Friday, August 31, 2012

The future for Caribbean children's books. Part 2. Reading and the English Language


The Olympics have come and gone and we had a great celebration!  We also celebrated our 50th year of Independence. That the two coincided was indeed wonderful. We are now back to real life, which includes CXC English results. These have been disappointing and there has been:

1.       a call (from more than one quarter) for children to do more reading. Is this real or, as usual, just lip service?

2.       the identification of culprits,  one being texting (as if that will go away any time soon, or ever?), and more importantly, the Creole or patois;

3.       therefore, the need to teach English as a second language,

4.       the bold suggestion, in even stronger terms than usual, of teaching children in Creole, including higher order thinking skills.

Although I’m not a linguist, merely a writer and reader, I am always a little concerned by the fact that the persons who are most strident in this demand for teaching in Creole are wonderful communicators in English; others seem to share my concern (lots of letters to the Editor). I wonder if the academics have really tried out this approach scientifically with a longitudinal study. (Of course, they have). I wonder if they are condemning people to a life they themselves have not ever had to fear living. Of course, it could be said that I do not understand. I could be accused of all sorts of ‘bad-mind-colonial’ thoughts, for  not recognizing the integrity of the speech of the vast majority of my people.  I use Creole, far more than I used to  ( although my children assure me that my accent is totally incorrect, as a result of being  in school for part of the colonial period).  The recent visit of the Barbados contingent resulted in a request for me to  speak less Creole and more English to the grandchildren. I believe they may have to speak English there. ( You know, that little island with a dollar that is 2 to 1 and a literacy rate of 99.+% ).

However, all I want my people to be able to do is to take advantage of the opportunities that being fluent in English will afford them. That is what I want. I use Creole but I can also use English. I want for my people no less than I want or have for myself.  English does not need to be seen as the language of colonialism, the language of the oppressor. It needs to be seen as the language of opportunity in a world where it is the language of commerce, etc. Then we can also learn,  Spanish, French,  Mandarin , etc.

One of the easiest ways I found when I was in school to gain fluency in the English language was to read, and read, and read.  Is this too simple for this generation of our people?  Just try it, nuh!

So that brings me to  the  reading of local children’s books. Breakthrough at last! However I fear that my lovely confused post colonial people, will decide that if we are going to read more children’s books, we should consume those produced by the Americans and British over those produced by Caribbean people. Why?  

We who can win Olympics and have a music hero, whose name echoes down through the ages, can we not also believe in ourselves when it comes to children’s stories, the imaginary life and identity of our children? In this the fiftieth year of Independence for Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, can we not believe in ourselves?  This call for children to read more should lead to schools and libraries scurrying hither and thither looking for Jamaican and Caribbean children’s books, finding sponsors to buy them for their libraries if they do not have the funds themselves. Ah, but  will we who would do away with all vestiges of colonialism,  hurry , scurry to buy all foreign books, and only timidly approach local books, if at all?  Perhaps this is so throughout the region.  Perhaps you can tell me. What is the future for Caribbean children’s books?


  1. Another thought provoking post, Diane. A colleague of mine, Philip Clarke, at Montego Bay Comm Coll did some research with students, who are otherwise intelligent, into reasons why they failed CSEC English. The perception of English as the language of the coloniser and oppressor was high on the list. How do we change that? I think it would help if children were made aware of the 2-language situation from when they start basic school, explaining what each is used for, without implying that one is inferior to the other. I have lots more thoughts on this which I need to pull together.

  2. I think you've answered your own question Diane, if you don't valorize the local yourself (the suggestion that somehow speaking or learning in Patwa will undermine the acquisition of English and that the two are mutually exclusive where learing is concerned)...why shouldn't locals go to those who actually own the English language for books for their children? why would they imagine that Jamaicans might write an English book better?

    And incidentally what the linguists and many of us are arguing for is recognition that Jamaica is a bilingual society, no one is arguing that English not be taught. in fact this whole debate stems from the acknowledgment that too many Jamaicans are failing to learn English. The linguists say this is because their first language is not being recognized appropriately, it is assumed their first language is English and therefore they are not being taught the fundamentals of English because it is assumed that they know it already. You say children should learn English by reading can they do that if they don't know how to read English?

    Finally please note that 'we' who are Olympic heroes and musical heroes are primarily Patwa speakers NOT English speakers. this didn't prevent them from going out and conquering the world, something Jamaiacans English-speakers have yet to do...

    In the matter of language I think we should be informed by research linguists have undertaken. There is an excellent article by the current head of linguistics, Silvia Kouenberg titled Linguistics in the Caribbean: Empowerment through Creole Awareness. I recommend it highly.

  3. Actually, Annie, I think the various articles in the newspapers on Creole and Enlish Language are making the matter clearer. The thing is, one doesn't want to remove Creole (which we all speak), from our lives, but we do need to be able to use English to get on in the world. Most people will not be great musicians/entertainers or track stars, but they can utilise the English Language for other jobs which require it, especially if they have to interact with people outside of Jamaica, or if they migrate, and regretfully we can't all stay here. Island people migrate. We do have outstanding writers, so people other than entertainers and athletes have made thir mark, and they show that English and Creole can live and breathe in their work (together). Creole speakers attest to the value of reading in their youth in their mastery of the English Langauge, and if the reading habit is instilled in the early years then it will be invaluable; which brings us to children's literature, which we seem not to value. Studies indicate that the 'child reader searches for himself/herself in the pages of a book (particularly fiction) for self validation'. However you bring up a point which I've often wondered about, and that is: "Is our own life so 'foreign' to us that we cannot read baout it?" Reading then belongs to another world, America, the UK, which we are still striving to be a part of emotionally." Merle Hodge's "Crick Crack Monkey" clearly articulates this in one section. One hopes that by encouraging the use of local/Caribbean children's literature, we can find our own world. Welcome to this discussion on children's literature, Annie. I'd love us to be able to have a seminar on this. Who knows, maybe we will.

  4. It is with some trepidation that I decided to add my comment to this blog. With trepidation, because discussions about language and its value to individuals and to the communities that they form are often so emotionally charged that the opinions of linguists such as myself matter little. Nevertheless, let me try to insert some rational considerations into the exchange.
    The first is that the most basic insight of pedagogy is that learning is incremental, and must therefore build on what is already known. It is on this basis that we recognize that the acquisition of a second language in a formal educational setting must proceed on the basis of meta-knowledge of the first language: stuff like the ability to distinguish different parts of speech, to recognize different sentences types, etc. That meta-knowledge needs to be taught, and it is really neither here nor there which is the first language in which it is taught: Dutch (as in my case) and Patwa (as in the case of the majority of Jamaican children entering primary school) are equally good for this purpose.
    The second observation that I would like to contribute is that the current approach to the teaching of English in Jamaican schools is not only unsuccessful, but frequently succeeds in producing adults who are utterly convinced that they lack the ability to learn English - the result of years of invalidation of the linguistic knowledge which they brought to their schooling, and years of being made to feel that what they managed to learn of English despite the lack of proper teaching of the language, was never good enough.
    Some of my graduates are teachers, and achieve small miracles in their classrooms by validating the first language of their students and recognizing that English has to be taught as a second language. But they are too few to make the sea change in education that we want. The responsibility for that project lies with the Ministry of Education, which needs to recognize that Jamaica is a bilingual society, and that its children deserve a bilingual education.

  5. Here we go again! An argument to use Creole to allow Creole-speaking children to learn English better turns into a gratuitous disquisition on the virtues of English. Diane I'm well aware of the advantages of English. The point is as Silvia who is head of the Linguistics Dept at UWI just outlined that too many Jamaican children are NOT competent in English as we know only too well at UWI because we deal with the consequences of this. The point is not about 'not removing creole from our lives' it is about not devalorizing it at school and in the minds of those for whom it is a first language! This in effect is what is being done when you constantly keep comparing it negatively with English, insisting it has no use in the contemporary world, that it's broken English etc etc none of which incidentally is true. I didn't learn English at the expense of the two Indian languages which happen to be my mother tongue and national tongue respectively. Why must Jamaican children learn English at the expense of Patwa?! that is the question--

  6. Well technology has bested me again. By mistake I deleted Diana's comment, which was a good one, and now I cannot get it back on. Then I tried to change something in my latest one (which I had spent some time on and I thought led us to an understanding) and lost it. What a something! Tchu! Can't stay with this any longer. Have to do something else now. Thanks to all of you for contributing.