Last Week’s News: Singapore’s “English Campaign” & The New Zealand EQ
So, I’m starting a few series for my blog (couple weekly and one monthly). I’m trying to organize my thoughts and interests so that I don’t feel overwhelmed with what to write, and I’m also trying to be consistent with blogging. O, the random post will still happen because truthfully I’m not fond of too much structure; it chafes me. Every so often I need to bust out and just be, but for the purposes of growing this blog and providing me with a manageable outlet I’m hoping that these series will be helpful. I’m such a conundrum.
This first series is Last Week’s News. I’ll blog about 2 or 3 news stories from the previous week – some obscure, some topical but always interesting & significant to me – and give my thoughts on them. There’s a bit of sarcasm here too because we tend to have a short attention span with the news these days…what happened last week or last month shouldn’t disappear from our consciousness with a snap. Expect Jamaica and my US life (that’s what I’m calling it now…and I’m not being ungrateful) to feature prominently.
Last week two articles caught my attention: one about Singapore’s “English Campaign” and another about the earthquake in New Zealand. Both got me thinking about some issues that affect Jamaica: language, the importance & prominence of patois (pronounced pat-wah; aka Jamaican creole), poverty, governance, and EQ preparedness.
The Singapore government has launched a campaign to encourage its citizens to speak English better. Jamaica is often referred to in the same breath as Singapore. Compare: two countries that were once at the same economic level; contrast: the very different paths they’ve taken and the current state of the countries. Singapore is widely considered to be a success in terms of its economy and general respect for law and order. In fact just this past weekend two people in my timeline – @brukins and @DLee876 had a brief exchange about Singapore and Jamaica. (I am planning to read that book because I’m danged curious about how they’ve achieved what they have.) Plus, anyone’s who’s listened to Mutty Perkins’ radio program has undoubtedly heard him extol the virtues of Singapore and strongly recommend that Jamaica adopt its methods. So…is this “English Campaign” something that Jamaica should consider?
Apparently Singapore wants its citizens to improve their English fluency for pragmatic reasons. It notes that
[w]e use English because we are a multi-lingual, multi-racial society – and English is the neutral language that enables all of us to communicate with each other. We also use English because Singapore is a small and open city, and we need to be relevant to the world – to provide goods and services; and to trade with all corners of the globe. English is the most common second language in the world.
[i]f we appreciate why we use English, then the answer to the second question becomes obvious. We have to use “Good English” in order to communicate with others, to make sure we are understood, and we understand others.
Simply put: speaking English is good for business in Singapore. It’s the language in which much of the world’s business transactions are conducted (but who knows, that could soon be Mandarin or Spanish) and Singapore wants to ensure that its citizens have the competitive advantage to be able to provide goods and services. I can’t say I blame ‘em.
I love patois. I use it frequently. It is a colourful language that allows me to say precisely what I mean in a succinct and sometimes pungent way. I use it to discombobulate people. I use it to create a boundary – maybe a wall – for people not to cross but also a comfort zone. In college it was a favourite thing of my friends and I to shout across the cafeteria in patois just to see the looks of confusion (and sometimes a bit of fear) on the faces of those who couldn’t understand. Only the African and Caribbean students could understand us. Bwoy dat was fun. But make no mistake, we all knew how to speak, write, and use proper English. We wrote it well in our lab reports, in our papers, and spoke it well in class. No one was able to look at us and snicker because of an inability to communicate. No one needed marvel, as they did of my grandmother when she lived in England, that I spoke English so well…apparently they expected her to exhibit the the ooh-ooh aah-aah of a chimpanzee or some broken English equivalent that they could happily turn their noses up at and then be able to comfortably ignore her. But she spoke well so she was not ignored; they had to pay attention.
There is often a lively debate in Jamaica about whether patois should be standardized and taught in schools alongside English. I don’t think this is a wise move. Each year we lament poor CXC and CAPE/A-Level pass rates for English…surely this indicates that we have work to do regarding the population’s mastery of English (among other things too, but let’s focus on English for the purposes of this discussion). First, how do we plan to standardize a dialect that is spoken so differently across Jamaica? Seriously, have you heard sumaddy from St. Elizabeth versus St. Ann? Second, shouldn’t we be mastering English first before turning to another language, and why turn to Patois? Who else in the world speaks it? Or would we be doing it just for cultural reasons? How does standardizing and teaching patois help us to participate and compete in the world? How is it good for business?
Make no mistake – I understand, respect, and appreciate the cultural and historical significance of patois. I’m not suggesting we abandon our roots. For me speaking patois is an integral part of being Jamaican; it’s in our essence. But we have to be sensible about the choices we make in 2010 that will affect our country not only in 2010, 2011, and 2012 but also in 2015 and 2020 and 2035….(yes we’re going to make it past 2012 ). We need to give ourselves the best chance of succeeding as a nation and we already have an uphill battle with the current state of governance, poverty, crime, and the economy (local and global). I’m inclined to think that encouraging Jamaicans to learn and master English for their own use and to contribute to us being a competitive nation should be our focus. Believe me, the beauty and comfort of being able to speak and be understood is almost priceless. I firmly believe that going to school is more than just reading, writing, science, and arithmetic; we learn to think as we learn, we learn to analyse. If we want to do this in patois then OK fine but let’s get English down cold first. And I don’t think that focusing on this goal will be at the expense of patois or our cultural heritage. Jamaica has too vibrant a culture for that to happen, and we will forever be expressing ourselves via means that use patois: reggae, dancehall, roots plays, poetry. We need not be one-dimensional with how we present ourselves to and interact with the world. We should not intentionally make ourselves easily ignored or invisible.
Now the earthquake in New Zealand. Its magnitude was about that of the devastating January 12, 2010 EQ that demolished much of Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince. Haiti is still recovering – a lot of rubble hasn’t been cleared, homes have not been rebuilt and many citizens live in shelters even as hurricanes gallop across the Atlantic with alarming frequency – and a lot of the aid money promised is lost in the ether. But that’s another blog post.
New Zealand in comparison had mainly structural damage, and even then it seems very minor when compared to Haiti or even Chile. The ever eloquent @bigblackberry tweeted soon after the New Zealand EQ struck noting that in contrast to Haiti, New Zealand had suffered far less damage and to date no loss of life, versus the estimated 300,000 people died as a result of the Haiti EQ. He then went on a familiar rant about Haiti simply being salt (patwah for “very very bad luck”). O dear. I engaged him (knowing full well that this was merely his schtick) to note that really it was really a problem of poverty and poor governance. Then I came across the NY Times blog post noted above that said basically the same thing.
Poverty led to a mass of poor, mostly unskilled centred in what they consider the only place in their country capable of providing a means of income. Poverty and poor governance led to buildings that did not comply with (presumably) the building and zoning codes that exist. Poverty – money and thinking and ideas – caused a focus on the here and now and not on the long-term; poverty means simply trying to survive by any means necessary. And no, I’m not just describing what I strongly believe to be the situation in Haiti. Doesn’t that sound like Kingston, the pull it exerts, and life there?
Particularly striking in the NYT blog post and related to the issue of governance is EQ preparedness and institutional memory (loosely). Kit Miyamoto notes that
We found that New Zealand was prepared for this earthquake by engineering capacity, code, and emergency response. It is definitely advantageous to have frequent earthquakes. It makes the society aware of the risk. It makes the construction and engineering practice better. On the other hand, the last major earthquake in Port au Prince was in the mid 1700’s. Society forgot about the earthquake risk and was not prepared for it. Many so called engineered structures also collapsed because there were no earthquake resistive system. We saw the same thing in Sichuan, China in 2008. They thought they were immune from the earthquakes.
The devastation in Haiti compared with the lack thereof in New Zealand has nothing to do with luck. It was to do with basic preparation. Not just EQ drills. Haiti was not prepared whether from an economic, social, or engineering standpoint. Guess what? Neither is Jamaica. Before January 12, 2010 the last major EQ to hit Haiti was in the 1700s. The last major EQ to hit Jamaica I believe was in the 1600s and it sunk Port Royal. Part of the Palisadoes spit is beneath the Caribbean Sea. Yet Port Royal is now merely a tourist attraction and a lyming spot; a place we go eat fish and giggle in the giddy house.
We simply have no physical or institutional memory of the kind of utter devastation that awaits us if a Haiti- or NZ-magnitude EQ strikes us. We lack the effective governance structure to ensure that we are building and acting in a responsible manner. This is dangerous. At least we remember Gilbert and the recent brushes we’ve had with Ivan and his family. We know what hurricanes can do yet we still suffer…and they come with much warning. EQ’s give no such warning and time for immediate preparation. I think most Jamaicans have even forgotten the suffering being experienced by its eastern neighbour!
I would hope that the Office of Disaster Preparedness along with the parish councils and agencies responsible for enforcing the island’s zoning laws would have awoken from their slumber to get Jamaica’s buildings in order. They need to be considering the human, economic (including insurance costs and coverage), and social costs of a devastating EQ and begin acting to mitigate them. Maybe we need to feel a shake or two more frequently to mobilize ourselves into action.