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.”

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