Do politicians need to speak proper English?

New candidates say yes

By HG HELPS Editor-at-Large

Sunday, November 27, 2011

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AS serving and aspiring politicians mount campaign platforms in the run-up to the next general election, the tricky matter of how well they handle the English language has again become fodder for debate.

The subject of whether or not it was all right for elected political representatives to be uncomfortable speaking the English language has been a thorny one since the mid-1960s during the era of Sir Alexander Bustamante.

Jamaica's first prime minister himself notoriously struggled to express himself at times and was viewed by his critics as being distinctly unfriendly with the 'mother' tongue.

In later years, representatives of both the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and People's National Party (PNP) turned themselves into laughing stocks with pronouncements inside and outside of the Jamaican Parliament.

Some politicians have, in the past, found it difficult to speak basic English, while others figuratively chopped the grammar tree down in pursuit of expressing themselves in numerous public fora.

Four young, first-time seekers of political office who were guests of the Observer last Monday, agreed in principle that proper use of the native language should be among the basic guidelines which govern the selection of candidates.

People's National Party candidate for St Andrew North East, John-Paul White, believes that there ought to be basic communication standards for politicians.

"I believe that you should have basic qualifications of education and candidates should be able to speak proper English if they are going to represent people," White said. "We are not talking about just representing people on a corner, we are talking about representing a community, a constituency and potentially a nation, which means you have the possibility of having international exposure.

"You have to be able to move from between how you relate in the local context and the international context.

"At the same time, we really need to put more emphasis on encouraging professional people into politics in Jamaica. The world going forward doesn't have any room for unskilled people, especially in governance," White said.

The JLP's candidate for Hanover East, Paula Kerr-Jarrett, said that although it would be difficult to stipulate and implement such a plan, it would not hurt to have basic standards in place.

"It would be difficult to put in specific qualifications such as the Queen's English. I think that you would have to put the trust in the people, who they choose. Based on that process they are choosing someone who can represent them.

"I find that in my constituency, I went through several meetings with the executive, the delegates, with all sorts of people and they have to be happy that you are able to represent them and that includes being a voice for them. It does help being able to articulate," Kerr-Jarrett said.

However, she noted that "there are people who are maybe not as articulate but are good leaders".

"If people had listened to Bustamante and judged him by that, then I don't know what would have happened," she said.

Jolyan Silvera, who will represent the PNP against sitting MP and minister of agriculture Robert Montague in St Mary West, is also giving his thumbs up for improved expression by politicians.

"In representational politics there should be some basics," he said. "One of the most basic things is to have your integrity intact and then you can move from there. Without your integrity going forward, and you are a questionable character or you have clouds hanging over you, it causes all sorts of speculation and it can lead to even you being disrespected right across the line.

"In terms of the Standard English or the Queen's English, nearly 60 per cent of the world speaks English. I think that we should at least uphold that, because without that, we can't comprehend and deliver. I am in support that there should be some basic standards put in place to start to move this country forward.

"We have to start somewhere, so we have to set a benchmark now. You earn respect from people where that benchmark is set," Silvera said.

The other invitee, the JLP's Collin Virgo, the general secretary of the party's young professionals arm, Generation 2000, said that his organisation had already established a qualification system which was working well.

"In the Jamaica Labour Party, for you to become a candidate there are a series of processes through which you will have to go. Firstly, you would have to declare an interest in a division or a constituency. Having done so, you have to face a selection panel from your area council to be shortlisted to move forward to the next stage of application.

"If you get past that stage, you will have to go now to the selection committee of the party. They interview you, they research you, they investigate you, and then make a determination as to whether or not you will qualify to offer yourself to the delegates from that division or constituency to be a candidate. So if you get past that stage, then you have to go to the division or constituency and offer yourself to the delegates and they have to make a majority decision as to whether or not they will accept you. After that, you know you have to offer yourself to the voters," Virgo said.

Last month, Andrew Holness, before he assumed the office of prime minister, had expressed concern about the use of patois eclipsing the more globally acceptable Queen's English among Jamaicans.

"I think Jamaicans have to understand that English is an extremely important language in the world," Holness had told Observer reporters and editors at the newspaper's weekly Monday Exchange. "It is not one or the other, we must be able to speak English."

He said that there needed to be greater respect for the English language in the face of overwhelming use of the local dialect in day-to-day communication.

Holness, who is also the education minister, said that while he respects Jamaican creole, he is particularly displeased by the creeping predominance of broken English on the local airwaves.

"I have a problem with how the radio and television stations in Jamaica operate, that they just merge the two (dialect and English). Students get very confused. You have to make a distinction that on the formal stage, the language is English," he insisted.

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