Time for Jamaican Language Day

On Easter Monday, I went to a party for one of my friends who recently retired from banking. There was a very high concentration of former NCB managers. They exchanged entertaining stories about the early days when black people started to break through the glass ceiling of upper management at the old imperial Barclays Bank.

After much liquor had flowed, one of the men cornered me. This was not a sexual advance. It was purely academic. He wanted to discuss a subject on which he was sure we disagreed. I knew what was coming. Sure enough, he wanted to know why I was against Jamaican children learning English; and why I was proposing that Patwa be used as a language of instruction in school. He proudly told me that his daughter was fluent in several languages and was teaching English in Japan. He even phoned her and we had a quick chat.

I asked my interrogator why he thought I didn’t want Jamaican children to learn English. He couldn’t give a straight answer. He vaguely said that’s what he’d picked up from the media. And he simply didn’t understand my position, especially since he knew I had a PhD in English. As far as he was concerned, I was either wicked or mad. Wicked because I was selfishly knocking down the ladder I had climbed. I didn’t want others to get the opportunities I’d had. Or I was mad because I wanted to lock Jamaican children out of the world of English, a global language, and imprison them in a local language, Jamaican.

WASTE OF TIME

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The fact that I’ve been teaching English for more than 40 years didn’t matter. So I patiently explained that I actually do want all Jamaican children to learn English. And other languages as well! I also want them to learn the differences between English and Jamaican. And that’s where the trouble starts.

For many educated Jamaicans, Patwa is not a language. It’s nothing but ‘broken’ English. Calling this non-language ‘Jamaican’ is pure foolishness. Teaching children the differences between Jamaican and English is a waste of time. Just focus on teaching them English! Forget about their home language! That’s how we’ve been teaching English for decades and it certainly has not been working. There are many tertiary-level students who are not competent in English.

Shouldn’t we be trying other methods if we really want all of our children to learn English? A few years ago, I taught a basic English course for staff at one of our commercial banks. I carefully pointed out differences between the grammar of English and Jamaican. At the end of one of the classes, an attentive man asked, “Why nobody never teach us like this before?” Perhaps, because the Ministry of Education is satisfied with the status quo.

HIT OR MISS

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Last Sunday, a group of us went to Cable Hut Beach. It’s no Pearly Beach. The sand is black, like the patrons. And it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg to get in: only $200 for adults and $100 for children. The property is being refurbished and the restaurant building is not completed. It’s a beautiful, grand hut with a magnificent view out to sea.

So we went to Corn Shop at Nine Miles where we got delicious roast fish and sprat. I am not putting no ‘ed’ on ‘roast’. It’s Jamaican! As we were ordering our food, a nice gentleman started up a conversation. Same story: Why aren’t Jamaican children learning English these days? Is it because of all this emphasis on Patwa?

He learned English the painful way. English grammar was drilled into him. For many Jamaicans of a certain age, John Nesfield’s Manual of English Grammar and Composition, first published in London in 1898, was the bible that opened the pearly gates into high society. It was widely used both in England and the colonies.

Things and times have certainly changed. Even in England, there are now huge debates about the effectiveness of teaching old-school grammar. One of the problems is that many teachers of English there have not learned the grammar of the language in a systematic way. So their teaching is hit or miss.

Most of our primary-school English teachers have an even harder time. English is their second language, not their first. They don’t know it intuitively. And many of them have not been efficiently taught the structure of English. Their teaching of the language is more miss than hit. And we’re surprised that students are not learning English.

CULTURAL DIVERSITY

Celebrating-Language-UN-English-Language-DayLast Sunday, April 23, was United Nations (UN) English Language Day. The UN website states that Language Days were established in 2010 “to celebrate multilingualism and cultural diversity, as well as to promote equal use of all six official languages”. These are, in alphabetical order, Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish.

April 23 was chosen for English because it’s both the birthday and deathday of William Shakespeare, England’s most celebrated dramatist. Conspiracy theorists claim that he didn’t write all those plays. All the same, these long-lasting literary works demonstrate the beauty and power of the English language.

Every country has its own great writers. In the spirit of cultural diversity, let’s make September 7 Jamaican Language Day. It’s Louise Bennett-Coverley’s birthday. As she would say, “Every dog got im day an every puss im 4 o’clock.”

From Stony Gut To Big Gut

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Michael ‘Freestylee’ Thompson poster

August 12 was the 150th anniversary of Paul Bogle’s long march from Stony Gut to Spanish Town. Forty-five miles! Bogle led a delegation to King’s House, located then in the Old Capital. He wanted to meet with Governor Eyre to make his case on behalf of the suffering people of St Thomas. It was a mere 31 years after the declaration of Emancipation. And the legacy of enslavement was bitter.

Black people were free in theory. But, in fact, we were still imprisoned in the old, exploitative colonial system. Whites firmly held on to power, manipulating politics to suit themselves. Blacks could vote; but only if we could afford to pay the criminally high poll tax. In the 1864 elections, not even 2,000 of the 436,000 black people could afford to vote!

Nature also conspired against poor people. Cholera and smallpox ravaged Jamaica. In 1865, the effects of a two-year drought made matters worse. Work became scarce as several plantations went bankrupt. Economic prospects for black people were grim. There were rumours that we were going to be enslaved again.

I suppose Paul Bogle wished to discuss all of this with the governor. But Eyre refused to see him. He was a man with a very hard heart and too much power. Eyre’s father was a clergyman, which just goes to show that a religious upbringing is no guarantee of basic decency.

Eyre became governor of Jamaica in 1862 and seems to have had nothing but contempt for the ‘natives’. George William Gordon, a brown Jamaican who defended the rights of the black majority, enraged Eyre with his outspoken condemnation of the governor’s racist policies.

‘ADDING PRUDENCE TO INDUSTRY’

Before Bogle tried to meet with Eyre, a group of concerned citizens from St Ann had sent a letter to Queen Victoria, routed through the governor. They wanted to rent Crown lands at an affordable cost. Missis Queen sent a malicious response. Eyre gleefully made 50,000 copies, which he distributed far and wide. It was even read in church.

evil_smiley_face_round_stickers-ra5e82c3af3944768995f28c88eb804a7_v9waf_8byvr_324Here’s an excerpt: “… The prosperity of the Labouring Classes, as well as of all other classes, depends, in Jamaica, and in other Countries, upon their working for Wages, not uncertainly, or capriciously, but steadily and continuously, at the times when their labour is wanted, and for so long as it is wanted; and if they would use this industry, and thereby¬†render the Plantations productive, they would enable the Planters to pay them higher Wages for the same hours of work than are received by the best Field Labourers in this country; and as the cost of the necessaries of life is much less in Jamaica than it is here, they would be enabled, by adding prudence to industry to lay by an ample provision for seasons of drought and dearth; and they may be assured, that it is from their own industry and prudence, in availing themselves of the means of prospering that are before them, and not from any such schemes as have been suggested to them, that they must look for an improvement in their condition; and that her Majesty will regard with interest and satisfaction their advancement through their own merits and efforts.”

In other words: Unu fi work out unu soul case fi next to nutten; an gwaan tek di lickle monkey money weh di planter dem a pay; so di planter dem can mek plenty money an gi unu back lickle bit. An unu fi band unu belly an save some a di lickle money fi when trouble tek unu; because tings inna Jamaica no cost so much like inna England; an stop bodder-bodder mi bout gi unu Crown land fi rent. An mi wi well glad fi see how unu a go mek it pon unu own.

GUT GUIDELINES

Fast-forward to the 21st century and this sounds a lot like what Mme Christine Lagarde might say to Minister Peter Phillips if im was to lost im pass go aks her fi gi wi a ease up wid di whole heap a money wi owe IMF. Austerity is the name of the game.

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Sir Patrick greets St. Thomas delegation. From left are Professor Neville Ying, Dorette Abrahams, Norma Brown-Bell, Loriann Peart-Roberts, and Mayor of Morant Bay Ludlow Mathison.

Paul Bogle died for the cause of black empowerment. So did George William Gordon. How many of our politicians today, whether PNP or JLP, would put their lives on the line for their constituency? How many would walk 45 miles to make a case on our behalf? How many of them could walk 45 miles? Or even 4.5 miles?

Quite a few of our politicians are so fat they just couldn’t make it. They are living high on the hog. Throw mi corn, mi no call no fowl. I think we should establish gut guidelines for politicians. Beyond a certain size, they would just lose the work. By the way, the gut in Stony Gut is not the same as big gut. The first is a narrow passage; the second is a huge channel.

On the anniversary of Bogle’s march, our present governor general, Sir Patrick Allen, met with a delegation from St Thomas. He couldn’t make up for Eyre’s wickedness in both failing to listen to Bogle’s appeal and brutally suppressing the Morant Bay Rebellion. But Sir Patrick did admit that the parish has long been neglected. Even now! And that took guts.