The discussions on English

Wesley Barrett

Saturday, September 29, 2012    

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With some of the emotions gone, subsequent to the publication and discussion of the 2012 CSEC English and mathematics results, we can again engage our minds in the analysis of and solution to the problem of student performance in English. As a starting point we may take note of the statements of some experts who say that poor mastery of English language comprehension has been implicated in the results in mathematics and other subjects. The issue is how to solve the problem of non-mastery of English and consequently mathematics examinations which are written in English. Do we wish to daydream or to take concrete action?

In venting their anger at the poor results in English, some people have pointedly raised the question of the role of patois in the education system. For some it has no place in the classroom and it is to be blamed for poor English language results. But let us consider some truths. The possession of a native language is natural. This language must be recognised, respected and accepted. Indeed, any oral language of a people is the principal means by which they communicate. But communication is a first requirement in learning. If we discourage communication we discourage learning. We must therefore embrace the native language in order to facilitate learning.

Second, a small number of our children arrive at school with two languages, that is, English and patois. Most, if not all students will understand simple spoken English, but most are unable to speak the language well. Reading and interpreting the written form is much more problematic. To encourage communication in a classroom situation, therefore, the teacher must accept the dominant language while encouraging the use of the other. It is not a question of either, but both. Of course, many countries are embracing native languages in their educational and language policy. We should not be left behind in this respect. An immediate concern should thus be how teachers capitalise on the native language in order to help students learn English. This matter goes to the heart of national policy which should be the focus of pointed discussion. The forest is mistaken for the trees!

In listening to the conversations, one gets the impression from some commentators that they obligingly acknowledge patois as perhaps useful, but suggest that if students do not learn, speak and pass English exams with flying colours they won't be respected or considered useful citizens! Such ideas are utterly outrageous and damaging. Instead of acknowledging the legitimacy of the Jamaican language, but showing the critical importance of English, some speakers subtly pour scorn on the former. They do not contemplate using our language asset as a vehicle to acquire English language skills.

Going forward

In noting some of the misconceptions and prejudices exposed, the authorities can capitalise on the occasion by facilitating a structured and civil public discourse involving language experts, psychologists, teachers, lay persons and senior students regarding the issue. If this is done, I expect a better informed public and the development of a more responsive language policy and programme in our schools. Of course, I would expect some of our distinguished experts in linguistics at our universities to play a leading role in such a discourse, as I advise some people to be careful not to allow their emotions to get the better of them by launching verbal attacks on our experts whose views may differ from theirs. It is utterly disgusting to hear the attacks made on the UWI professors who speak about the value of the Jamaican language in the education system and how it can be used for good.

In going forward also, it seems to me that the experts should spend a little more time making the case that what most Jamaicans speak is not "broken English" but a language in its own right, the Jamaican language. They probably need to repeat why it qualifies to be recognised as a language and how formally learning its structure can help students to learn and appreciate the structure of Standard English and the associated vocabulary. They may further clarify and articulate their position. The topic of comprehension in English should be targeted for illustrative purposes and good measure also.

Strident opponents of the use of the Jamaican language in schools should appreciate what the experts say and not stubbornly cling only to their own opinions. They should defer to the research findings but bring to the fore any factual information they have. In the meantime, let our schools continue to make the teaching of English a priority as they use the Jamaican language creatively where needed.

The call by CXC for the problem of low performances in mathematics and the sciences to be addressed is to be heeded. The annual subject reports with which schools should be familiar, regularly point out specific areas of weaknesses. I used to convene meetings routinely with heads of departments to study these reports in responding to the feedback and as a means of preparing our students for the world of work and for the exams. The extent to which these reports are utilised currently is a matter for probing and action. I also urge caution in blaming the messenger for the poor results!





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