Education and the discriminatory language policy


Wednesday, January 29, 2014    

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Most recently the minister of education announced the inclusion of an oral component to the school's English Language examination. The language policy at the Ministry of Education is steeped into the dark history of a racist colonial past. This recent announcement of applying the 'untested hypothesis' to a major educational problem will not provide a solution to the learning crisis. There has been a discriminatory language policy in our political thinking resulting from the hegemony of the colonial culture; and 1962 has not changed that reality. English is taught as a second language in countries where there is a dominant creole language (or languages). The cultural sections of the United Nations urged member states to recognise these languages, but Jamaica remains resolute, withholding official recognition of Patois. English is taught to the majority of our students under the assumption that they speak that language. There is no doubt about the relationship of criminality to the failure of our system of education and this language problem. Regardless of school and community, if teachers cannot effectively communicate to their students, then no learning can take place.

During the last quarter in 2013, there were calls for student to have knowledge of another language. The head of the tourist transportation sector called for "students to study a second language". The president of the hotel and tourist association endorsed the concept with her call for "foreign language promotion in the schools". It was during that same period that an office related to the Ministry of Tourism announced its programme to teach Spanish and Russian languages to workers in the tourism sector (Observer, November 25, 2013). In more recent days there is a call from a business concern about the lack of linguistic qualities and its hindrance to foreign investments. This instrumental approach to language acquisition is dangerous. We all welcome these discussions, but while there has always been the concern for the learning of another language, there has been no nationwide recognition that there is, at first, the goal to teach English Language so that most Jamaicans, Patois-speaking Jamaicans, can learn it. This is at the heart of the problem. Many people confuse the teaching of English as a second language with the teaching of Patois. The call is for the former. It was at last year's Super Bowl there was a popular celebration of that VW ad. The white American who spoke the "Jamaican language" in that ad was invited to Jamaica. He was lauded locally.

In a recent article celebrating Tessanne's victory, the writer argues that the discussion "on English centres on poor performance of so many Jamaican students". The writer asserts that that, while it is good to push for the universal acceptance of Patois, and while it is worthwhile to study it, "we cannot afford to do this to the detriment of English Language". This is indeed a gross misconception of the problem laced with elite views of Patois. On the heels of this statement came the minister of education with the fool's gold of having an oral component in English examinations. It is important that observers do not confuse the issue of teaching Patois with that of teaching English as a second language to Patois speakers. Secondly, it is most important that there is official recognition for Patois as that language of majority of the Jamaican people, the black masses. Thirdly, the oral component works for French and Spanish because those courses provide the "rules of the game" to students who do not speak those languages. So, they are not taught those languages under the assumption that they speak them. In these cases the oral component is useful. English is taught under the assumption that the students speak the language. If they cannot be communicated within the schools then no proper learning will take place. So this is why the discussion on English Language is usually associated with poor academic performance. We speak about Singapore and its successes. In that state, English is taught as a second language to its many 'dialect' speakers.

Yes, there are many European and other countries where English is taught. It is taught in those areas as a second language and not under the assumption that they speak it. The politicians know very well that the dominant language in Jamaica is Patois. They know very well that English cannot serve them effectively on the platforms when they are in campaign mode. In fact, one young political leader, while in the Ministry of Education, chided the radio stations for their presentations in Patois. His stage appearance was rooted in that language which he speaks, but no one could understand him. So, he saw the light and is now raising hell with Patois on the platforms of his political meetings.

Most recently, there was this report of by the minister of education correlating levels of imprisonment with certain school which inspired a huge outcry. The report was not one of causation, but association. I wonder if the researchers looked at the communities from which those subjects emerged, and also their social and economic backgrounds, all of which are associated with huge cultural deficits in those students. One of those cultural deficits is the language. The schools on a whole have not been able to reach those students; communication has not been effective. As far as I am concerned, the language problem is associated with this huge problem of certain schools' attendees ending up in criminality and violence. Where is the reasoning and the proper decision-making approach?

A few years ago I was in Grant's Pen. I asked a little boy, no more than nine years old to perform the latest "deejay music". He reeled off a few in minutes, not missing a beat nor a word. I said his ability to recall is strong. He was at that time not so strong in his schoolwork. The deejay communicated to him effectively because they speak the same language. If we all agree that it is important for our students to learn English, the language for education and the global workplace, then we must agree that it must be taught so the majority of students can learn it in order for learning to take place. This is the core of the problem concerning poor academic performance among Jamaica students.

Mr Minister, your new policy of oral component in English is certainly not related to the problem of teaching English language to Patois speakers unless that language is taught as a second language. It is the only sensible thing to do. This is a matter concerning human rights to ignore the majority of people in this country and the language that they speak. Where is Jamaicans For Justice? Where is the public defender?





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