In praise of English

Franklin Johnston

Friday, June 29, 2012    

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If you are not literate in English, better you were not born. But don't despair... go to school, the Jamaican Foundation for Lifelong Learning, or a library near you. Cabinets spent billions on school to make us literate before age 12 and billions on remedial work. Churches and

big-hearted volunteers give millions of free hours and still illiteracy grows. Our English is bad but our patois is worse as no one but academics can write and read it properly; with good reason - it leads nowhere progressive people want to go. Everyone under 55 should be able to read and write, as since 1972 we have had expensive graded material, literacy and adult education classes. If you cannot speak, read and write English you shame your family and the nation. For years we pamper illiterates, try not to hurt their feelings, and how do they repay us? Wake up, and smell the coffee. If you have not mastered the four Rs you are ungrateful. Repent and go to a literacy class.

Great nations used to wage war and we speak the language of a warrior island people. Like them we love a fight. If they had lost the great wars we would be speaking German, so our language is not of our choice as warriors run things. This is the hand we are dealt, but it is a good hand. China, India, Russia, Japan are powerful cultures, but Portugal birthed Brazil; Spain - Mexico, Colombia, Argentina; and England - America, Canada, Australia, greater sons who speak their language. Great nations strive to master English; why are China and India the fastest-growing English speakers? Why don't they hug up their own languages as we do patois? Simple! They are winners. Let us copy them, learn English, build prosperity and be the feisty country which birthed Marley and Nettleford. They spoke our two languages well.

We must begin to teach English in schools. The majority of our Spanish teachers cannot speak Spanish. How many of our English teachers speak English? For xenophobic or other reasons some people undermine English. I asked a boy his language and he looked at me with plaintive eyes and squirmed. He was confused. What language is language arts? English? Is communication task braille, signing or English? Local language experts have screwed up our heads. Our brethren in St Maarten and Suriname speak two or more languages; they don't learn Dutch via Papimento and they learn English by watching USA cable TV. Why do our kids have to learn English via patois? Are we more dunce? We need teachers who speak English so students can copy them.

The English language has been good to me. Kingston Secondary School did not have the best teachers but they spoke English. We played word games, puns, blagging; made up nonsense words. We have great authors in English, celebrated globally and translated into other languages, but every school gives visitors a display of patois verse and children's "winey winey" - boring, often degrading and embarrassing, so many cringe and applaud. Does this early sexualisation connect to the burgeoning incest and child abuse? English has been good to us and Cabinet must now state its policy on English. Too much ambivalence. Talk straight - "if you don't learn English your path is dark". Cane farmers complain of shortage of reapers, which is strange as this seems to be the main output of some schools. Does the JEEP stop at sugar estates, or is reaping cane beneath poor unemployed young people? Can the jobless avoid work, choose to remain disadvantaged and rely on charity? It seems so.

Literacy in English is the most valuable gift a parent can give a child. No earring, hairstyle or graduation outfit trumps it. Parents are responsible for a child's English and emotional literacy, and many fail. Patois is the cultural icon a transported, oppressed people created to survive. There is confusion about our languages and Cabinet must fix it. Whatever you feed grows and we feed patois. Let us begin to feed English so it can flourish.

Cabinet must issue a definitive policy on English. It is our language and our future. Vision 2030 demands no patois. Cabinet must "man up" and speak hard truths. English is a must. Will patois be taught in schools? Will road signs be in patois? My cousin from abroad needs a refresher as his patois is real bad. Bilingual intellectuals must stop undermining English. We need a clear policy affirming English as the language of study, work and prosperity.

Speech: Kids learn to speak at home. It is a parent's duty to teach the child to speak English. The infant speaks his first words, "Papa" or "Mama", around parents. They are guides. He will suck milk and speak patois on his own but he must be taught to eat hard food and speak English. Can we say, "Do not bring your child to school until he can eat hard food, is toilet trained and speaks English?" No more Mr Nice Guy, we have a nation to build. Can the media help? English speech on radio and TV up to say an 8 pm watershed for one year. Let us try. We are already expert in speaking patois. Let's try to become expert in English.

Reading. This is teacher's duty. If you can't read aloud you can't read mentally. We should mandate reading English aloud in schools, churches and the workplace to replace background music. The more you hear and practise English the easier it gets. Let's hear reading over the audio system in buses, waiting rooms, hospitals. The more we hear good English, the better we become. After a time we internalise the rules and our brain's "spell check" and "grammar check" becomes automatic. Minister, blitz us with English!

Writing: Writing has a mechanical side - penmanship and an imaginative side. The calligraphic skills in the former and those of sensibility and psyche in the latter are taxing but different. English forms converge and are mutually reinforcing. If you speak proper English you will read and write it well. Books are important. Boys have a terrible time at school. Where are the blood and guts boys' books? Writers, awake! Science fiction as "Robot Wars in Tivoli" or "Marley on Mars?" Geography fiction as "Oliver in Africa", sports fiction as "Sunshine girls Down Under"? If we write they will read. When I had to face the corner as punishment, the only thing mom allowed was books; I was in space with Green Lantern, on Wonder woman's invisible plane, in India with "Lord Jim" ... only my body was in the corner. English is the route to fun and good prospects - way to go. Stay conscious, my friend!

Dr Franklin Johnston is a strategist, project manager and advises the minister of education.





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