Editorial

What other languages should Jamaicans speak?

Wednesday, June 06, 2012    

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THE day is not far off when we will all wear micro earpieces the size of a small hearing aid, to translate several languages of our choosing into the language in which we prefer to work.

This will obviate the need to master several languages and eliminate the advantage or necessity to be fluent in several languages. In any case, the average human being can operate in a few languages. But until that happy day when the technology is available and affordable we will find it useful to speak more than one language.

We start from the premise that in a world undergoing rapid and profound globalisation, and given the importance and diversification of the tourism industry, it is advantageous for all Jamaicans to speak more than one international language.

Since Jamaicans, like the rest of humanity, will find it advantageous to speak and understand two or three languages, the question is then, which languages should Jamaicans speak? To make this decision we must start from what languages are available, what languages we now speak and which two or three languages are most advantageous for us to speak, write and understand.

There are approximately 7,000 languages to choose from at this time. Over 500 languages are in India and Nigeria and 830 in Papua New Guinea. The multiplicity of languages is declining as the more obscure are disappearing rapidly because of tribal groups being absorbed into modernity, the concentration of international media in a few languages and the dominance of English in commerce and science.

The average Jamaican speaks English and Jamaican dialect based primarily on English. We most certainly cannot give up English, which is the dominant language of international commerce, media and science and technology. If anything, we need to improve our ability to read, write and speak English.

Our dialect/patois is the most widely spoken language in Jamaica, and we value it, but recognise at the same time that it has very limited use outside of Jamaica. Hence, we will not engage in the endless debate about whether dialect should be encouraged or discouraged.

Mandarin is probably spoken by more people than any other language and is the language of China, the new superpower. However, the Chinese are increasingly learning and speaking English; no surprise there, given the importance of international trade to the economy of China.

We will have more to do with China, and knowing the language can’t hurt, but as they are speaking more English we will not be forced to master their language.

Jamaica is the physical centre of the western hemisphere where Spanish is the most widely spoken language and looks likely to compete with English for dominance, even in the United States, given the projected increase of Hispanics in the US population in the next 20 years. Spanish would therefore have significant utility for Jamaicans, whether they reside in Jamaica or the US or South and Central America.

It is our view that Jamaicans should continue to speak English, recognise that our dialect is most widely used locally, and learn Spanish by not just designating it our second language, but making it compulsory in schools.

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