I read the ‘article’ by Franklin Johnston which appeared on the 31st July in the Jamaica Observer with mounting horror and incredulity. How is it possible for such ignorant rantings to find space in [the] newspaper? The author is clearly a stranger to any notions of logic, and moreover makes wild claims about languages in general which – to put it mildly – have no foundation in the academic study of linguistics.

The very first paragraph is a farrago of nonsense. What does he mean by ‘good language drives out bad’? Which are these so-called ‘good’ languages, and which are the ‘bad’? He appears to place Greek and Latin in the ‘bad’ category, since he claims they have disappeared (can he really be unaware of the fact that Greek is still spoken by the people of Greece, and that Italian descends in a direct line from Latin?). However, he then confusingly goes on to say that these languages ’embrace the grand writings and tenets which underpin Western civilisation’ (how exactly does a language ’embrace’ writings, anyway??). He then concludes with a complete non sequitur, by remarking that ‘even Jamaicans (‘even‘??)studied the Punic wars’… What, one is tempted to ask, is his point?

Here is another piece of nonsense: ‘Patois has no history or artefacts to explore; no ancient ruins or writings to translate. Patois is a means of speech evolved by people deprived of instruction in their native languages and the languages of their masters‘ (my emphasis). The confusion, ignorance and prejudice that underly this statement would make it risible, if it were not so tragic, if it did not demonstrate so clearly the self-hatred, and the lack of understanding of self from which the author is obviously suffering.

Confusion, because he is putting the cart before the horse: the language comes first, Mr. Johnston, because it is the marker that defines a people, and the people make, and later, write their history, and leave their monuments behind them when they go. When the Ancient Greek peasants sang the songs and recited the tales which, centuries later, were written down and called The Iliad and The Odyssey, they did not do it in an ‘ancient’ language – it was merely the everyday language of farmers, shepherds and fishermen. A language doesn’t suddenly emerge as ‘ancient’ – the songs of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and many others besides will only be ‘ancient’ to generations far in the future.

Ignorance, because of his totally uninformed definition of patois – and let’s give it its proper name, Jamaican Creole. Jamaican Creole belongs to a family of contemporary languages which share the same features, but perhaps even more significantly, it is also to be compared with historically much older languages, such as moyen français. I remember studying texts in moyen français when at university, and marvelling at the way in which the encounter between Vulgar Latin (the language of the soldiers, administrators and settlers who governed the Roman provinces) and the Celtic languages spoken before the Roman colonization of France had produced a language with features so similar to Jamaican Creole, which itself is born of the encounter between the English of the (largely) Welsh managers and (largely) Irish overseers and the African languages of the people they had trafficked as slaves.

Creoles have arisen throughout history, as the ebb and flow of wars and conquests have brought different languages and cultures into conflict and contact.

Ignorance, because he seems unaware of the fact that children learn their mother tongue from their parents, not from teachers: by the time children are in primary school (and I would point out that, here in Europe, the age of primary school entrance can be as late as 7) they already have a full grounding in their language.

Formal schooling builds on and develops further what the children have already brought with them on day one. Hence the tragedy of education in Jamaica – for decades we have pretended that children coming to school were arriving with a knowledge of English, whereas this was and is patently untrue, with the exception of a tiny minority. Children have been plunged into a linguistic environment which was alien and quickly became hostile, as they were belittled and humiliated for not having a command of English; so, instead of developing and growing in knowledge and confidence, they have tended to withdraw into themselves, drop out of school, or stay on but not do well, since they were never given a proper grounding in English before being required to function in it.

Those of us who demand change, in the form of education at primary level in Jamaican Creole with an introduction to English, and bi-lingual education at secondary and tertiary levels, have merely taken the blinkers off, and are confronting the reality: in the same way as no one in their right mind would demand that a Portuguese child entering primary school be obliged to function in Spanish (a language which does have similarities with Portuguese), nor that a Norwegian child entering primary school be forced to operate in Danish (another Nordic language), it is sheer insanity to require that a Jamaican child whose first language is Creole be required to function in English when entering primary school.

English needs to be taught like a foreign language which happens to have some similarities with the Creole if we want out children, first of all to thrive in their educational environment, and secondly to leave school with a thorough knowledge both of their mother tongue and of English.

Those of us who demand this are aware – unlike Mr Johnston – that this educational approach is successfully used in many countries across the world where the mother tongue of the population is a ‘version’ of a language spoken elsewhere, e.g. Switzerland, where a German dialect, Schwiezerdeutsch, is used in education alongside the standard Hochdeutsch all the way up to the tertiary level, and is used in publishing, translating and interpreting, and where Swiss German businessmen switch happily between the two languages, having been brought up to believe that bilingualism means having the best of both worlds…

Mr Johnston seems to believe that it could never be possible to have ‘patois books in law, chemistry, plumbing, art, and patois websites, and there are translators and interpreters employed in patois at the Seabed Authority’. I have to shake my head in disbelief. He reminds me of the tendency of the Russian court in the 18th and 19th centuries to refuse to speak Russian, considering it a language of downtrodden serfs, and preferring to use French or German instead; and this is where I come to his prejudice.

Like other Jamaicans who express these kinds of uninformed views, he obviously feels nothing but contempt for the Jamaican people and all our works, including our language. It is this contempt, which has been dinned into our heads ever since colonial times, and taken up enthusiastically by the new elite since independence, that stands in the way of an acknowledgment of our reality and of an understanding of the best way forward.

We can either continue to bury our heads in the sand, heap contempt on those (the vast majority) whose mother tongue is Creole and make it impossible for them to benefit from the education system by continuing to do just what we have been doing so far, with such abject failure; or we can acknowledge reality, big up ourselves for having such a rich, expressive language as the Creole, delve into and explore it while acquiring a proper grounding and command of English, and produce young people who, at the end of their schooling, are properly bi-lingual and ready to take on all comers. Pilot projects are already underway in a small number of primary schools, and I have read an interim assessment carried out by a team of educators from the USA who were particularly impressed by the extent to which the fact that the children were being taught in a language in which they are competent meant that their interest and participation in lessons was lively and sustained.

Annie Rose Kitchin

Categories: Letters

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