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Caribbean delegates press for language rights

BY LUKE DOUGLAS Career & Education writer editorial@jamaicaobserver.com
Sunday, January 30, 2011


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DELEGATES from at least 12 Caribbean countries, including two governors general, met in Jamaica for two days recently, to press for the recognition of the rights of persons who speak Creole languages as a part of overall human rights.

The delegates, including a number of linguists, said speakers of the region's Creole languages have a right to be communicated with in their first language, and not be discriminated against in accessing important services, including education, health and the justice system.

Participants also learned that in St Lucia, the governor general delivers parts of her Throne Speech to Parliament in Antillean Creole, while many words in Jamaican or Belizean patois are not a corruption of English as is widely thought.

The Conference on Language Policy in the Caribbean, hosted by the Jamaican Language Unit of the University of the Indies (UWI), was held at the Mona campus on January 13 and 14.

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International Centre for Caribbean Language Research (ICCLR) planning committee member Professor Hubert Devonish said speakers of local languages are denigrated and not given proper service by the public services and the courts.

"People who speak local languages have rights to fair treatment in the legal system to good treatment in government offices and the use of their language in education to make them literate," he said.

"This is not to say that they are not to learn the European languages as well, but it makes their learning of English, French and Dutch more effective if we approve support and encourage their native languages as well," Devonish added.

A charter to be signed by regional governments and civil society groups was to be produced at the end of the conference. Also, there is a proposal to put freedom from discrimination on the basis of language in the Jamaican Constitution.

Governor General of St Lucia Dame Pearlette Louisy, a language scholar and novelist, said since 1980, efforts to formulate a Creole-use policy in the formal education system and calls for a national commission on the Creole use have not materialised.

"The political will that would sustain such initiatives has not been tested by popular demand. For St Lucians, there is an ambivalence about the language," she observed.

Dame Pearlette said many St Lucians believe Creole "cannot be expressed for real thought or used for serious expression" and should only be used for "jokes, songs and entertainment".

However, she said that since 1984, International Creole Day has been observed in St Lucia and since 1998, on the request of then Prime Minister Kenny Anthony, she has read parts of the annual Throne Speech in Creole.

Dame Pearlette also disclosed that the 2001 National Cultural Policy officially recognised and supported the research and preservation of the Creole language. The New Testament and selected Psalms of the Bible in Creole in both text and audio have been produced.

She noted that the Caribbean Community (Caricom)-endorsed Education for All Plan of Action 2000-2015 called for sustaining and preserving indigenous languages. There have also been Creole classes for public servants and professionals, and television talk shows in Creole.

Professor Ian Robertson called for preservation of endangered languages because "languages provide a deep sense of self and have ways of behaviour associated with them".

He said the death of languages was inevitable and that they should be properly preserved and archived.

Robertson also pointed to the need to train persons to appreciate subtle differences in language that can affect Creole speakers seeking justice from the region's legal systems.

There is also a need to clarify the role of Creole languages in the education system and this should be made clear to teachers, he said.

"Where languages are available, those language ought to be given enough focus in (the education) system so that nobody would be unaware of their existence and significance in the society," Robertson said.

Governor General of Belize Sir Colville Young explained that the origin of many words in the Caribbean preserved the original pronunciation of English words, and were not "bastardised lingua". Examples of this include the words 'join', 'poison' and 'noise', pronounced 'jine', 'pizine' and 'nize' are closer to the 17th century English pronunciation of those words.

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