A Horse of a Different Colour, A Language with a Different Name

26 Jun

As the story goes, when Jamaica became independent in 1962, it joined a race with other nation states.  It had two choices of animals on which it could ride.  One was white and the other was of a different colour.  Jamaica looked at looked at some countries already in the race, like the USA, Britain, New Zealand and Australia, and saw that they rode animals which were white.  Jamaica decided that, in order to compete, it should ride a white animal too.  Since it had started late, Jamaica would have to catch up over time.  It adopted the riding styles of the countries ahead of it.  Every trick the others used to get their animals to move faster, Jamaica used also.  And there was success.  Jamaica kept increasing in speed.  Its literacy rates increased over the fifty years. A much higher percentage of children were attending school at the 50 year mark than at the start of the race.  A much higher proportion of the teachers were trained.  But with every improvement in speed Jamaica made, the others increased even faster.  By the 50th lap, the distance between Jamaica and its competitors had widened, even while Jamaica was improving.   


Literacy is about representing speech in writing.  If you don’t speak a language, it is almost impossible to use that language in writing and reading with the levels of creativity and skill which we expect of literate people in the modern world.  But what really was taking place in the countries that Jamaica compared itself to, the USA, Britain, Australia, and so on?  In those countries, with some exceptions, the language being used to teach children to read and write was their native language.  It was the language those children used in everyday, out-of-school communication, and the language of the home.  Literacy in the native language of children is the animal that those countries selected to ride. This happened to be a horse called English. 


In Jamaica, a decision was taken to go with what was working in Britain, the USA, Australia and so on.  These other countries had chosen a white animal called English.  We too had a white animal called English so we would choose that rather than our horse of a different colour.  However, the vast majority of children in Jamaica speak and use Patois/Patwa, Creole, the Jamaican language.  They, at the same time, can speak little or no English. The Jamaican language is their native language and the only language they regularly use outside the classroom, at home and in the course of normal everyday life. The horse which Jamaica owned, was of a different colour and was called the Jamaican language.  By choosing the white animal named English, Jamaica chose a donkey rather than a horse.  The animal chosen by Jamaica, named English, carried Jamaica towards its educational goals very very slowly.  This is as compared with the speed of the horse of the same name chosen by countries where English was the native language of the majority of the population.  Jamaica, of course, did have a horse, the Jamaican language, but it chose not to ride because it was a horse of a different colour, a language with a different name.  This horse could carry Jamaica much faster towards its educational goals and give it a chance of catching up with the other countries which are riding horses rather than donkeys. 


But how would this horse perform better than the donkey?  It would do so as part of a full bilingual education programme.  The Jamaican Language Unit at the University of the West Indies conducted a Ministry of Education approved Bilingual Education Project in three schools in the Corporate Area between 2004 and 2008.  In this project, literacy was taught to children in both languages, and both languages were used, side by side, to teach Science, Mathematics and Social Studies.  Some time after the end of the project, as was agreed when the project was approved, copies of all material produced by the project were handed over to the Ministry of Education.  At the time of a meeting with the Senior Policy Group within the Ministry of Education in 2010, this material, bilingual education teaching materials, bilingual alphabet cards using the Cassidy-JLU system for writing Jamaican, flash cards, a teacher training manual, and independent external evaluation reports were handed over.  The intention of this handover was to give the Ministry a clear option to implement bilingual education in English and Jamaican, at primary school level, if it so wished.  It could implement without the problem of not knowing either how it could be done or where the teaching materials would come from.


Changing the Donkey for the Horse


We have done 50 laps and calls are going out for us to change the animal we are riding.  Why not try that other animal, the Jamaican language, that horse of a different colour? We find a million excuses.  Even though we are way behind, we tell ourselves that we are improving and can further improve without changing what we ride on.  Obviously we can find ways to make our donkey run faster but can we ever make it run as fast as a horse?  What then do we do in order to make the switch?  The danger is that, in trying to change from riding a donkey, one falls on ones own nether region.  Changing mount, in the middle of a race, may require that, for a time, however brief, one is actually riding both animals at the same time.  The changeover requires great skill but fear should not prevent us from doing what we have to do. 


The language question in Jamaica is highly contentious. The very sense of being, for many, including teachers and policy makers, is tied up with the issue of language.  Whatever the weight of the research in favour of bilingual education in English and Jamaican, therefore, an official decision to change language education policy will not be taken on the weight of the evidence alone. The solution is to allow for parallel sets of language practices in the school system. After an appropriate period of public education by the Ministry of Education, there should be a process of consultation by which parents and teachers at each primary school in the country select one of two options.  They can choose to have their school maintain the current policy, which is effectively the official use of English as the sole medium of instruction and medium for teaching literacy.  They can, however, opt to be part of a select group of 10 schools which move to bilingual education. This solves problems of parental and teacher resistance, and provides choice.   Every two years, the opportunity is presented for an additional ten schools to opt to join the bilingual stream.  The Ministry would, in this dispensation, agree, working with the University of the West Indies, to ensure that the bilingual option receive the level of resources required to pioneer an alternative curriculum.  This would be supported by teacher training and the necessary incentives to ensure that the alternative model is viable. In this transitional period, we would be riding two animals at the same time, providing the opportunity for a gradual and orderly shift, over time, to the horse, the animal which will move us more quickly to our intended destination. 


Beyond the Classroom


In support of bilingual education, other supporting changes need to be taking place beyond the classroom.  Currently, there exists within the constitution of Jamaica a right which defendants have to an interpreter if they cannot understand the language of the court.  Anecdotal evidence suggests that such a right is never accessed in the court by speakers of Jamaican who have limited competence in English.  Clearly, their legal representatives need to press for this right to be made available.  The courts, on the other hand, can ensure that trained interpreters are available so that this right can be enforced.  As it is, the Institute of Linguists in London, which is an international certifying body for translators and interpreters, has a Diploma in Public Service Interpreting (Legal) set of examinations.  They administer examinations to certify interpreters in legal contexts, interpreting and translating from English to Jamaican, as well as Jamaican to English.  Four Jamaicans are mid-way through the process of being so certified by the Institute. 


Beyond this, the right to freedom from discrimination on the ground of language needs to be inserted into the Charter of Rights in the Jamaican constitution.  This was an issue which was examined in 2001 by the Joint Select Committee which eventually produced the 2011 Charter of Rights to the Jamaican Constitution.  The Select Committee asked that the University of the West Indies set up what is now the Jamaican Language Unit.  The Unit was give the task to deal with the practicalities of a freedom from discrimination on the ground of language could reasonably be part of the constitution.  Parliament wished to be reassured that there was a standard writing system for Jamaican, and that there was an adequate cadre of Jamaicans trained in the use of the Jamaican language in official contexts.  They wished to be sure that state would have adequate numbers of properly trained employees who could serve the public, where required, in the Jamaican language.  Their concern was for the service to be, in terms of communication, no way less precise and clear than communication in English, and in no manner less courteous and respectful either. A considerable amount of training within the Department of Language, Linguistics and Philosophy at the UWI has taken place over the years, to ensure that there are now several hundred such people within the Jamaican labour force who can provide such services.  The time is indeed right for the Jamaican Language Unit to make the long postponed report to Parliament, and for the constitution to be amended to guarantee freedom from discrimination on the ground of language. The message within the education system would be clear.  We have two languages in Jamaica and both need to used and recognised equally.


Two Languages Better than One (2>1)


The language situation in Jamaica is not a problem.  It is an opportunity.  Bilingualism in life and in education provides opportunities for the intellectual development of children not available in monolingual situations.  Expressing ones self for all communicative purposes in two languages rather than one gives the opportunity to constantly shift perspective and world view.  This is an enormous advantage in the multicultural context og globalisation and one which favours flexibility and creativity.  We need to launch a national campaign which seeks to value the bilingual or two language nature of Jamaica, with the slogan, ‘Tuu langwij beta dan wan/Two languages are better than one’ or 2>1.  If we don’t make the shift in language policy and practice, we will continue to ride a jackass in a horse race, with all the consequences for our position in the world. Forward to education in two languages.



Hubert Devonish

Professor of Linguistics and Coordinator of the Jamaican Language Unit

Dept. of Language, Linguistics and Philosophy

The University of the West Indies, Mona.

21st September, 2012.

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Posted by on June 26, 2013 in Uncategorized


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