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Editorial | Don’t mock Miss Lou’s language | Commentary

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It’s the habit of the supercilious, fearing the erosion of old certitudes, to concoct ramparts, from which to defend against imaged hordes bent on eviscerating their truths. At least, psychotically delusional, Don Quixote tilted at real windmills, the physical stuff, whose blades might have done him harm.

The oppressive giant against which Jamaica’s would-be knights are now ranged in defence is Patois, or Creole, the lingua franca of the vast majority of Jamaicans, for which there is still small, but revitalised, movement for its recognition as an official language.

The weapon of choice in this crusade is sniffy ridicule and a deliberate misapprehension and misrepresentation of the declared intent, and aim, of those who promote Patois. The worst perjuries, in this regard, is the insinuation of a cynical plot to use Patois’ elevation to abandon English to the backwaters, thus placing Jamaica on the periphery of global political and economic engagement.

The assault is mostly enveloped in sarcastic shock at the inefficacy of most Jamaicans with English, and of a supposed plan to solve that problem by making Patois the national language, which few outsiders can speak and few Jamaicans can write, at least in a standardised form.

The greater shock for this newspaper, however, is people’s shock that high schools and college graduates struggle with basic English.

Poor performance in English is not new. The situation has improved significantly in recent decades. Yet, each year, although a substantial portion of the cohort is screened out of the test, more than a third of Jamaican students who sit English at the Caribbean Examinations Council’s Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) exams fail to gain passing grades. Only in mathematics, and perhaps a few science subjects, is there a consistently worse performance.

A large part of the problem is that the majority of Jamaican students are not native speakers of English. It is not the first language of their homes, or communities. Jamaican Patois is.

Yet, the official language, and the language of instruction in schools, is English. There is nothing wrong, or bad, in that, except that education proceeds on the basis that students start with a clear grasp of English, in control of its grammar and linguistic subtleties. English is not taught as a second language, of which the majority of students have a limited command.

The sociology, and ultimately, the politics of language, is well understood globally, both among, and within countries, including how, and where, it can place people in the education and economic matrix, as has been acknowledged by former education minister, Ronald Thwaites, a recent convert to the idea of adding Patois to the island’s language of instruction.

SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE

In the aftermath of last year’s roll-out of the Primary Exit Profile (PEP) test for grade six students, which places greater emphasis on problem-solving, at which many students did poorly, Mr Thwaites identified efficacy with English as a difference between the minority who did well and the others.

“In Jamaica, the figure between the command of standard English required in PEP, and the familiarity of most students with only Jamaican Creole, creates the huge difference in outcomes, and explains what we are bemoaning in exam results,” he said. “… The seismic shift on what and how, and in what language, we teach and learn, can no longer be postponed and will require much more time for reassessment.”

Indeed, experiments facilitated by the Jamaica Language Unit at The University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, among primary school children, showed that those who, despite socio-economic backgrounds, also had instruction in Patois, performed as well, and even better, than those instructed in only English. Such findings are almost universal among children who are taught in their mother tongues alongside official languages.

Clearly, there are other sociopolitical values, but also practical advantages, in recognising, and utilising, a country’s mother tongue, which can happen without diminishing the efficacy of other official languages, in our case English.

In other words, in her centenary, Miss Lou and her language oughtn’t to be only about festivals, or to be used in mocking caricatures of ourselves.

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