01 Jun

The first major international conference dealing with issues of Caribbean language
to be held in Jamaica took place at the then University College of the West Indies,
Mona, March 28 – April 4, 1959. On the last evening of the conference, an open
session was held to which the public was invited. The chairman of the proceedings,
Robert Le Page, explained that the open session was being held ‘… to remove a
number of misunderstandings current in the West Indies as to the nature and purpose
of research into Creole languages and dialects’ (Le Page, R. ed., 1959, Creole
Language Studies II, p. 114). Then, like now, linguists meddling in issues of
Caribbean language had a public image problem. Let’s see how well they handled it

In their opening statements, one of the ‘platform speakers’, Frederic Cassidy, argued
that the value of the conference was not purely academic. In his view, people take
language for granted. They do not realise important language is to them, how
intimate a part of their lives it is and, above all, how deeply engrained in the way
they think and the way they behave are the habits of their first, native language, that
which they had absorbed from the start in their homes. ‘To try to deal with people
without understanding native language was bound to be ineffective; to try to form a
Federation of the West Indies while ignoring the language problems of the peoples
comprising that Federation was to overlook a most important factor. It was not
enough to say that the official language was English; it must be recognized that the
peoples of the West Indies speak languages and dialects which are for most of these
people their native languages’ (Le Page, 1959, p. 117).

The longest discussion of the evening was touched off by the question, ‘Was there
any utilitarian value in the study of Jamaican Creole?’ and a series of related ones
which followed such as, ‘Was there anything that could be done to immediately help
school teachers – of whom only about half had any training of any kind, let alone a
training in linguistics’ and ‘Surely, in order to use a language for teaching purposes
it had to have a grammar – had Creole a grammar?’ (Le Page, 1959, p. 118). As we
look back at the text of these questions, we can perhaps imagine the tones in which
some were delivered, sometimes patronising, sometimes sneering, sometimes just
genuinely curious.

One set of the answers which came from the conference participants addressed
the question of what could be done for the school teacher. The main value of the
study of Creole for school teachers was to help them understand, in a more scientific
way, the nature of language and the nature of the difficulties experienced by school
children trying to learn ‘an alien language or dialect’. The better teachers understood
linguistic processes, the better equipped they would be to deal, and to deal more
sympathetically, with whatever problems arise. ‘Scholars can help by providing
the teacher with written materials he needs; in addition, the ‘Dictionary of Jamaican
’ and studies of the phonology and grammar of JC (Jamaican Creole) will help
him to be sure of the precise differences between that dialect and Standard English,
and so pass on that sureness to his pupils’ (Le Page, 1959, p. 118-9).

And on the question of whether Creole had a grammar or not, it was explained
that ‘… language was one systematic form of human behaviour, that all language
systems are capable of description and that such a description constitutes a grammar
for the language concerned’. I am not certain that this was quite the answer the
questioner was searching for but that is what (s)he got. It was further pointed out,
perhaps to the upset and annoyance of many brought up on a good old diet of English
grammar administered with gripe water, and who considered themselves to be much
the better for it, that ‘… the so-called grammars being used in most West Indian
schools were far from being true descriptions of English anyway’.

Another set of answers addressed the issue of Creole languages being used as means
of instructing pupils within the classroom situation. ‘One cannot generalize too
dogmatically about the best course to be followed in Creole-speaking countries, but
in some places at least scholars can provide a good phonemic alphabet and sound
reading material based on this to be used in the classroom’. Reference was made to
Papua-New Guinea where an experiment had taken place which showed that children
taught first of all in their native Papuan language learnt to read much sooner than, and
subsequently overtook, in reading and writing English, those children who had been
taught from the outset in English. This would probably be true of some situations…
where the native language was a Creole’. (Le Page, 1959, p. 119)

A questioner who had taught in Sierra Leone, where Krio, a Creole language similar
to Jamaican is widely spoken, commented that she had found it much easier to teach
in English children whose native language was an indigenous African language rather
than those for whom their native language was Krio. The questioner who, by then,
was now teaching in a Jamaican school, argued that the problem was that children
who are speakers of Krio or Jamaican Creole did not realise that what the spoke was
a different language from English. They confused the two ‘… and perhaps even
in Jamaica it might be a good thing to teach in dialect up to a certain level’. Other
members of the audience, however, objected to this suggestion (Le Page, 1959, p.

The audience objection to the proposal is not surprising. A proposal such as this one
is still controversial over 50 years later. See the comments by former Prime Minister
Edward Seaga in the Jamaica Gleaner of 11th April, 2011, with the caption, ‘A waste
of time to teach patois
– Seaga’, and the flurry of supporting letters to the press
which followed. This is notwithstanding the actual implementation of a Ministry
of Education approved Bilingual Education Project in a primary school in Jamaica
and the research generated by it. Nor do the results of the Jamaican Language Unit
conducted Language Attitude Survey of Jamaica which show that approximately 70%
of the population would approve the use of Jamaican alongside English in a fully bilingual
education system in Jamaica do nothing to lessen the outcry. The noise generated by the
threatened, privileged chattering classes of Jamaica drown out attempts to explain and
create a discussion that is not a dialogue of the deaf. But the struggle to create a rational
approach to language education policy continues. The more things change, the more they remain
the same. Or do they?

Only the future will tell…

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Posted by on June 1, 2011 in Uncategorized


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