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Stop demonising Patois -From a semi-lingual to a bilingual Jamaica

Published:Sunday | August 26, 2012 | 12:00 AM
Sedia Betty models a sexy skirt and a top from Patwa apparel, combining Jamaican Creole with fashion appeal. file
Hubert Devonish

By Hubert Devonish, Guest Columnist

The minister of education is reported in The Gleaner of August 22, 2012 as lamenting the fact that in the CSEC English A examination, Jamaican students fell woefully short in critically assessing a passage. He suggests that too much emphasis has been placed on memorisation. Correspondingly, he feels, too little attention has been given to the higher forms of intellectual activity, analysis and critical thinking.

When one has difficulty understanding and processing information, one memorises it. In the Jamaican situation, what stands in the way of understanding and processing knowledge and information presented in English is the language barrier. Most Jamaicans, be they adults or children, are native speakers of Jamaican, a Creole language with a grammatical structure which is quite distinct from English.

In recent days, a wide range of voices, from the principal of Campion College to the president of the Jamaica Teachers' Association, are proclaiming a self-evident fact: that English is not the native language of the vast majority of Jamaicans. They state that Jamaican/Jamaican Creole/Patwa/Dialect is.

A visitor from Mars would think that these proclamations are the result of some new situation that has developed. In fact, this has been the state of affairs from the 17th century. And, for the record, the native speakers of Jamaican were never restricted to the black and oppressed masses. British visitors to the island in the 18th century bemoaned the speech of the white daughters of plantation owners, their drawl and their use of good old Jamaican words such as 'nyam' (eat) and 'bobi' (breast) at the dinner table.


So, what then is new? There is an increasing acceptance of Jamaican as a language in its own right. In a 2005 National Language Attitude Survey of Jamaica, more than 80 per cent considered Jamaican a language, and roughly 70 per cent wanted to see it used as a language of instruction and literacy in schools alongside English. This same number wanted it recognised as an official language in addition to English.

The ordinary folk are way ahead of the chattering and scribbling classes who so frequently speak in the electronic media and write articles in the press on the language question. These classes have that quaint Anglo-Saxon idea that a human head can hold one language only, and that the choice is either Jamaican or English.

They pay no heed to a case such as Iceland, with a population of approximately 250,000, which operates an education system in the Icelandic language, and which teaches languages like English and German for external communication. The 'one head, one language' idea is one of the mental shackles from which they are yet to be emancipated.

It is against this background that we have this new drive in the education system to focus on higher-order intellectual activity, notably analysis and critical thinking. In which language do we think this is carried out by the majority of Jamaicans? In English, a second language for most Jamaicans? Or in Jamaican, their first language, their mother tongue?

The late Dennis Craig, in his work on language education in the Caribbean, consistently stressed the importance of developing critical thinking and analytical skills in the mother tongue, not just in the early stages of education but right throughout. Why? He argued that it was only with the continued development of those skills in the mother tongue that the opportunity presents itself for a transfer of those skills to second and third languages.

Craig was responding to a notion associated with the well-known scholar of language education Jim Cummins. When children are forced to go through education in a second language, while their mother tongue is wholly or largely excluded from the classroom, they grow up to be what he calls 'semi-lingual'. They do not have the higher-order thinking and language communication skills developed in their native language. They, therefore, are incapable of transferring these to the second language, in the present case, English.

Cummins proposes another option, however. Use the first language, the mother tongue, right through the school system, in all functions, including as a subject of instruction, medium of instruction and as a language in which reading and writing is learnt. This would take place alongside the second language being used also in these same roles. This would be what is called a fully bilingual or dual-language education programme.

Cummins suggests that the outcome is what he calls 'additive bilingualism'. The students produced by such a system have levels of competence in both languages which are fully developed, as a result of the transfer of skills from the mother tongue to the second language, at every stage in the education system.

The Ministry of Education policy is one of 'monoliterate, transitional bilingualism'. That means they use the language of the home, Jamaican, as a bridge or transitional language to English, the language of the school. After that, the home language is abandoned, with the children able to provide the pretence of controlling English, while the higher-order skills are being developed neither in English or Jamaican, hence the tale of memorisation.

In the Jamaican situation, a fully bilingual or dual-education programme would involve the use of both Jamaican and English as languages of education, in the same roles, side by side. This is what took place in a Ministry of Education-sanctioned Bilingual Education Project run in a Corporate Area primary school between 2004 and 2008 by the Jamaican Language Unit. Textbooks for mathematics, social studies, science and the language arts were translated into Jamaican. These were made available alongside the textbooks written in English.

The teachers were trained to deliver the same lesson twice, once in Jamaican and then in English. The teachers were taught never to mix the two languages, and to keep them apart. The teachers, as part of their practice, announced to their pupils when the language being used changed from English to Jamaican, or vice versa.

The pupils learnt to read and write in both languages. The teachers' training manual, the textbooks, the supporting teaching materials, and all of the reports on the project have been in the possession of the Ministry of Education since September 2010.

The path from the existing semi-lingualism to true bilingualism has been cleared already. We just need to summon up the courage to go down that new path.


Of course, the thought might immediately come to mind, 'Will Jamaican children be able to cope?' Why not? These are children who operate a language, Jamaican, which is in several ways much more complex than English. 'Jamaican more complex than English?' you are thinking. This must be a typo. It isn't.

Let us look at the following three English sentences: 'I am a man', 'I am tall' and 'I am here'. You will notice that they all take 'am', a form of the verb 'to be', to link the subject, 'I', with what is being said about it. What are the Jamaican equivalents? They are 'Mi a man', 'Mi taal', and 'Mi de ya'. In order to get the structure correct in Jamaican, the speaker needs to know if what is being said about the subject, 'I', was that it is equal to something else, in which case, 'a' is used as the linking word.

If what is being said about the subject is an attribute possessed by 'I', there is no linking word. If the sentence tells us what place 'I' is located in, the form 'de' is used.

In this area, English is a lazy language, failing to distinguish between when the subject is equal to something else, when it uses a form of 'to be', when the subject has an attribute, when it uses the same form, and when the subject is located in a place, when a form of 'to be' is used again.

And what about that good old English word 'you'? It is, of course, ambiguous, for whether one is addressing a single individual or several people. In Jamaican, by contrast, there is a distinction between 'yu' (you, singular) and 'unu' (borrowed from Igbo, a language spoken in modern-day southern Nigeria). The Jamaican personal pronouns make a distinction between 'you' (singular) and 'unu' (you, plural). Certainly, we see no sign of intellectual laziness on the part of speakers of Jamaican here!

Children who naturally manipulate as complex a language as Jamaican can surely master a language like English, which is, in many respects, much simpler.

Why they have not done so yet? Because they have not been given the chance.

The way forward is clear. To move from the semi-lingualism, which exists to additive bilingualism of the sort which produces the higher-order thinking skills so dear to the heart of the minister of education, we need a fully bilingual approach to education in Jamaica. This should be implemented right throughout the education system. Minister of Education, over to you.

Hubert Devonish is professor of linguistics and coordinator of the Jamaican Language Unit, UWI, Mona. Email feedback to and