I started writing this post over three years ago during one of our perennial debates on the Jamaican language—to speak or not to speak? For some reason, I never published it, until now, three years later, when said perennial debate is once again in the fore. Now is a good a time as any to share my thoughts, what with advocates petitioning the Prime Minister, the Most Hon. Andrew Holness, to Make Jamaican Official.
Just to add some context, I wrote the following five paragraphs whilst living in, and teaching English, in Japan. The subsequent paragraphs reflect the debate that has been ongoing over the past month or so.
Non-Jamaicans have had it right all along. They always say, “So, do you speak Jamaican?” and as an English teacher in a foreign country, my response was that English is the official language in Jamaica, and then I would answer the question. My reason is that many of these persons are genuinely not aware that Jamaicans speak English, so their question is somewhat nuanced and seems to imply: “You don’t speak English, so how are you here teaching English?” Or maybe I’m a bit defensive, who knows? So after I get the ‘English is the official language’ spiel out of the way, I usually inform persons that, while English is the official language, we do however have an oral language that is the first language learned by many Jamaicans.
I think that many of us Jamaicans have this defensiveness regarding our mother tongue when we go abroad. It comes off when persons ask what language we speak because we think “English, duh!” As innocent as this question may be – or not – I think our responses are rooted in social and cultural lessons we’ve learnt while growing up. You see, we were taught that we must speak ‘properly’ – meaning English – and I concur. One should aspire to master any language s/he speaks. But we were also taught that our mother tongue is ‘bad talking’, even when such an admonition is done in said mother tongue: “wat a pikni chat bad!”
English and Jamaican were never allowed to occupy the same space of social acceptance even though a large number of Jamaicans mainly speak Jamaican and have not mastered the English language. And for many, particularly those from the lower strata of the society, it’s not necessarily for lack of trying, but that for the early years before entering the public school system, they speak only Jamaican. They then enter a school system where English is thrust upon them, sometimes with limited support from a home where English is not the main language spoken, and are expected to grasp it like magic.
Compounding the challenge for such Jamaicans is the fact that instruction of all other subjects is also in English. So chances are, if a child struggles with English in their early years and doesn’t grasp it at his/her level, there’s a high probability that s/he also struggles with other subjects requiring a lot of reading and comprehension. Those children will surely fall behind and struggle to keep up if there isn’t some form of intervention. So why isn’t there an overhaul of the system such that it provides an inclusive learning environment for speakers of the Jamaican language? If you pose this question to many Jamaicans, the first response might be that Jamaican is still just an oral language, so it’s not standardised. Another common response is that it’s not necessary.
Actually, there is a standard known as the Cassidy/LePage Writing System (named after the linguists behind its development), which sets out the orthography of the Jamaican language. This standard is now being mainstreamed, however, there are many who don’t see the importance of mainstreaming the standardised learning of the language. But how can we not when the current system is failing many of our students? Perhaps it’s easy to blame teachers after they are given baskets to carry water.
Now, the debate has started again, as perennial debates do.
I see a lot of persons advocating against the Jamaican language in favour of English, when, it was never stated that Jamaican would replace English. “Make Jamaican official” is not synonymous with “do away with English.” Both languages can co-exist—both languages do co-exist. However, Jamaican is seen as a bastard—just a dialect—when it is not simply a dialect.
Many countries around the world recognise multiple languages, and their citizens do not suffer because of it; in fact, they thrive. English is not under threat, except by those who massacre the language whenever they attempt to speak or write it. Interestingly, I have observed that some of these very English-defenders are the ones guilty of committing the most grave assaults against the English language, advocating for it whilst being incapable of constructing a proper English sentence.
Perhaps the reason many can’t use grammatically correct English, or spell English words correctly for that matter, is because English is not their mother language, and they attempt to learn and speak the language through their mother language, which is Jamaican. Perhaps the reason for the contempt felt as it concerns the Jamaican language is not the language in and of itself, but what it represents. Jamaica, after all, is a very classist society; how you speak is representative of where you are from—that is, the social strata that you belong to.
Relax. We need not shun the Jamaican language for English to thrive or for Jamaicans to actually speak ‘proper’ English. If shunning Jamaican made us more capable of speaking ‘proper’ English, we would all speak the Queen’s English. The fact is that many of us struggle with simple things such as tense (I cringe whenever I see a women). Many have a real challenge distinguishing between homophones (there, their, and they’re), and the Jamaican language is not to blame for these infractions. We should ask ourselves why we struggle with English, and why we fear that making Jamaican official would make us less capable of speaking English. That’s not even possible.
Here’s my challenge to you: do some research on the the University of the West Indies’ Language Unit, and the work that they have been doing, especially on the Bilingual Education Project. Think about how we learn in school and the matter of reading comprehension. Do you think there is room for improvement, and do you think language is at the root of our learning? If you think language is at the root but you think Jamaican is not important, why do you think so?
Some months ago, I was having a conversation with a fellow advocate for the Jamaican language, and we joked that if a white person were to tell Jamaican people that Jamaican is a language, then they would believe. About a few days later, she sent me a YouTube video of a gentleman named Paul speaking about the structure of Jamaican Patois (the Jamaican language). The first thing I did was have a good laugh, because Paul is a white man. Please check out Paul’s video on Langfocus, where he speaks about Jamaican grammar and structure.
The other day, I had to applaud the Jehovah’s Witnesses for being trendsetters in their field. Not only can I rest assured that no matter where in the world I live, a Jehovah’s Witness will come knocking on my door (or gate), but I can also be comforted to know that they took the effort to write their literature in Jamiekan (Jamaican). There’s a video of a Jamaican man who answered his door to speak with Jehovah’s Witnesses and got literature in his mother tongue and was very pleased (see video). There is also a Jamiekan Nyuu Testiment (Jamaican New Testament), which is quite entertaining to read. Just knowing that one can read stories in their own language warms the heart.
Nong, mek mi spiiki spuoki chat bad: My fellow Jumiekans, jos kansida wa mi a se. Duo nak it til yu chrai it. Tingk bout i likl bit an mek wi riizn bout i.
(Now, I’m going to mix a little bit of English with Jamaican: my fellow Jamaicans, don’t dismiss what I’m saying without first considering it. Think about it a little and let’s discuss it.)
The Jamaica language is indeed official since it is spoken by the masses in our country. Even those frown on the language here in our island understand it quite well. It is steeped in our heritage and certainly levels the playing field for those who struggle with the English language. I’ve had to incorporate it in my lessons in the past just to get students to understand the content. I even went out and bought a patois dictionary to learn more about some of the words in our colourful language. There’s no need to be ashamed of our culture.
You have made some really good points and I agree wholeheartedly that we should stop scoffing at our patois (patwa) and embrace it for it is uniquely Jamaican and has it’s place in our culture and provides a great channel for everyone to express themselves without having to put on airs. I like the way you highlighted the fact that just because the language should be official doesn’t mean it will replace the English language which is necessary to communicate with others in the wider society. It’s about time we stop talking about this issue and do something about it that will benefit everyone in our society.