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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Squandering Resources On Reggae Poetry

In response to last week’s post,  ‘Passive resistance at UWI, Mona’, which was also was published in the Jamaica Gleaner, a disdainful reader who goes by the name of ‘Pauline Principle’ took a rather unprincipled position: “I am shocked that in these hard times, scarce resources are being squandered on a reggae poetry class that will bring zero value to the job market. UWI needs to review their courses before they become irrelevant. Those who want a reggae poetry class should be allowed to do this at a community centre or at an evening course but not with the aid of taxpayers’ dollars.”

Ms Principle does not appear to understand the principle that knowledge of one’s own history and culture has intrinsic value. And she seems to conceive the job market in rather limited terms. It’s singular, not plural. The diversity of opportunities in the creative/cultural industries completely escapes her. Ms Principle clearly has a very old-fashioned view of culture. It’s something you do as a hobby. Culture couldn’t possibly be serious business.

Five years ago, the Reggae Studies Unit at the University of the West Indies, Mona, introduced an undergraduate degree programme in entertainment and cultural enterprise management (ECEM). It was the brainchild of Kam-Au Amen, the very first graduate in cultural studies at UWI. As coordinator of the Reggae Studies Unit, I negotiated for institutional support to get the programme approved.

The ECEM degree is now the second most popular one in the Faculty of Humanities and Education, right behind Media and Communication. Unlike Ms Principle, enterprising students know that they can design jobs for themselves in the creative/cultural industries. They don’t have to sit and wait to see what the job market may or may not throw their way.

Humanities serve no purpose?

It’s feedback like Ms Principle’s that makes me wonder if I should really be spending time and energy week after week writing this column. Instead, I could be working on another book (on reggae) that would be appreciated by those of us who value intellectual enquiry in the humanities. All the same, I have to admit that supportive readers usually take up the fight against my detractors with great passion. I don’t have to get into the fray.

‘Jacandood’ made an excellent point: “Pauline, I am wondering why you choose to undermine the value of the Reggae Poetry class. I bet you don’t feel the same way about Shakespeare being taught at the university.” ‘Jacandood’ knows that courses in the humanities, such as music and art, are usually required in many undergraduate degree programmes. As he put it, “The purpose of tertiary education is to mould rounded individuals.”

Carlton Reynolds, who thoroughly enjoys abusing me, couldn’t resist counter-attacking ‘Jacandood’: “These ‘humanities’ are reserved for people who want to make up credits … usually serves no other purpose … you dare to compare Shakespeare to those reggae lyricists! If Prof is using the reggae lyrics to teach how not to write, then that would be a good thing!”

All I could do was laugh. If only Mr Reynolds knew! Shakespeare, in his time, would not have been on the curriculum of any self-respecting university in England. Latin, not English, was the language of instruction. Shakespeare’s plays were not written for academics but for fun. Full of sex and violence, the plays had mass appeal; just like the lyrics of our dancehall DJs. Translated into modern English, the ‘vulgar’ language of many of Shakespeare’s plays wouldn’t make it past the censors at our Broadcasting Commission.

9781578063208Contempt for our own culture is at the root of our collective failure to engage in serious academic work on reggae. Most of the influential books on reggae have been written by non-Jamaicans. The author of one of the textbooks for my Reggae Poetry course is Swami Anand Prahlad, a professor of English at the University of Missouri. It’s calledReggae Wisdom: Proverbs in Jamaican Music.

Don’t be fooled by his name as I was. Professor Prahlad is African-American. His great-grandmother was among the first generation of freeborn blacks. He fell in love with the proverbs he was taught as a child. Eventually, he found his way to Jamaican culture. Making connections across the African diaspora is a recurring theme in his scholarly work.

Journey to Jah

Liberty Hall, Kingston

Most of the films and documentaries on reggae and dancehall are also produced by non-Jamaicans. They see value where we don’t. Last Thursday, Liberty Hall hosted a panel discussion for a feature documentary, Journey to Jah, by two German filmmakers, Noël Dernesch and Moritz Springer. The main speakers were the German reggae singer Gentleman; the Italian reggae singer Alborosie, who made sure to tell the lively audience that he has a Jamaican passport; and Terry Lynn, a brilliant poet and techno reggae singer from Waterhouse, who has made it big in Europe.

Each artiste told an arresting story of how they crossed cultural borders to find their creative inspiration. For me, the most powerful speaker was Terry Lynn. Rejecting the role of sex symbol, she made the decision early in her career to not be trapped in stereotypes. Even though she loves dancehall, she didn’t want to be stuck on the same ‘riddim’ every aspiring DJ has to ride. So she liberated herself to explore the techno scene. The title track of her first album, Kingstonlogic, is a brilliant take on Daft Punk’s Technologic.

All the same, things are picking up for ‘local’ writing on reggae. The Calabash International Literary Festival is on next weekend, branded Jubilation! 50. It’s still a secret if the festival is back for good. The opening session on Friday night, ‘Music is My Passion’, features four authors of books on reggae. Two are Jamaican, one has Jamaican roots, the other is an adopted Jamaican. Reggae scholarship is coming back home.

http://www.calabashfestival.org/2012/index.html