Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Teaching English as a Second Language to Jamaican Children

I’m no linguist, so I can’t put forward an academic argument to support the moot that Jamaican patois, or creole, is a separate language from English, but my own experience tells me that it should be treated as such. If I attempted to speak patois, any Jamaican would recognize instantly that I am a not Jamaican by birth.

When I first arrived in Jamaica to teach, I couldn’t understand patois speakers, some of whom took delight in exploiting my ignorance. After about 6 months, I was able to follow some conversations, but I was strongly discouraged from attempting to ‘speak bad’, especially with my students who needed to learn correct English. As patois is difficult to learn and my attempts to speak it were greeted with peals of laughter, I gave up trying. More helpful people pointed to what I should listen for in patois, such as ‘oonu’ for ‘you’ plural, and the use of ‘dem’ after a noun to make it plural.

One of the many Ladybird books available today 
My next patois lessons came when my daughter started school. “She talks such nice English,” said the teacher after her first day. It was the last day she spoke such nice English for a while, but she gradually learnt the usefulness of both forms of communication. I subsequently started my own prep school, where I became fascinated by the process by which children learn to read.

There was no alternative to teaching reading in standard English. I used the Ladybird books and a mix of phonics, whole words and sentences. I made a point of listening to every child reading every day and keeping careful records of their progress. I remember the day when a little boy looked at the words in his book, then the picture and said, “See de bud deh”, when what was written was “Look at the bird.” He had seen the words before and been told what they were, but had translated them.

Today's Ladybird books are more multicultural than in the past

Further patois lessons came when I was teaching communication at Montego Bay Community College. Early in the course came a unit on Jamaica’s two languages, which I confess to not teaching very well. It was not until I retired and started writing stories with dialogue in patois that I felt I needed to know more. For the first story I wrote, I had my daughter correct my patois, but when I sent it to Joanne Johnson, in Trinidad, her first response was ‘Tame the patois.’ When doing an online course at UCLA and subsequently being part of an online critique group, the readers told me they couldn’t understand parts written in patois. It would be pointless to write books with dialogue comprehensible only to Jamaicans, and expect an international readership. As a compromise, I write my dialogue in non-standard English. This lets me off the hook in relation to improving my patois for the purpose of writing dialogue.

So, if patois is a separate language from English, and is the only language spoken by many pre-school children, doesn’t it stand to reason that English is their second language?

In his article ‘Stop demonising Patois -From a semi-lingual to a bilingual Jamaica’ in the Sunday Gleaner, August 26, 2012, Hubert Devonish professor of linguistics and coordinator of the Jamaican Language Unit, UWI, Mona, mentions a project undertaken by that Unit:

“In the Jamaican situation, a fully bilingual or dual-education programme would involve the use of both Jamaican and English as languages of education, in the same roles, side by side. This is what took place in a Ministry of Education-sanctioned Bilingual Education Project run in a Corporate Area primary school between 2004 and 2008 by the Jamaican Language Unit. Textbooks for mathematics, social studies, science and the language arts were translated into Jamaican. These were made available alongside the textbooks written in English….. The pupils learnt to read and write in both languages.” (my italics).

(Does he mean that non-readers were taught to read in both patois and English, or were they first taught to read in patois? I would welcome an opportunity to see material they used to teach reading.)

A fully bilingual programme as designed by Dr. Devonish would involve the preparation of a great deal of material and the training of thousands of teachers, which is not likely to happen any time soon. Furthermore, the suggestion of teaching children in patois has given rise to a flare-up of protest on the talk shows and in the print media.
There are other possible methods of teaching a second language, including ‘complete immersion’ in which all subjects are taught in the second language. There are schools in other countries where all students, who come from different language backgrounds, are taught in one language. In French-speaking parts of Canada, some children, whose home language is English, attend schools where all classes are in French.

What is the difference between this method and what obtains in Jamaican schools, where all classes are taught in standard English? I submit that it is in how children and teachers perceive the home language. The child who speaks only patois may be told he ‘talks bad’. He thinks he is talking the same language as his teacher, but is given the impression that there is something wrong with the way he expresses himself, thus lowering his self-esteem. An English-speaking child in a French-speaking school in Canada would not be given the impression that his mother tongue is inferior. I think from the outset, it should be explained to children that patois is their home language, the language they use to talk to their friends, the language of music lyrics and so on. The school language, English, is another way of expressing ideas, and is the language of books, of business and commerce, of science and engineering and which is spoken by hundreds of millions of people the world over.
Philip Clarke

Philip Clarke, lecturer in Communication Studies at Montego Bay Community College, carried out research into why some students of above average intelligence performed so poorly in CSEC English. He found that there was a link between how students feel and how they learn English – sensing that their home language, patois, was regarded as inferior lowered their self-esteem. He also found that they resented English, which they regarded as the language of the colonialists and oppressors. They saw the use of patois is an act of resistance by dub poets and singers. They regarded English as a subject to be studied rather than means of communication which they needed to master. His remedy for these attitudes was to include patois in his classes and then to focus on teaching them how to communicate effectively and appropriately. He also recommended that strategies be designed so that teachers in a creole-speaking environment can effectively teach students to communicate, be proud of who they are and have a love of learning.

This I feel should be the substance of our discussion on this subject, with the emphasis on how to teach communication, not on whether patois is a separate language from English.

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