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Carolyn Cooper | Taking Andrew Holness at his word

Published:Sunday | July 3, 2022 | 12:06 AM

Prime Minister Andrew Holness made a remarkable speech in May at the opening of a Business Process Outsourcing centre. Here’s an excerpt: “We have to see language, English, as an economic asset. Take away all the cultural issues about, you know, language, being a barrier to access and the ability to speak in our social context being a barrier to access. We need to get over that and ensure that we protect the English language in our country, as discrete from our Jamaican language, which we must speak as we will, and as we want. But get over this nonsense that one is going to block you from access in the society. We must ensure that our children as they are growing up are able to communicate in English and any other language that you can interest them in speaking. It is an economic asset.”

As far as I can tell from the YouTube video, Holness was speaking spontaneously. He did not appear to be reading from a prepared script. So he could be forgiven for making somewhat confused and confusing statements. First of all, Holness seems to define language as essentially English. It could have been just a slip of the tongue. But, perhaps, not! If he’d said, either, “We have to see language as an economic asset;” or, “We have to see English as an economic asset,” I would agree with him. But equating language with English is problematic, especially in the Jamaican context.

The primary language of many Jamaicans is not English. It is Jamaican. This language is routinely devalued by the elite. Jamaican is not acknowledged as a real-real language. It is still dismissed as a corrupt, broken, inferior dialect of English. Andrew Holness asserts that we must disregard “all the cultural issues” that cause “language” to be seen as a “barrier to access”. Which language? And which issues? In Jamaica, the ability to speak, particularly in English, is definitely not a barrier that prevents access to high-status positions. The Jamaican language is usually the obstruction. And it’s certainly not “nonsense” to say that “one” language can block access.


I completely agree with the prime minister that we must make sure that every Jamaican child learns English. But the only way this is going to happen is if there’s a revolution in the teaching of the language. The present system is simply not working. Many children in Jamaica go to primary school knowing only Jamaican. It’s their first language. And they are not taught English efficiently. It is assumed that they are speaking bad English that can become good with a lot of hard work. They go all through primary school and high school and the miracle of sanctification does not always happen. Even at the tertiary level, disadvantaged students need classes in remedial English.

For over half a century, linguists have been proposing solutions to this problem of ineffective English language teaching. But successive ministers of education have not been listening. English must be taught as a second language to students whose first language is Jamaican. There is widespread resistance to this proposal from people who do not understand the meaning of first and second language. The numbers refer to the order in which languages are learned; not to the status of the languages. To teach English as a second language does not mean that English is a second-class language. Or that it is no longer the official language of Jamaica.

In 1950, the linguist Robert Le Page came from England to teach in the Department of English at The University of the West Indies, Mona. As an outsider, he could clearly see the cultural issues that caused the Jamaican language to become a barrier to access. In 1966, Le Page published an essay, ‘Problems To Be Faced In the Use of English in Four West Indian Territories’. These were Jamaica, Guyana, British Honduras and Trinidad and Tobago.

Writing about Jamaica, Le Page identified the fundamental problem. English and Jamaican are distinct languages. Then, he observed, “But neither the teachers nor the children are equipped to recognize the differences. Instead of being able to keep the two systems separate, therefore, the children try to make one composite system out of the vernacular they know in their homes and the model language they are supposedly taught in school; the result naturally satisfies nobody – not even the children themselves, for whom it remains an artificial construct. The problem is greatly intensified by the fact that so many of the teachers are untrained, unsure of their command of the target language, and therefore poor teachers of it.”


In the 60th year of Jamaican Independence, what has changed? Teachers are better trained. But does the primary school curriculum reflect acceptance of the urgent need to teach English as a second language? And what value is placed on the Jamaican language? Why is it seen as an exclusively oral language? Why are children not being taught literacy in their first language? Why is the Ministry of Education not transforming language teaching? Could it be that the elite do not really want every child to become proficient in English? The high-status language would no longer be a big stick to blunt the child’s imagination.

Andrew Holness does concede that Jamaican is a language “we must speak as we will, and as we want”. But he does not seem to conceive this language as an “economic asset”. It, apparently, does not need to be protected. Why not? Is validating the Jamaican language one of the “cultural issues” that must be taken away? I do understand the prime minister’s passion for protecting English as an economic asset. The Business Process Outsourcing sector is dependent on English-speaking employees. But, surely, we should accept the fact that Jamaica is a bilingual country. We must acknowledge the value of both languages. We don’t have to “get over” our culture in order to protect English.

Le Page predicted in that 1966 essay that the failure to teach English efficiently in Jamaica would have long-term consequences: “The situation has other unfortunate side effects which restrict social mobility and lead to political discontent.” Andrew Holness needs to consider the possibility that the rise in violent crime in Jamaica is one result of the failure of the state to protect not English, but generations of alienated youth. They have been blocked from access by the dysfunctional school system and are now overturning barriers by any means necessary.

- Carolyn Cooper, PhD, is a teacher of English language and literature and a specialist on culture and development. Email feedback to and