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English lessons for Jamaica

CLAUDE ROBINSON

Sunday, March 30, 2014    

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THE headline for today's column appeared in the Daily Observer (March 24) over Nadine Wilson's story about an agreement between Jamaica and Britain under which experts from the British Council will shortly roll out a programme to better prepare Jamaican educators to teach English to our Jamaican children.

The programme, dubbed 'Teaching teachers to teach English', will see the British Council partnering with the Ministry of Education to improve English-speaking skills in schools. It was reported that the programme has already been introduced in more than 100 countries but, notably, Jamaica was the only so-called English-speaking nation in the world participating in it.

Why would an English-speaking nation need help in teaching its teachers to teach English to its children? The short answer is that we are not really English-speaking, one of the facts out of a study that laid the basis for the programme.

"We really are not an English-speaking country... and that is well-recognised by the ministry and I think most of the entities operating within the education circles have all agreed that this is the case," noted project manager at the British Council, Morland Wilson.

In the schools with the greatest challenge, "the teachers don't speak in English; they actually speak in the local language, which poses a problem". Except for a half-hour class in English there is little interaction in English in school.

The problem is compounded by the fact that English is not spoken in most Jamaican homes. "Generally speaking, when the kids go home, their parents speak to them in Jamaican patois and they communicate 90 per cent of their life in Jamaican patois, so when they are in the school environment, they should have had a sterile environment in terms of learning English or speaking it properly."

Education Minister Ronald Thwaites, who is supportive of the initiative, expressed concern about the inability of some students to pass English Language in regional examinations such as the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC). Jamaica's pass rate for the 2013 sitting was 52 per cent. Many more do not sit the exam because they are not ready.

Examination results show that a majority of students understand English when they read or hear it; the difficulty is in expressing themselves.

Expanding on his concerns in an interview with me last week, the minister lamented the deficit in English language competencies, especially at the primary and secondary levels. This is a problem that has to be resolved because competency in the English Language "is non-negotiable", especially in the context of today's brand of globalisation.

I agree. At issue, though, is how to get to that place where Jamaica can in fact be classified as an English-speaking country. What is the most appropriate policy mix?

Second language or mother tongue?

Of course, this is not a new debate in Jamaica. Back in 1959, education experts and others convened a conference on the role of Creole language in schools.

This was against a background of recognition that the methodology of teaching English in schools was not achieving the desired results. The strategy at the time was to treat English as Mother Tongue (EMT). But since this was a false assumption, it was not surprising that school leavers were not acquiring the desired level of proficiency.

Fast-forward to the early 2000s and the Bilingual Education Project (BEP) run by the Jamaican Language Unit of the University of the West Indies (UWI), which favours a policy shift towards teaching English as a second language rather than on the basis of a false assumption.

A bilingual approach would achieve greater proficiency in literacy in English -- a goal which the unit shares with the ministry and, I believe, most Jamaicans.

"Teaching literacy in Jamaican and separately in English and using each of these languages separately as subject areas and medium of instruction will give students the means to distinguish between the two. It is also fair to expect that giving equal status and time to JC [Jamaican Creole] and SJE [Standard Jamaican English] in the classroom will undermine the ambivalent attitude that exists towards Jamaican and promote high self-esteem and value for their own first language experiences."(http://www.mona.uwi.edu/Dllp/jlu/projects/index.htm)

Arising from that position, the language unit conducted a pilot project in bilingual education for primary school students in the early 2000s aimed at "determining the most effective means of encouraging full bilingualism for primary level students at the Grades one to four levels in Jamaican Creole and Standard Jamaican English".

A summary of the project by Karen Carpenter and Professor Hugh Devonish concluded that boys, particularly, benefited from a bilingual approach to education and argued that there was sufficient basis to make the shift. (See Boys will be boys, in Language, Culture and Caribbean Identity, the University Press, Kingston, Jamaica, 2013.)

But the education ministry is not convinced, at least not yet. According to Minister Thwaites, he continues to pursue the policy he inherited and which has been in place since 2001.

That policy retains Standard Jamaican English as "the official language" of instruction while promoting basic communication through the oral use of the home language in the early years, grades one - three. "By grade four the language of instruction must be English," said Mr Thwaites,

The minister said he's not an expert and leaves it up to experts to determine how best to achieve the desired results. "Show me how, at the end of the day, we will achieve the required competencies" in spoken and written English.

Of course, this is not just a debate about teaching methodology, or the cost of printing materials in Creole (assuming we can agree on spelling).

It goes deep into the cultural and social fabric of the country that we have been weaving since Europeans and Africans were transplanted to this island in painfully different ways. It is essentially about "the political and social attitudes" towards Creole that would be difficult to overcome.

The ambivalence is indicative of the two Jamaicas syndrome. We began with a clash of cultures between Europe and Africa in which the enslaved Africans had to take instructions about life and liberty in a language they did not understand.

Over time, language has the most defining aspect of our identity -- even more so than race, class and income. Mastery of Standard English expects and is usually accorded higher status.

At the same time, many of us do not believe that anything important can be said in the Jamaican language, nor can people formulate important aspirations and hopes in it. That's part of the mindset we have to overcome if expressions of respect for the Jamaican language are to be taken seriously.

In the meantime, we have to figure out why teachers and students alike stop speaking English the minute they step outside the classroom. Is it only difficulty with English or also because they are insisting that important things can be said in Jamaican Patois?

Meanwhile, I welcome the new help from the British and hope that this time around they can contribute to the success of something they have been at for nearly 400 years. We cannot continue teaching remedial English at the tertiary level into the foreseeable future.

kcr@cwjamaica.com

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