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Patois, things Jamaican and the big picture

Grace Virtue

Wednesday, August 29, 2012    

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Recently, I applied for a consulting position with a DC contractor bidding for a competitive US government grant and needing 48 professionals in support of the application. The requirements included: (1) applicants must have lived in the United States for the past five years, (2) have at least a bachelor's degree, (3) be based in either Washington, DC, or South Florida, and (4) must speak and understand Jamaican patois.

Yes! The contractor was looking for professionals to work on complex projects, translating Jamaican patois into English and vice versa, and helping American professionals understand the language. I googled the company and found them in Rosslyn,Virginia, just across the Potomac River from Washington, DC. It was completely legitimate.

Thrilled by project and prospects, I applied and began recruiting as many friends and colleagues as possible to help the company meet their June 6 deadline.

I was particularly excited about my daughter's prospects. A recent graduate of the University of Maryland, she was looking at a $25-an-hour job with her liberal arts degree - a boon in a depressed economy.

The process included a half-an-hour-long oral interview and five essays with prompts in patois, to which applicants had to respond in patois.

My daughter took her tests first. Her face mirrored distress at the end. "I will never live it down, if I miss out on a good job just because I don't know patois," she said.

The experience was both revealing and traumatic. At the superficial level, we realised that she did not know patois as well as either of us thought, and she could not apply her mastery of English to help her take a test in patois.

It was traumatic in a more fundamental way. Although we live in the United States and operate fully and competently in all kinds of contexts, our Jamaican identity is and always will be fundamental to who we are. At the core of that identity is patois - the language of Bob Marley, Louise Bennett, Buju Banton, Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake, grandma and grandpa; the language of struggle and the Jamaican creative spirit; the language that gives texture to our forefathers' will to survive oppression and captivity.

If she did not understand patois as well as she thought, did that also mean she was not as Jamaican as she thinks, and if she is not Jamaican, what is she? I took my test later. Several times, the interviewer prompted me to "talk patois - talk it like yu deh a yaad".

I thought I was doing exactly that. I soon realised that it took some effort to slip into the informality of patois in conversation with a complete stranger, even if that person was clearly a fellow Jamaican.

Prompted by the realisation that this was a serious test of my competence as a native speaker and of my identity as a Jamaican, I relaxed and gave her the language I spoke on the playground at recess.

Last week, the contractor informed me that another company got the grant. I did not ask who, but I know that somewhere here, this project is getting under way.

The lesson from this experience is the realisation that people in high places are taking patois seriously as a tool of communication that native English speakers may not necessarily understand. This is especially significant because of our country's negative transnational issues on the one hand, and its positive cultural influences on the other.

The science has long supported the fact that patois is its own language. The ignorant remain in denial.

Nationally, the issue needs urgent resolution at the policy level. At the core of that resolution must be: (1) respect for patois as a beautiful part of who we are and fundamental to our identity as Jamaicans; (2) the recognition that patois is its own language; it is not bad English; (3) acceptance that most Jamaicans are bilingual; patois is not something to be ashamed of; and (4) provisions to teach English as a second language to those for whom mastery is problematic.

In other words, a Jamaican child whose mother tongue is patois ought not to be anymore embarrassed by his or her inability to speak English than they should be about an inability to speak Spanish or French.

It is an irony that even as we celebrate Jamaica's influence on the world, too many are unable to see either the linguistic or socio-cultural validity of our language. Worldwide, people are influenced by things Jamaican - those things so quintessentially embodied in the likes of Usain Bolt - talent, spunk, swagger, authenticity, joie de vivre.

How is it that still we fail to see our language as a part of that mix? If the world is doing "The Bolt", why is it so inconceivable that the world may also want to speak his language?

Wasn't our Olympians' performance in London confirmation enough that the world is flat?

Dr Grace Virtue is a public affairs specialist and independent scholar based in Washington, DC.

gvirtue@usa.net

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