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

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


From a Semi-Lingual to a Bilingual Jamaica


The Honorable Minister of Education is reported in the Daily Gleaner of 22nd August, 2012, as lamenting the fact that in the CSEC English A Examination of June, 2012, Jamaican students fell woefully short in critically assessing a passage.  He suggests that too much emphasis has been placed in the education system on memorisation.. Correspondingly, he feels, too little attention has been given to the higher forms of intellectual activity, analysis and critical thinking. When one has difficulty understanding and processing information, one memorises it. In the Jamaican situation, what stands in the way of understanding and processing knowledge and information presented in English is the language barrier.  Most Jamaicans, be they adults or children, are native speakers of Jamaican, a Creole language with a grammatical structure which is quite distinct from English.


In recent day, a wide range of voices, from the Principal of Campion High School to the president of the Jamaica Teachers’ Association are proclaiming a self-evident fact, that English is not the native language of the vast majority of Jamaicans.  They state that Jamaican/Jamaican Creole/Patwa/Dialect is.  A visitor from Mars would think that these proclamations are the result of some new situation that has developed.  In fact, this has been the state of affairs from the 17th century.  And, for the record, the native speakers of Jamaican were never restricted to the black and oppressed masses.  British visitors to the island in the 18th century bemoaned the speech of the white daughters of plantation owners, their drawl and their use of good old Jamaican words such as nyam ‘eat’ and bobi ‘breast’ at the dinner table.


So, what then is new?  There is an increasing acceptance of Jamaican as a language in its own right.  In a 2005 National Language Attitude Survey of Jamaica, over 80% considered Jamaican a language, and roughly 70% wanted to see it used as a language of instruction and literacy in schools alongside English.  This same number wanted it recognised as an official language in addition to English.  The ordinary folks are way ahead of the chattering and scribbling classes who so frequently speak on the electronic media and write articles in the press on the language question. These classes have that quaint Anglo-Saxon idea that a human head can hold one language only, and that the choice is either Jamaican or English. They pay no heed to a case such as Iceland, with a population of approximately 250,000, which operates an education system in the Icelandic language, and which teaches languages like English and German for external communication.  The ‘one head, one language’ idea is one of the mental shackles from which they are yet to be emancipated.


It is against this background that we have this new drive in the education system to focus on higher order intellectual activity, notably analysis and critical thinking.  In which language do we think this is carried out in by the majority of Jamaicans?  In English, a language which is a second language for most Jamaicans?  Or in Jamaican, their first language, their mother tongue?  The late Dennis Craig, in his work on language education in the Caribbean, consistently stressed the importance of developing critical thinking and analytical skills in the mother tongue, not just in the early stages of education but right throughout.  Why?  His argued that it was only with the continued development of those skills in the mother tongue that the opportunity presents itself for a transfer of those skills to second and third languages. He was responding to a notion associated with the well-known scholar of language education, Jim Cummins.  When children are forced to go through education in a second language, while their mother tongue is wholly or largely excluded from the classroom, they grow up to be what he calls ‘semi-lingual’.  They do not have the higher order thinking and language communication skills developed in their native language.  They, therefore, are incapable of transferring these, to the second language, in the present case, English.


Cummins proposes another option, however.  Use the first language, the mother tongue, right through the school system, in all functions, including as a subject of instruction, medium of instruction and as a language in which reading and writing is learnt. This would take place alongside the second language being used also in these same roles.  This would be what is called a Fully Bilingual or Dual Language education programme. Cummins suggests that the outcome is what he calls ‘Additive Bilingualism’.  The students produced by such a system have levels of competence in both languages which are fully developed, as a result of the transfer of skills from the mother tongue to the second language, at every stage in the education system. The Ministry of Education policy is one of ‘monoliterate, transitional bilingualism’.  That means they use the language of the home, Jamaican, as a bridge or transitional language to English, the language of the school.  After that, the home language is abandoned, with the children able to provide the pretence of controlling English, whilst the higher order skills are being developed neither in English or Jamaican, hence the tale of memorisation.


In the Jamaican situation, a fully bilingual or dual education programme would involve the use of both Jamaican and English as languages of education, in the same roles, side by side. This is what took place in a Ministry of Education sanctioned Bilingual Education Project run in a Corporate Area primary school between 2004 and 2008 by the Jamaican Language Unit within the Department of Language, Linguistics and Philosophy at UWI.  Textbooks for Mathematics, Social Studies, Science and the Language Arts were translated into Jamaican.  These were made available alongside the textbooks written in English.  The teachers were trained to deliver the same lesson twice, once in Jamaican and then in English.  The teachers were taught never to mix the two languages, and to keep them apart.  The teachers, as part of their practice, announced to their pupils when the language being used changed from English to Jamaican or vice versa.  The pupils learnt to read and write in both languages.  The teachers’ training manual, the textbooks, the supporting teaching materials, and all of the reports on the project have been in the possession of the Ministry of Education since September, 2010. The path from the existing semi-lingualism to true bilingualism has been cleared already. We just need to summon up the courage to go down that new path.


Of course, the thought might immediately come to mind, ‘Will Jamaican children be able to cope?’  Why not?  These are children who operate a language, Jamaican, which is in several ways much more complex than English.  ‘Jamaican more complex than English?’, you are thinking.  This must be a typo.  It isn’t.  Let us look at the following three English sentences, ‘I am a man’, ‘I am tall’ and ‘I am here’.  You will notice that they all take ‘am’, a form of the verb ‘to be’, to link the subject, ‘I’, with what is being said about it.  What are the Jamaican equivalents?  They are ‘Mi a man’, ‘Mi taal’, and ‘Mi de ya’. In order to get the structure correct in Jamaican, the speaker needs to know if what is being said about the subject, ‘I’, was that it is equal to something else, in which case, a  is used as the linking word.  If what is being said about the subject is an attribute possessed by ‘I’, then there is no linking word.  If the sentence tells us what place ‘I’ is located in, then the form de is used.  In this area, English is a lazy language, failing to distinguish between when the subject is equal to something else, when it uses a form of ‘to be’, when the subject has an attribute, when it uses the same form, and when the subject is located in a place, when a form of ‘to be’ is used again.


And what about that good old English word ‘you’?  It is, of course, ambiguous for whether one is addressing a single individual or several people.  In Jamaican, by contrast, there is a distinction between yu ‘you’ (singular) and unu (borrowed from Igbo, a language spoken in modern day southern Nigeria).  The Jamaican personal pronouns make a distinction between ‘you’ (singular) and unu ‘you  – plural’. Certainly, we see no sign of intellectual laziness on the part of speakers of Jamaican here!


Children who naturally manipulate as complex a language as Jamaican can surely master a language like English which is, in many respects, much simpler.  Why they have not done so yet?  Because they have not been given the chance.


The way forward is clear.  To move from the semi-lingualism which exists to additive bilingualism of the sort which produces the higher order thinking skills so dear to the heart of the Minister of Education, we need a fully bilingual approach to education in Jamaica.  This should be implemented right throughout the education system.  Minister of Education, over to you.


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Posted by on August 24, 2012 in Uncategorized



No English, no vote?

Professor Errol Miller, the chairman of the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ), made a startling declaration in a national broadcast on television two days prior to the December 29, 2011 general election in Jamaica. He stated, “Use standard English in addressing each elector.” He justified this with the statement, “English is the official language of the country and election day is an official event and occasion.” The issue was very quickly picked up by the social media on the Internet and then by Radio Jamaica (RJR). ]

The following evening, Professor Miller appeared on RJR’s Beyond the Headlines to justify the official directive he had given to election day workers at polling stations. In defence of his position, he said that this directive was nothing new and had been in place for several previous elections. The reason he gave for the directive was that, at the time of some previous election, there had been complaints that electors had objected to being addressed in Jamaican (Creole/Patois). They felt that being addressed in this way was patronising, degrading and discriminatory. He argued further that all Jamaicans understood English, even if they could not speak it. In order to ensure equality of treatment, therefore, election workers were under instruction to use standard English to all.

Let us examine the foundations on which the position of Professor Miller and the ECJ is based. Is it true that all Jamaicans understand English? One would hope that the position of the ECJ on such an important issue would take advantage of the research work available on this question. Public policy on language should be well thought out, and based on the best available information.

many misunderstandings

The work of Denise Smalling, done several years ago on the comprehension of English by Jamaicans, suggests that those with minimal education may understand less than 50 per cent of radio news items broadcast in English. Misunderstandings and misinterpretations are numerous.

Let us look at Section 36 of the Representation of the People Act, titled ‘Mode of Taking Ballot in Special Cases’, which outlines the voting procedure for the blind and “otherwise incapacitated”. Subsection 3 requires that such a person be administered an oath. The wording of that oath is, “You swear that you are incapable of voting without assistance by reason of physical incapacity”. Are Prof Miller and the ECJ confident that any Jamaican could understand the language of that oath? If they are, how about the Oath of Qualification which may be administered to persons seeking to vote whose personal details do not fully match those on the official list of electors. According to Schedule 2, Form No. 20 of the act, the presiding officer has to make such an elector swear, among other things, “… that you are not within any of the classes of persons who lack qualification or are disqualified by reason of crime, mental capacity or disfranchisement for corrupt or illegal practices; and … that you have not received anything nor has anything been promised to you directly or indirectly in order to induce you to vote or to refrain from voting at this election”. Common sense would suggest that a presiding officer, in seeking to administer such an oath, replete with technical and legal jargon, as well as complex language structures, use any means at his or her disposal, Jamaican included, to ensure that the person taking the oath understands fully what they are swearing to.

Against the examples just provided, one would think that it might be better to allow the electoral officers to use whatever language is appropriate to ensure that the elector understands. That would be in keeping with the Fundamental Rights (Additional Provisions) (Interim) Act which states, “Every person shall have the right to vote and to participate in free and fair elections”.

Prof Miller also made the argument that, in the past, people had complained about being addressed in the Jamaican language by electoral officials. Given that he stated this directive has been in place for several elections, the complaints must have preceded these. That would suggest that the complaints may have been made more than a decade ago.

The National Language Attitude Survey of Jamaica, done in 2005, indicates that 70 per cent of people interviewed felt that if the minister of finance were to address Parliament in the Jamaican language, it would be interpreted by them as an attempt to communicate with them effectively, rather than as an effort to talk down to, or patronise them. Even granted that some people complained at previous elections about being addressed in the Jamaican language, what about the many others who were so addressed, but did not complain, and perhaps found the language choice appropriate and helpful? Don’t they too have rights?

puzzle upon puzzle

On the question of English being the official language required on an official occasion such as election day, the directive is even more puzzling. English is the official language of Jamaica by custom and practice. There is no legislation declaring it to be so. The only point in the Constitution of Jamaica where language is mentioned is in relation to Criminal Justice System under the section on Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, Chapter 3. When a citizen has charges laid against them by the police, or is arrested and detained, the reasons for such actions, according to the constitution, should be explained to such a person “in a language he understands”. In court, if an accused is unable to understand the English language, he or she is entitled to an interpreter. There is no occasion that is more official than the arrest and charging of a person in the name of the State, and the subsequent proceedings of the courts. Yet, the Constitution provides for the use of languages other than English to ensure that justice is available to accused persons. Why would a provision for ensuring full understanding by individuals caught up in the legal system not also apply in the course of the citizen selecting the government of his or her choice?

What about the need to ensure equality of treatment? When disabled persons in wheelchairs are confronted with stairs rather than ramps, they are being treated equally with those who can walk. This represents equality of treatment. However, this does not represent equality of outcome. One wants the person in the wheelchair to get to another floor in a building. The individual who can walk simply climb the stairs. The person in the wheelchair cannot. Therefore, the outcome is that, although treated equally by being confronted with a flight of stairs, the walking person gets up to the next floor and the one in wheelchair does not. To achieve equality of outcome, there has to be discrimination in the treatment the two people get. The walking person gets a flight of stairs, and the one in the wheel chair gets a ramp. This represents discriminatory treatment but equality of outcome. It is the equality of outcome that any practice on election day by officers of the Electoral Office should be trying to achieve. Every elector, irrespective of their familiarity with the English language, should get an equal chance to exercise their franchise. For some, the appropriate language medium for advising them of their rights and the electoral processes is English. For others, the appropriate language would be Jamaican. This represents inequality in the way people are treated linguistically, but equality of outcome. Everyone would be able to exercise their franchise irrespective of which of the two languages they understand best.

Thank goodness, at least some of the Electoral Office officials at polling stations had the good sense to ignore the directive from Prof Miller and the ECJ. Carolyn Cooper, in her Gleaner column of January1, 2012, states that she went to her polling station, addressed all the officers in Jamaican, and they all answered appropriately in that language. This is a triumph of good sense over poorly conceived language policy.

The whole debacle surrounding the directive from the ECJ could have been prevented. Had the Charter of Rights to the Jamaican Constitution, Chapter 3, included the freedom from discrimination on the ground of language, this poorly conceived policy of the ECJ could not have surfaced. The rights of people in Jamaica who speak Jamaican as their only language to elect the government of their choice would not have been threatened. This article calls on the Parliament of Jamaica to pass an amendment to the Charter of Rights to protect Jamaicans from ‘discrimination on the ground of language’ by public bodies and public officers. Professor Miller and the ECJ, over to you!



This article was published in the Jamaica Gleaner on April 1, 2012. See the article here <a href="


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Posted by on April 17, 2012 in Uncategorized


Of Riot and Rastamouse

The Patwa versus English debate has flared up again, this time, not in Jamaica but in good Olde England, the home of the English Language. It threatens to burn to black ashes the linguistic purity of the Mother Country. And the fire with which it blazes is part of the ‘… flames lambent, wrapped around Tottenham, wrapped around Clapham …’ which is how the British historian, David Starkey, described the past week’s rioting across London and other English cities. This he does in a controversial BBC Newsnight TV programme on 12th August (see video below). He goes on to say, ‘The whites have become black. A particular brand of destructive, nihilistic gangster culture has become the fashion. And black and white, boy and girl operate in this language together. This language which is wholly false, which is this Jamaican Patois that has been intruded in England. Which is why so many of us have this sense of literally a foreign country.’ This is indeed the end of civilisation as we know it, or at least as David Starkey knows it.

The riots have been satirically described in at least one publication as the Rastamouse Riots. The reference here is to a BBC Children’s cartoon series featuring Rastamouse, an animated dreadlocked, reggae-singing mouse. Rastamouse fights crime and spreads the gospel of peace and love. He, his crew and other characters, speak mainly using the Jamaican Language, albeit heavily anglicised. This anglicisation, one suspects, is in order to ensure understanding across the wider, non-Caribbean population in the UK. The series has been a huge hit for the BBC amongst children across all communities in England. The BBC has, however, been bombarded with complaints about the series on two counts. The first is that of racial stereotyping. The second,interestingly enough given the heavy anglicisation of the Jamaican spoken by the characters, the use of ‘slang’, read ‘Jamaican Language’. According to one source, up to March this year, the BBC had received over 100 complaints about the series, 6 about racism and 95 about language. The language of this Jamaican language speaking mouse gnaw out the heart of linguistic rectitude in the land of Milton, Shakespeare, Chaucer and the King James Version of the Bible.

It seems that the Jamaican Language has as many enemies in England as it has in Jamaica. In England, it has come be viewed as the source of riot, of fire and the flames. The English-speaking whites of Olde England are in the process of becoming linguistically and culturally black, if we are to believe David Starkey. This is happening through the infiltration of Jamaican language and culture via a Patwa-speaking Rasta mouse, children’s cartoon character who undermines the citadel of the English language at its centre. This he does by contaminating the speech of children and young people in Olde England. Rastamouse is an honest, crime fighting, peace and love rodent. However, a desire to imitate the Jamaican language he speaks, however heavily overlaid with English, is, if we are to believe David Starkey and his ilk, sufficient to inspire thousands of otherwise good, peace loving, law abiding white, English young people to rise up, loot and torch huge portions of the great English industrial cities of London, Birmingham, Manchester and Nottingham.

This then is the power of the Jamaican language! The Empire has struck back or, in the famous words of Miss Lou, the Hon. Louise Bennett Coverly uttered early at the start of the Jamaican migration to England in the 50s and 60s, ‘Jamaica colonising England in reverse’ / Jamieka kalanizin Ingglan in rivors. The heat generated by the Jamaican language has turned white people black and burnt the shining buildings of English cities to black ash. There are those back home here in Jamaica who argue that the Jamaican language should not be given any official recognition in Jamaica nor used in the education system. The reason they give is that Jamaican is not an international language and not used outside Jamaica. Well, perhaps, they should ask Rastamouse or, better yet, David Starkey.

David Starkey on rioting and Jamaican language

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Posted by on August 17, 2011 in Uncategorized


How the Grade 4 Literacy Test has Failed Jamaican Children

The recent controversy about the Ministry of Education’s plans for dealing with those
children who have ‘failed’ the Grade 4 Literacy Test has, quite rightly, stirred up a great
deal of controversy. Literacy cannot be considered while ignoring the language issue in
Jamaica. Literacy is about representing speech in writing. If you don’t speak a language,
it is almost impossible to use that language in writing with the levels of creativity and
skill which we expect of literate people in the modern world. What language do the
children who supposedly failed the Grade 4 Literacy Test speak and use in the course
of their regular everyday activities? English? Not likely. The language they use is
Patwa, Creole, the Jamaican language. It has its own rules, system of pronunciation and
distinctive vocabulary. It is not English. And their ability to read and write English
is being compared to children at the equivalent stage in the education system of which
countries? Countries such as Britain and the USA where the majority of such children
are native speakers of English? This clearly does not make sense.

In Finland, children are taught to read and write in Finnish. Their standards for judging
whether their children succeed or fail in literacy is their level of competence in reading
and writing Finnish. In Iceland, an island nation with a population of a mere 250,000
people and one of the highest levels of literacy in Europe, literacy standards are measured
based on the ability of children to read and write in Icelandic. The pattern is followed
the world over, literacy in Japanese for the children of Japan, in French for the children
of France, in Bahasa Indonesia for the children of Indonesia, in Arabic for the children
of Saudi Arabia. But, strangely, not in Jamaica. Children in Jamaica have their levels
of literacy judged in a foreign language, English. They are required to write a language
they do not speak. This is akin to asking the children of Iceland to learn to read and write
in French and the children of France to read and write in Icelandic. Children who are
required to do this are bound to perform poorly.

It is against this background that we need to understand the wailing and gnashing of teeth
over those children who fail to pass the Grade Four Literacy Test in Jamaica. Even for
the ones who pass, they are, in general, performing at way below the level of full and
complete mastery. Why? Jamaican children are no more dunce nor stupid than children
in countries where literacy rates for school children are way higher. Isn’t the answer
obvious? Comparing the ability of Jamaican children to read and write English to the
ability of children in Britain, the USA or New Zealand to do the same, is like comparing
apples and oranges. The majority of people on those countries are native speakers of
English. They use English at home, in the streets, on the playground and in school.
In Jamaica, it is the Jamaican language that performs that role. The only place these
children might have any exposure in a consistent manner is in the classroom.

The so-called failed Grade Four Literacy Test candidates have not failed at all. They,
along with most Jamaican children, have been asked to do what no child in any normal
country, with a logical and rational language and literacy policy, is ever asked to do.
That is to learn to read and write in a foreign language at a level equivalent to that of
children who are learning to read and write that language as a native language.

The Ministry of Education wants 100% passes in the Grade 4 literacy test by 2015? This
can be achieved. High levels of literacy can be achieved if children are taught to read and
write in the language that they do speak, Jamaican. English can and must be taught as a
second language and literacy taught in that language as well. However, the standards for
literacy in English will have to be judged by comparison with other children elsewhere
who are learning English as a second language. The literacy skills of Jamaican children
would have to be compared to the literacy skills of other children around the world, be
they Chinese, Japanese, Dutch or French, who are learning English as a second or foreign
language. The Grade Four ‘failures’ have not failed. It is the system that has failed them.
And why? Because of a prejudice on the part of the ‘haves’ that the ‘have nots’ are not
just without money, property or status, but without a language as well. The ‘have nots’
do have a language, the Jamaican language. They can be taught to read and write in it
up to the very highest levels and standards possible in the world. This literacy can be a
platform for acquiring high levels of competence and literacy in English, and eventually
Spanish, Chinese and Hausa. Any other course of action will lead to the Ministry of
Education and the education system continuing to fail the children of Jamaica.

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Posted by on June 6, 2011 in Uncategorized



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



BUBBY ISLAND, Oct. 8, 1781.

Taking a walk home last evening, I had an opportunity of hearing a dialogue between a St. Elizabeth’s and Westmoreland negro: the peculiar and uncommon attention which the one seemed to pay to what the other said, roused my curiosity. If you think it worthy of publication, please to insert it in your Cornwall Chronicle, and oblige.


Brae Quaco, ho you do? Me been long for see you. How oonoo all do in Westmoreland?

Brae Quashie, I but so so, for when belly no full, no comfort for me.

Belly no full! You ‘tonish me Quaco; you look as if you bin yam. Tan. Massa-Gubna no send down ship (?) a Sava-lama, hab flour, beans, pease, and (yearee me good) oatmeal? and, Quaco, if you yam belly full of tharra, no talk dem word, “you but so so”

Brae Quashie, if Massa Gubna send ship, he no send ‘e for me; me bin ax massa secretary for some nyanyam, him say, massa commissioners no put for me name in a book.

Your name in a book, Quaco! And why you no tell massa commissioners to put your name in a book?

I bin go to Massa Commissioners, and dem tell me, I bin stout and young, I no hab right to put for me name in a book.

I know Massa Commissioners dam well, some of dem fava book true.

Brae Quashie, you tink Commissioners read in a book, ‘cause me ‘trong and young I no want victual for nyam? If so, I am sure Commissioners book, or for me belly, tell lies.

Quaco, I tell you already Massa Commissioners fava book, if any mistake it must be in your belly, no in dem book.

There no moe mistake in my belly than it want nyanyam when I is hungry; if book say da mistake, Massa Commissioners and Gor Amity in a top must put it to rights; for true, Brae Quashie, da no for me doings.

Dis talk no to de purpose, you is ‘trong and young, Quaco, oonoo should work and rise nyanyams for yourself, tharra the reason Massa Commissioners no put for you name in a book.

You know, brae Quashie, me can, and do work, but hurricane ‘pon hurricane ‘poil [all?] my ground, and all my work serve for no moe purpose dan gee me heart burn for see dem washed away. If me bin idle fellow andno lub work, Massa Commisssioners do right to ‘fuse me; but I is not, and you know it, I must say dem no do me fair play.

Hush! Brae Quaco, some body may hear you; massa commissioners dem grande buckras, besides you tell dem fault, but no tell dem good; me can tell many good tings dem do.

— Wharra dem do, Brae Quashie?

Dem bin gee a number of idle and ‘dustrious ‘tore-keepers, shop-keepers, wharf-keepers, pen-keepers, book-keepers, house-keepers, goal-keepers, and mulatto-keepers, both nyanyam and money; and what’s moe, dem hab bin ‘tentative to a heep of brown and black ladies, in a Savanna, no one of dem da ax bin refused, now as dem lady is berry [tiseful ??] members for de gentlemens, you hab no right, suppose you ‘tarve, to say, but dem is good bacra, and behave berry clebba.

Brae Quashie, I tink you fava bacra book better than me, and as you say, Massa Commissioners do right, it must be fo – But I will tell you wharra I must do – I is strong and young and, as Massa Commissioners will not put me in for dem book, I will see if dem ladies will not put me in theirs. So Brae Quashie, good bye t you.


Supplement to Cornwall Chronicle (Montego Bay, Jamaica), 13th Oct. 1781.

This 1781 text from the Cornwall Chronicle was discovered somewhere around 1997 by Maureen Warner Lewis in the course of her research. It is a big discovery for linguists studying Caribbean Creole languages. It is the oldest known text of Jamaican. In addition, it is the oldest text of a Caribbean English Creole outside of Suriname. It predates the next oldest known text, that for St Kitts, by at least 15 years.

To get a flavour of the text, you need to know that the Cornwall Chronicle published from Montego Bay seems, from its content, to have been a newspaper catering for white planters and merchants in late 18th century Western Jamaica. Appearing on the same page as part of the text is an advertisement for sale, with individual title, in Westmoreland of the following House Negroes: Christiana, Donie and Mademoiselle, along with Donie’s two male children and Mademoiselle’s daughter. The wenches were to be sold either separately or together, but the mothers and children were not to be divided. Below this advertisement are others for the sale of a ship in Savanna la Mar, and of 1200 acres of land in St. Elizabeth.

The Supplement to the Cornwall Chronicle frequently contained gossipy letters, poems, etc. commenting on the happenings of the day in a sometimes satirical manner. Many of the letters are signed with obvious pen names, others by the Printer. Nearly all are in English. In the one exception identified so far, the address above the letter, Bubby Island, is perhaps chosen to signal to the reader that this is a spoof. The introductory letter is in English, explaining that what follows is an account of a conversation between two Negroes, Quaco and Quashie. These were very common Akan personal names in use amongst Africans in Jamaica at the time so. Using them to identify the speakers presumably signalled that they were very typical of the Afro-Jamaican population at the time.

Quaco and Quao speak in language which is very similar to modern Jamaican Creole as, for example, when Quaco says, ‘me bin ax massa secretary for some nyanyam, him say, massa commissioners no put for me name in a book.’ It is interesting, however, that ‘commissioners’ rather than ‘commissioner’ is used. The normal modern Jamaican Creole form of a noun, when it refers to an entire class or group, has no plural marker of any kind attached to it. The English plural form ‘s’ here suggests that the writer is making the text a bit more English than would have been typical of Afro-Jamaican speech in the late 18th century. As to whether this is being done deliberately or through lack of familiarity with Jamaican Creole of the time is not clear.

Another feature of the text is that the speakers shift, particularly in the latter part, to a form of speech which is clearly English, albeit influenced by the speech patterns of the Jamaican Creole which they also spoke. This can be seen in a passage such as when Quashie states, ‘dem hab bin ‘tentative to a heep of brown and black ladies, in a Savanna, no one of dem da ax bin refused.’ When one translates this as ‘They have been attentive to a heap of brown and black ladies in Savanna, not one of them that asked has been refused’, we see that original is almost identical in structure and wording to the English translation. The use of the English passive, ‘hab bin’, among other features of the sentence, suggests a speaker who is speaking English, albeit with some Jamaican Creole interference. If this is indeed correct, we may be seeing evidence that as far back as the 1780s, speakers in Jamaica may have had a sense of the existence of Jamaican Creole and English as separate and distinct language forms.

‘Scarce Benefits & Spoils’ 17th Century Style?

Interestingly, the conversation which is put into the mouths of two ‘negroes’ is about an issue which would have, in the main, been a concern of the free white population rather than the African slave population of Jamaica at the time. The governor appears to have sent a shipload of food to Western Jamaica as hurricane relief. The dispute seems to be over the way in which the commissioners charged with distributing the relief have carried out their duties. They seem to have distributed both food and money, not only to the industrious but to the idle, and what is more, to a large number of brown and black ladies who, by implication, distributed favours to the commissioners in return.

Anyone who lived in Jamaica in the aftermath of Hurricane Gilbert in 1988 and the disputes which surrounded the distribution of hurricane relief, would find an oddly modern ring to this 18th century text. And this familiar sound is not just confined to the language.


Hubert Devonish

Professor of Linguistics & Coordinator

The Jamaican Language Unit

The University of the West Indies

Mona Campus.

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Posted by on May 26, 2011 in Uncategorized


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