Columns

The politics of English literacy

Franklin JOHNSTON

Thursday, April 17, 2014    

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ENGLISH is our language. Cuba speaks Spanish; Haiti, French; Dominican Republic, Spanish; these are our neighbours. They have their patois, many speak English and their kids learn it too. What is it about us that some who speak it well bad-mouth English to people who hardly speak any? Many powerful people will not affirm publicly that English is ours. Their SUV manuals are in English, but they want poor people to think it does not matter to keep our labour cheap and classism alive. English needs a champion. Which athlete or entertainer is up to it? Patois needs no champion as it is us — though we can't write or read it. Politicians, entertainers are poor role models for English, as many send the wrong signal and entertainers speak English abroad, but not here, so local fans are not motivated to do so. They need to help us!

Studies show all Jamaicans understand English but expression is our problem. Our celebrities must stop 'dissing' poor people and use English as role models are crucial. A MP who speaks English in Parliament but patois in the constituency means you no good. He may spend millions from his Constituency Development Fund on education, yet is blind to the contradiction. We have almost 300 elected politicians who could be "poster boys" for English — it costs nothing; set the example! Is there a special hell for black people who have money and office and can speak English but oppress aspiring black people by denying them English?

We may be the only English-speaking country which does not speak English. The UN publication lists "Jamaica-language spoken: English". I expect a bolt of lightning! Foreigners ask where I learn English — "At home!" Our minstrels give them self-serving notions that patois is official and we are all Rasta and ganja puffs. Our tourist ads reinforce stereotypes as they disproportionately feature dreadlocks. Cabinets spent millions of US dollars abroad on adverts which undermine our values and spend pennies to fix them here — no joined-up policy. Most students can't speak English; parse, analyse or know grammar; many degreed persons and teachers are not competent in English either. That's our reality!

So how do we fix it? If politicians, church and private sector take a public stand; if teachers notch up a bit more we could end illiteracy in schools in a decade. No more resources, just role models, as "practice makes perfect". Speaking English is rote, memory and practice. There is no logic to alphabet — study it. Don't reason with vowels; learn them. We need a campaign for English speech. Every week brings new words to work; anti-litter campaigns happen as some make litter; we can do it for English. We must also turn off the tap that's spewing illiteracy; kids come from sink homes where English is absent; they go to sink schools where English is not used, but teachers can copy BBC radio – repetition, rehearsal is all it takes. Many African and Indian students speak English with a top British accent (not cockney, jordie or scouse); they learn by rote from BBC radio. One scam at UK immigration was Asian families speaking impeccable English claiming they lost their British passports — good try! English takes you places.

The early childhood level (age 1 to 8 years) is crucial. A child needs English role models to speak and be corrected. Master English and you can teach it; forget training college. Literacy and numeracy gets you nowhere. The norm is now competence in English and math. English is not just a subject, it is how we learn all subjects; the gateway to all knowledge. Compulsory tests in English on entry to and exit from a school, college, university, or job are crucial. We need a Commission of Inquiry into "the state of English Language" as it is the key to end underperformance and disadvantage. Good English is priceless equity; talk to Chiwetel Ejiofor! Questions as: Who let semi-literates out of teachers' colleges? How does a child sent to a school by trusting parents end up illiterate after years under a trained teachers' care? You get angry at NWC and seek no justice for your own kids? Madness!

We must hold the school board and its employees to account. Job #1 is hire teachers who speak English. Marcus Mosiah Garvey spoke English; as did George William Gordon. Is there some anti-colonial ethos undermining English? Why do schools lionise the exceptional student but are silent about the underachieving majority? School boards must be accountable for school, exam results and education. Bring chairmen on TV when things happen; NEI inspection, GSAT, CSEC and CAPE results — blame or praise is theirs. Board members run the school, pose at graduations, and should face the public squarely.

What of adult illiterates? The 1970 UNESCO study said we had 500,000 illiterates. Micheal Manley set to work in 1972 and, according to the JFLL website and The Gleaner, by 1975 there were 48,000 students in 3,833 classes (How many now?); trained volunteers rose to 20,000 and 248,000 achieved literacy by 1989; so by 1999 the illiteracy rate was down to 20.1 per cent. What went wrong after? Mrs Kirlew and her Laubach zealots; "each one teach one"; R Danny Williams, Audley Shaw, Wallace Campbell, Dickie Crawford and many unsung heroes made this quantum leap. Decades and billions of dollars later we massage egos of some 5,000 illiterates while the flaccid school system leaches many more into society each year. The schools are now being fixed so fix the adults too.

Minister Thwaites declared a "renaissance" and JFLL is reinventing itself; and to loosely quote Dr Fritz Pinnock, logistics hub guru, "literacy is dated and competency in English, maths, reasoning, good attitudes, and caring is the tool kit for modern jobs". The silver bullet to get the masses into the 21st century is the High School Diploma Equivalent (HSDE) tied to a good business model for its propagation islandwide. We export some 24,000 people each year and many send home for their High School Diploma...what? A dream, but change is ahead. The twinning of the HSDE with the American GED is a gift to poor people who want to migrate. The farm worker can start his HSDE/GED, if he reaches Module 3, goes to pick apples he can return and start where he left off. He may lock into the GED abroad or keep up online. If every MP or councillor starts 10 HSDE/GED classes in their division we will have 24,000 under instruction to go into a job here, abroad or into a college. We have thousands of school houses, church halls, HEART/NTA buildings, public offices, libraries; many jobless and retired educated people to bring into service as instructors. S tudents are some 300,000; may pay a smalls and Jeepers can become edupreneurs to start a class near their homes. The rivalry among custodes, MPs and councillors should be which parish, constituency or division can start more classes. Then maybe Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller will be the first to declare the "village free of Illiteracy". No one should make a career on the illiteracy of our people. Fix it and move on. Let the 'renaissance' begin! Stay conscious, my friend.

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

franklinjohnstontoo@gmail.com

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