How to raise a bilingual child

Jamaica is a bilingual country.

I state this as a truth, even though I know many people from various echelons of this society would disagree. I remember being at an event in which a speaker said of Japanese dancehall artists Ackee and Saltfish (who had been speaking and performing with admirable Patwa prowess) that they had been “learning English with a Jamaican accent.” (Umm… what?)

The thing is, though, that because of our ideas about the social and linguistic relationship between English and Patwa (Jamaican Creole), we have certain ideas about how to teach our children how to use English. Of course, Patwa is considered undesirable, so it is often discouraged. “No, baby, it’s not, ‘Mi waahn wan baal.’ You say, ‘I want a ball.'”

In my opinion, that is unnecessary, and may result in some level of subtractive bilingualism. I think if Patwa was not considered the language of the lower class, and if English were not seen as the language of the workplace and the professional/scholastic fields, then this may not happen. Worse, Patwa’s lexicon largely comes from English, so it’s harder to divide the two in our heads.

But that’s precisely what I think we should do: Use them both around our children, separately. That is how many bilingual children are raised around the world. At home, or with certain family members, they use one language, and use the other one in different environments. Sometimes, parents themselves decide to raise bilingual/multilingual children by consciously using the different languages at different times, or in different locations.

In my opinion, cross-language correction is not only pointless, but destructive to language development; teaching a child that one language is wrong is never good, and may result in linguistic confusion in a child. If a language (or even a dialect) is used in a society, then there are appropriate places for it, and someone who cannot use both languages is at a disadvantage.

You may assume that your child will learn the ‘lesser’ language because ‘everyone’ uses it, but I know of instances in which that proved wrong. I know people here with very poor Patwa skills because they were raised in purely English-speaking households. And I know at least one person in another Caribbean country who cannot speak his local French-based Creole language at all, because his parents discouraged it; even though ‘everyone else’ around him uses it.

Furthermore, the pompous “I speak better than you” attitude that I have witnessed in my country has to stop.

So, use both English and Patwa is your homes, with your little ones. Bilingualism is of a great advantage to a growing child. It gives greater cognitive flexibility, and it’s just plain awesome.

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