: "Language is the perfect instrument of empire."

That's why the French, for example, are so big on 'la francophonie' - French-speaking communities. The official website of the International Organisation of La Francophonie brazenly declares that "[i]ts members share more than just a common language. They also share the humanist values promoted by the French language". Tell that to all those French-speakers who are alienated from their country of birth, France!

And, by the way, given all this talk of 'humanist values', I'm quite surprised that the Embassy of France in Jamaica inhumanely evicted the Alliance Francaise from its long-established home at Hillcrest Avenue. For quite some time now, the Alliance has been batter-battering, trying to find alternative accommodation. From one temporary shelter to the next! But I don't suppose Jamaica is a big enough market for la francophonie to make the Government of France take the Alliance seriously. All French-speakers are not created equal.




Prof deGraff reported that on a recent visit to Haiti, President Hollande of France offered French education as an export commodity to restore Haiti's lost identity! Such arrogance! If you speak French, you automatically share "humanist values". And if you are educated in French, you rediscover your true-true identity. As what? A colonised subject!

So a child in Haiti who speaks Kreyol, not French, is excluded at birth from the "humanist values" embedded in the European language! It is only the acquisition of French that can redeem the 'native' from the condition of congenital inferiority. But Prof deGraff also exposed how children 'learned' by rote when they are 'taught' in French. They memorise their textbooks and recite meaningless words.

Prof deGraff demonstrated that when these same children are taught in Kreyol, they easily learn supposedly 'difficult' subjects like science, technology, engineering and mathematics. And he reminded us that the 17th-century French philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes chose to write in French, the 'unscholarly' language of his time. French, then, was a Creole language!

The Jamaican Language Unit at the University of the West Indies, Mona, under the visionary leadership of Prof Hubert Devonish, has translated primary school textbooks into Jamaican. The unit conducted a bilingual education project for students in grades one to four. It was an unquestionable success. Our Ministry of Education needs to take lessons from Haiti and give our local language the respect it deserves.

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