In recent weeks two articles relating to the socio-cultural problems regarding language teaching and learning in the Jamaican society and classroom were published in the Jamaica Observer.
In the article "In praise of English" (June 29, 2012), Franklin Johnston argues that language, especially English, is associated with nations that are prosperous and great, and that there is no quality of progress associated with patois. The writer advances his idea with great confidence as if he was putting forward a new theory of under-development associated with patois and English language and its association with prosperity and development.
Mr Johnston is an adviser to the minister of education. His views on patois and education raise serious questions regarding policy-making in that ministry. Johnston's insensitivity and seeming disrespect for the majority of people in this country who speak patois are reflected in the minister's address to Cornwall College's graduating class in mid-July. Report on this speech is carried in the newspaper report "Proficiency in English a must - Thwaites" (Observer, July 12, 2012) by Karla Josephs. Both people recognise the existence of the language, but they refuse to give patois and its speakers the respect they deserve. In fact, their comments were insensitive bordering on contempt. They ought to apologise to the majority of people in this country.
I will leave the history of patois for another discussion. However, it is important to note that neither the colonial government nor the Independent Jamaica government sought to explore and study the language. It has its strength and its weaknesses, but there is always the emphasis by elite observers on its weakness and defect as a language. In spite of this, patois forms the core of creole cultural foundations for this modern Jamaican society. It has served the majority of black Jamaicans for centuries. Yes, we celebrate the associated folkloric traditions, Miss Lou and Bob Marley, but neglect the language to the point of implying that the majority of Jamaicans would be "better off" not born because they speak patois, a language with no association with progress.
According to Franklin Johnston, "If you are not literate in English, better you were not born...Our English is bad but our patois is worse... it leads nowhere progressive people want to go...Literacy in English is the most valuable gift a parent can give to a child". The issue is not about the defective nature of patois. It has to do with teaching English to patois-speaking people in a way that they can learn the principles and rules of the language. Mr Johnston, where and when did you ever hear Bob Marley speaking English?
There are many things Jamaican that are neglected by Jamaicans. It appears that the dominant discourse from the colonial situation on black culture in Jamaica is very much alive today. In fact, areas such as Revivalism, origin of folk music and Rastafari were recognised and explored by white people/scholars from abroad. If white people say something Jamaican is good, then we follow and say it is good.
Now the minister of education's own ideas about this language are far from the concerns of responsible Jamaicans about the language and education. According to the newspaper report of the minister's speech to Cornwall College's valedictory service, he suggested that we should embrace the Jamaican dialect but recognise that English language is still vital for the development of the nation. The article quotes the minister as saying, "Some of us have a notion in Jamaica that somehow we can get by with our wonderful Jamaican language... It is a language... but does not have an English grammatical structure... But I have to tell you that the English language is the language of the workforce, the language of professionalism, the language of world trade...". Both the minister and his adviser seem to be advancing a new theory of development linking education to prosperity and greatness and patois to backwardness and underdevelopment. The fact is that most students going into early childhood, primary and some secondary schools speak patois; they think in patois and have problems negotiating the English language when they are taught under the assumption that they speak English. There are deeper problems relating to the lack of thinking skills that remain with some people throughout their entire life. I cannot recall anyone in this campaign suggesting that they can "get by with... their wonderful language". It is far from the truth. There has been a constant call by responsible Jamaicans to give recognition to patois as one of our official languages. There is also the call for a responsible and reasonable attitude in the teaching of English language in a dominant patois environment. This issue is one of the major problems in education.
Each time I hear the words of a song with the line "I have been to paradise, but I have never been to me..." I think about the Jamaican experience, especially in the area of education. We spend a lot of time relying on foreign consultants to define our problems; we become high consumers of alien theories and "frills" about education all having no bearing on the objective reality of the Jamaican classroom. The teachers who are in the classroom must turn a new page inside or outside of their union towards policy making. Teachers must begin to have their research form illustrating and articulating their experiences in the classroom. There are the ones who have the encounter with the different realities but they are the least to be consulted regarding the major problems in education.