In the Jamaica Gleaner of Thursday, March 13, 2008, letter writer, Earl Mckenzie of University of the West Indies (UWI) Mona expressed the need for Jamaica to embrace the English lanuage which we Jamaicans have the privilege of using, due to sheer coincidence. I concur with this view.
The question of standard English versus the Jamaican patois comes to the fore quite sporadically, though infrequently, from time to time. Sometimes it appears in relation, and of the form, that speaks to the language being foreign, being imposed on a conquered people under the old backra massa era.
Other times, the discussion of English furnishes around the poor performance of most of our Jamaican students. Yet, other times, as is depicted in the current heated discussions with the proliferation of underachieving students, it is juxtaposed with the idea that most students are not doing well because of poor teachers and a deficiency in the mastery of the English Lanuage and/or the idea that English gets in the way of high academic achievements as students have no mastery of the English Language as it is not spoken at home.
My view on the matter of English versus patois and its impact on the learning of our Jamaican students is that, there are several nations who have several spoken languages, including English, and the ‘multiplicity’ of the various different languages all work together with each other, without any significant retardation in the ability to speak either of the languages well, including English or to perform academically well, at all levels of their school system.
Since Jamaica is a country of talented sport enthusiasts and depitcts tremendous interest in sports (with the 2008 Olympics in the air and all) and the nation is ‘heavy on cable’ as well, let us cite an example in the Toronto NBA Basketball team whose members are of international origin; Argentina, Spain, Italy, USA, and so on and of which Jamaicans may be familiar.
The point can be made that if one looks, for example, at the current Toronto Raptors Basketball team and even though I am cognisant that this is a mere minute sample, it is easily observable that all the international players speak English without much blemish and project themselves as if they had done well academically as students in Europe, South America and so on.
Jose Calderon, the Raptor’s pointguard for example, who is from Spain, speaks the language of English very well, even though with a Spanish accent. Similarly, Andrea Bargnani, another player, who hails from Italy, speaks English perfectly well however being with an Italian accent.
It must be enunciated that my investigation has revealed that English is now, and was in the past, being taught in these countries; Spain, Italy, China, India, Argentina, Mexico and even Russia as a ‘mainstream’ language not so much as a ‘foreign language’. It has been mandatory to learn English in most of these countries from the pre-school days, as my friends from these countries advised.
In addition, the trend is now to offer an ‘English Emmersion’ approach to the teaching of English. That is, the other subjects are also taught in English. The English Language is necessary to compete globally, seems to be the mindset.
The problem is that while Jamaica MUST push for the universal and national acceptance of the Jamaican Patois as a language within itself, worthy of study and mastery in the written form equally as in oratory, and one that has arisen through a similar history as most other languages, English and others, we cannot afford to do this to the detriment of the universal English Language.
We cannot falsely conclude that students are failing because of English. Their failure emanates out of a more serious dilemma seemingly embedded in the current Jamaican culture. A culture of violence. A culture of get-rich-quick mentality. A culture of dependency! It is a more complex problem than the talk of English versus patois.
English, has become the language that seemingly, is the choice to learn by most foreigners of the world. This being because of the USA which ‘claims’ to speak the language.
For this reason, I have a mixed view on the Jamaican patois/English argument. I feel that it’s fine to speak patois and English side by side. One can easily notice that many so-called illiterate Jamaicans, will understand with complete and full comprehension English even that of the ‘high flown’ type. They are not ignorant of what is being said even when they don’t know how to write it. There is a similar challenge with Patois. Many people are quite fluent in speaking it, but could they express themselves well enough in using it to write an intriguing essay?
I am quite verse in speaking Patois but I am poor in writing it. I sent my friends a couple of letters in Patois and they asked me to stick to English as I was not good at writing it. It MUST be noted that I am from a grassroot, working class Jamaican family. This challenge is not peculiar to me. It is a more widely and inclusive challenge to many Jamaicans, fluent in Patois on an oratory basis!
So, if our move is to treat English as a second language as some would want it to be, it should be for the right reason(s) and it should not be for the reason that our students are doing poorly through a curriculum based and presented in English. As I said, that argument cannot be valid from the examples I have provided.
In promoting English as a second language to Jamaicans, we must also be aware of the disadvantages of such a move. Even though as I argued, most Jamaicans understand the spoken English very well even if they do not write it well, internationally, they will, if English is officially made a second language, and not our primary one, Jamaicans will be perceived as incompetent in this regard.
Accordingly, ‘Jamaican schooled’ individuals who seek to further educate themselves in the USA, Canada, England and other so-called first world, English-speaking countries with a view to return to Jamaica to build its economy, will face great challenges!
In foreign universities and other educational institutions and in Jamaicans’ quests to seek employment abroad, and even locally, by companies with a significant amount of ownership by foreign interests, we will be considered not to have the mastery of English to matriculate in the case of university admission abroad or the mastery of English to effect an excellent job locally, as we will be perceived as incompetent by nature of our language not being English.
Those who acquire a place in schools abroad will be placed in ESL (English as a Second Language) classes, most times with the ‘lesser nobilities’ of the immigrants to North America, etc.
So, Jamaica, I don’t support the views of those who would wish to view the English language as an obstacle to our students learning and becoming successful Jamaicans. Neither do I, and many like myself, regard it as a negative to promote English even though being acquired through the vehicle of imperialism.
Making English a second language and accordingly, aligning patois “front row” status to the Jamaican will not make any difference to the grades our students get in schools. I don’t think it would put Jamaicans in any additional, advantageous situation abroad or at home. In a way, I think the top students of our country may even be thwarted in their efforts to advance academically and otherwise, if this new approach is embarked on. But this is only one person’s view.
The debate must go on and we MUST find a way to educate our students! There is a need for some thinking outside the box to take place, as in the argument about training some teachers as police officers. We Must educate our children and eliminate violence from their minds. A way must be found!
Joshua Spencer is an educator, author and poet. He writes out of Toronto, Canada, firstname.lastname@example.org