Letters to the Editor

Know your own language first!

Monday, June 11, 2012    

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Dear Editor,

The June 6 Jamaica Observer editorial states rather dismissively that "Jamaican dialect/patois... has very limited use outside of Jamaica. Hence, we will not engage in the endless debate about whether dialect should be encouraged or discouraged."

It is a pity that those who seek to influence public opinion prefer to do so without the benefit of extensive research (done at universities around the world, not just at the UWI) into the ways in which language is intimately related to how people learn to think, comprehend and relate to the world around them. The writer might have helped us to have a more informed and less emotive discussion about the benefits of children learning first in their "mother tongue" and moving on to learn foreign languages (including Standard English).

I had a most telling demonstration of this during a recent teaching stint in one of the island's of the former Netherlands Antilles, where the mother tongue of a sizeable proportion of the people is Papiamento (a language spoken by even fewer people who speak Jamaican patois), but where the language of instruction at college and university level is usually Dutch or English. Imagine the distress of both teacher and student as they try to teach or make sense of professional and academic jargon without a sound grasp of the foundation language of the majority, due in part to the same kind of ambivalence and value biases so many Jamaicans have about our own language. There are those who still describe Papiamento as "just" a derivation of Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese in the same way people here try to dismiss Jamaican patois as "just" a derivation of English. (Both descriptions are incorrect, by the way.)

But we do not have to go this far to appreciate this dilemma. Just interview any of the several children who sat the recent Grade Four Literacy and Numeracy Tests. One section of the literacy paper provides a very evocative description of a flood which includes the phrase "the river come down". Do a quick survey of how many children, especially those in our urban communities, were able to comprehend completely this particular literary item. Imagine the distress of the child for whom the phrase "the river come down" had little if any meaning, since rivers do not go up and there had been no literature class as part of his preparation for this examination.

Opponents of those who support the inclusion of our language in the process of teaching and learning like to misrepresent this position as meaning that we are recommending the exclusive use of Jamaican in instruction, or as evidence of an elite seeking to protect its position by ensuring that others are not equipped to assume their own position of influence. None of the people I know exemplify either of these perspectives.

I claim no specialist knowledge in the area of linguistics. I do, however, know what it has been like to try to teach at the tertiary level those who have not been equipped to distinguish between Jamaican English (in the same way as we have American English) and Standard English. I know that we must acknowledge that the vast majority of our people do not "naturally" speak or write Standard English. I have evidence that there are teachers in our primary and secondary schools who cannot recognise when they are speaking or writing Jamaican and not Standard English and so are not able to guide the children whom they are supposed to be teaching.

Spanish, Mandarin, Japanese. Yes, we need to work on equipping more Jamaicans to speak these languages. They must start from the position of knowing their own.

Peta-Anne Baker, PhD

Dept of Sociology, Psychology & Social Work

UWI, Mona

Kingston 7

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