How do I know what I know?

Grace Virtue

Wednesday, September 26, 2012    

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A recent call to a friend in Kingston turned into an occasion for some wry laughter, a good bit of angst and consternation about how some of us approach life.

Her husband and son were away and a man was in her yard trying to replace a basketball goal post. She alternated talking to me and talking to him.

The worker, surprisingly, was having a hard time doing something that looked so simple; he thought he could do it all by himself, even if he had never done it before. His inability to get it done clued her into the fact that this was his maiden attempt, despite prior assertions to the contrary. She challenged him and he admitted as much.

It was dark by now and her voice was growing increasingly edgy as she spoke to the worker. I thought about all the foliage around her house, and mindful that she was a woman alone with a man with a bruised ego, I begged her to stay on the phone.

It ended well. The dude finally pleaded ignorance and called someone who had actually done what he was trying to do before. The job was done fairly effortlessly afterwards.

This was a few months ago. The situation, however, is a metaphor for how too many aspects of life are organised in Jamaica - people with limited skills, abilities, training or experience, leading conceptually and operationally in critical areas. We owe this mostly to our evolution from slavery and colonialism to a free society; it has continued for too long and is compounding the challenges of underdevelopment.

Nation building requires recognition of the place of professionals and experts in problem solving. Experts don't always get it right, and some professionals are sloppy, dishonest and inconsiderate, but I still hold that I have a better chance of getting my electrical problems solved by calling a trained and licensed electrician, rather than the chef from Negril, who makes a great curry but who cannot tell the difference between a switch and a panel. For tax problems, I go to a public accountant; for legal problems, an attorney; for medical problems of the reproductive system, a gynaecologist; for cardiac problems, a cardiologist; for questions on why my rosebush is dying, I check in with my neighbour - a botanist.

The same principle should apply to the question of the place of Jamaican - the language of our people - in national life. The people who understand the issues are those trained in education, communication, and the humanities, linguistics in particular, more so than your average money traders, for example.

Forgive the cliché, but the tail wagging the dog is never a good thing, nor is the propensity to talk ad nauseam and to vehemently argue positions, based only on what our minds tell us. This side of a 21st-century globalised world, rational thinking, and conclusions based on testable data, are highly valued. Of equal value is the ability to distinguish between those conclusions and others based only on silly prejudices. By these definitions, an adult at age 50 - or a nation for that matter - unless they are severely challenged mentally, ought to be able to answer the simple questions: (1) What is your mother tongue? What language do you speak?

The idea of bilingual or multilingual societies should not be foreign to us either, especially if we are going to participate in a national discussion on the place of one language vis-à-vis another in our society. In Indonesia, for example, there are over 700 spoken languages. In India, there are 19 official languages and in South Africa, there are 11. In the United States, English is the official language - de facto rather than de jure and so it shall remain, because while bigotry here can come as benign as Sunday morning, the Federal Government recognises that a deliberate act to make English the official language would be deeply marginalising to its many communities that do not speak English.

A UNESCO position paper on multilingual education expounds this principle as follows: "Language is not only a tool for communication and knowledge but also a fundamental attribute of cultural identity and empowerment both for the individual and the group. Respect for the languages of persons belonging to different linguistic communities, therefore, is essential to peaceful cohabitation. This applies both to majority groups, to minorities and to indigenous peoples."

Meanwhile, Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), of which Jamaica is signatory, states that "everyone is entitled to all rights and freedom set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as... language".

Furthermore, Article 29 of the 1959 Convention on the Rights of the Child states that "the education of the child shall be directed to...the development of respect for the child's cultural identity, language and values," and both the Delhi Declaration (1993) and the Beijing Declaration (1995), reject discrimination against the child on the basis of language. Both affirmed that a child's mother tongue is an important component of quality education. "The expert view is that mother tongue instruction should cover both the teaching of and the teaching through this language," the paper said.

Incidentally, the UNESCO paper defines mother tongue as: the language(s) that one learns first; the language(s) one identifies with or is identified as a native speaker by others; the language(s) one knows best and the language(s) one uses most. These are referred to as one's primary or first language.

If the aim is toward progress, through effective problem solving, in this and all other discourse, disciplined thinking is required. Undisciplined thought, undisciplined speech, and undisciplined action can only equal an undisciplined society.

More disciplined thought can begin by asking ourselves this simple question at all times - before we slap our chests with certainty of the rightness of our position, scream into a microphone, or challenge the expert position: How do I know what I know?

Grace Virtue, PhD, is a public affairs expert, social justice advocate and independent scholar based in Washington, DC.





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