Language Rights and Education

I’ve been delaying posts on this topic because I’ve been unsure how to express my thoughts on it. I’ve touched on it in previous posts, but not like this.

As an interpreter, I have been in situations in which I have been in situations in which I have had to explain textbook information and exam questions to Deaf students. Spoken language is often difficult for Deaf people to master. Without sound to match the letters or characters to, memorising each word can be like remembering a random phone number for every concept. So, it’s not surprising that the Deaf need something to bridge the gap in this regard.

As an interpreter, in some of these very classrooms, I have been in situations in which I have seen hearing students struggle with the English of those same text books and exam papers. In fact, I have seen teachers themselves write and speak less than perfect (and, sometimes, much less than perfect) English, and even misunderstand exam questions, explaining them incorrectly to students who ask for explanations.

I have been in exam settings in which students call to me and ask me to explain what questions are asking. I have been asked to read questions for a visually impaired student*, telling this student that the question is asking for a definition, only to be asked, “So it a aask mi fi tel dem wa it miin, rait, Sor?”

I have had to hold my tongue and do my work, serving and helping in the small way that I can. It often feels like I have become more than just an interpreter and advocate for the Deaf, but also for the Jamaican Patois-speaker.

And I have begun to wonder if the people who sit down and write these text books in these sweetly structured English that even I, after graduating with distinction in CXC English Language and Literature, and an honours degree in Literatures in English, struggle with at times, understand what a hindrance the English language can be to education in Jamaica.

You give students the tools they need to succeed, but the tools are too big, or too small, or the grip is poor so they keep slipping out of their hands. So, if they fail, who is to blame? Right now, English is not the nation-wide mastered language that our educational policies seem to pretend it is.

We have to ask ourselves: Do we want our students to develop the skills and certification to make something of themselves in this failing economy, in these hard times? In many cases, mastery of English is not necessary for that. There are many hard-working Jamaicans with various skills and talents who are supporting their families even though that have little English competence. I think those in the education field have a responsibility to ensure that others like them can succeed as well.

But don’t get me wrong; it’s not something that can be done without effort. The standard way of writing Patois is not yet widespread, and until it is, not many people will not feel comfortable putting Patois on official documents (including text books and exam papers), and so bilingual educational material would take a while to catch on. Recording someone signing the information a textbook, or exam questions for Deaf students is no simple task compared to simply typing it out on paper and printing it.

I’m sorry to say, I don’t know exactly how this can be effectively carried out to ensure language equality of us in this country. It would take a concerted effort, with stakeholders coming together to ensure things go smoothly.

And, even after all this, I still don’t think I know how to express my thoughts on this. But, this post is a start.

*I have trouble saying this term, because Deaf people in Jamaica dislike the term “hearing impaired”… But apparently “visually impaired” is accepted by that community.

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