Let me start by sharing an experience that Shyrel-Ann Dean, a teacher in Jamaica had, as shared with me last semester in a lecture:
‘Mis, mi kyahn go baachuum?’ said Chris. ‘If you can say that in English, you may go!’ I responded. Chris started to walk towards the door. ‘No, Chris, mi se if yu no se it ina Ingglish, yu kyaahn go!” I explained. The student then straightened up and responded with a deliberate attempt at an American accent, ‘Ohn, mis, mi kyan go baachuum?”
This example highlights the problems with education with Jamaica: The assumption that our students are native English speakers. Indeed, some are; but not all, as this case shows. And this isn’t an isolated incident, either.
I don’t know how old Chris was, but I can tell you that once when I was teaching a young adult some Japanese grammar, he said it was so much better when “a man jrap iin tuu Patwa” and explains the concepts to him. We can’t ignore the power of teaching in the native language of the student.
But we should be raising our children so that they can speak the language of the professional realm! you may protest.
I agree.* But how? People often praise immersion as the way one learns a language; being surrounded with it so that you’re forced to learn and use it.
But guess what? Using a foreign language as a means of instruction in schools is not immersion. Students will use their native language among themselves, and then stare blankly at the teacher as she speak the foreign language and tries to explain the day’s topics. The teacher shakes her head and tell the poor students dem ed tof, and they learn nothing.
That is why I believe in the use of Patois as a language of instruction in schools. I have been in classrooms in which information is given in nice English, only to have the students look to me and ask, “Sor, wa dat miin?” And then, the light of understanding in their eyes as they understand.
But I do not only believe in using Patois as a language of instruction, but also a language to be studied in schools.
What?! What possible benefit could there be to be studying that! We all know Patois, already! It’s English Jamaicans need to learn! Patois is the language of the gutter!
First of all, no, we don’t all know Patois; not in the way we’re given an understanding of English in schools. I wonder how many of us can tell why it’s correct to say, “Di pikni dem de outaduo,” but not to say, “Pikni dem de outaduo.” Or what part of speech ‘niem’ is in “Wa yu niem?” Those kinds of basic rules are what we learn for English in schools, but what we don’t get for our national language.
Second, not being given a proper foundation in one of the languages of a diglossic society is a real handicap. I can tell you from my own personal experience that there have been times that I did not understand what other Jamaicans said to me because they were talking in Patois, and I was raised in a mostly-English household, and went to a Queen’s-English prep school.
Third, I assert that, especially for languages that are as close lexically as English and Patois are, it’s important to get a proper foundation in both so that the distinction can be made. Because as it is today, too many Jamaicans (like young Chris) don’t know the difference.
“No, is not ‘unu’, is ‘you’!”
“A ‘unu’ wi se ina Patwa, bot a ef a muor dan wan, a stil ‘yuu’ (you) ina Ingglish.’
Which one do you think would be more easily understood? In the first situation, the child’s native language is ‘corrected’, even though it is quite correct already, and discouraged.** What does that cause? The student may feel unintelligent because he can’t pick up the ‘good’ language. The difference between the two languages is never fully explained, and so never fully understood.
In the second situation, the child understands that nothing is wrong with ‘unu’. The native language is encouraged to stay intact, and the other language, English, is added on top of that native foundation. The child comes out of such an education bilingual.
Also, consider this: A child in Jamaica learning to read. He sees ‘hand’. That may very well be a foreign word to him. He knows ‘an’; the teacher tells him to pronounce an ‘h’ and a ‘d’ out of nowhere. Not to mention the grammatical structure that he meets that he doesn’t understand. Here he is unfamiliar with English, yet being taught to read it. Does that make sense?
The thing is, people would agree that it doesn’t make sense in other contexts, but not ours. I’m sure no one would suggest that we should take a monolingual Spanish-speaker to a French-speaking class of 4-, 5-, and 6-year-olds and have them teach basic maths, science, and Spanish grammar in Spanish. But we do that here.
So, I believe in teaching young Jamaicans (that is, those whose first language is Patois) to read and write in their native language, and then move on to English. And not only that, the basic skills that they need through out their education (maths, etc.) should be taught in their native language, too.
It’s been tried. It works.
*Although, perhaps Patois should start to be seen as a professional language… but let’s not get into that…
**Funny enough, often the correction is not even done in English. I remember a bus ride in which a little girl said to her mother, “Momi, a wa dat?” Her mother, doing the best she knew how to raise her child in the proper way (with the ‘proper’ language), answered, “‘Wat iz dat?’ Ou moch taim a mos karek yu wen yu chat fuulishnis?!” I’m sure the same thing happens in schools, too.