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.

and that

[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.

14 Responses to “Last Week’s News: Singapore’s “English Campaign” & The New Zealand EQ”
  1. Kaydia Salmon says:

    First of all yuh too lazie, yuh put di two tapik inna one blag…anyway I see how both issues concern you with regards to our little island. Now where was I? To teach patois in schools is a waste of time, money and Jamaican brain cells, it is understood and spoken here. All a di pikni dem know all a di Kartel and Movado tune dem which are in Patois. I recall on the Ity and Fancy Cat show where, on the Curious Cat segment, Cat asked randomly picked Jamaicans on the street to sing “Mi life soon sort out” in English, and there was not a difference (funny like hell) other than trying to sound like how we say here as “speaky spoky” or “twanging”. So many of us here see English not as a Language but as an accent, tone of voice or just a way of speaking properly.
    Secondly,if an earthquake of a similar magnitude like that of Haiti’s hits Jamaica,l I believe we’ll manage much better because at least most of all our major buildings (domestic and commercial) are constructed with steel beams. We have done a lot of drills in schools and offices, but I believe no one can ever really and truly be prepared for major disasters, especially if they are not educated in making preparations and if, let’s say, please God forbid, the Mother of All Earthquakes should occur.

    • I agree re: patois, as you probably guessed. Teaching patois would not be a good use of our resources.

      On EQ’s we disagree a little. I agree that many of our buildings are constructed of concrete and steel but notice you said “major buildings.” What about the ordinary home -consider all those homes in Portmore, for example? Are the designs of the buildings safe and approved? And are we building in areas not susceptible to land slides and other events that can occur after an EQ? Your comment leads me to consider the quality of our building materials…some years ago there was an issue with cement; have we addressed that issue properly to ensure that faulty cement doesn’t get on the market again? Same for blocks and other items made from the cement. These are questions for you engineers but they have consequences for all of us.
      So generally, yes, I think we won’t have as much death as Haiti had but I think it can still be a significant number and it worries me that we seem to be pushing meaningful action aside.

      • RB says:

        Broadly speaking, engineering and construction standards are fairly good. Most buildings are adequately designed. Specifically, the prefab WIHCON units are strong. Most people learnt after Gilbert – hurricane proofing has come a long way.

        Yes, the issue, is with smaller self made units. They all use reinforced concrete – however, the quality of the steelwork and concrete mix varies. Even with the KSAC Mayor’s concerns about structures, I cannot see a comparable level of destruction — unless substantial land areas are eliminated.

        I do concur, the PCs need to enforce the Building and Planning laws. The architects and engineers are there – but, most people avoid them and the attendant costs. How to break the cycle of surviving: squatting on marginal lands; building in high risk areas; hiding from professional fees (they are plenty and add up quickly); ignoring costs associated with getting requisite builduing approvals, and taking shortcuts with build quality?

        It comes back to governance, but that is usually secondary . . .

      • Thanks RB. Avoiding architects, engineers, and the PC’s requirements seems to fit right in with our general mentality eh? What a cycle we have to break. But I am reassured by yours & Kaydia’s confidence in the strength of the structures in Jamaica since I can only rely on my memories of what was and am not as attuned to what is going on now.

  2. DLee876 says:

    I am cracking up at the thought of you and your friends shouting patois across the cafeteria. Why didn’t I think of that? i agree that our focus should be on English (well on education, but mastering English is at the core of that), but I don’t think it has to be at the expense of patois. Sometimes ppl make it seem as if focusing on English means that patois will disappear. It’s a vibrant language and intrinsic part of our culture so it doesn’t need our help to thrive, whereas the standard English does.

    As for the earthquake, God forbid we get one. Disaster preparedness is way down on the list of priorities. Didn’t cha know we must honor our masters at the IMF and the tourists above all else? Only quatty remains for the basic things like education, much less ODPEM 😦

    • Thanks for your comment Dee!

      I agree – patois need not be marginalized. We really need to act now to shore up and improve our education system and human capital. Cannot continue to have such a low skilled and uneducated population (and labour force).

      As for the IMF master — woisah. I understand that we have some serious pressing issues but our short term thinking has gotten us no where! And I’m not even suggesting huge overhauls and measures – that’s not practical or feasible – but incremental steps like checking existing buildings and construction + our homes and frequently used buildings. Then again, do we have the skilled personnel to get this done? *sigh* God forbid we experience any serious disaster now…

  3. CJ says:

    I agree with RB our building codes and standards are more than adequate as it relates to EQ and in most instances hurricanes. In relation to Haiti and the EQ there is more in the mortar than on the pestle. Haiti is a historical political issue – simply put in patios ‘black people caan run out white people and tek ova a hole country and run it’. Isn’t it interesting that the re-building process has been very slow although you have the major aid institutions on the ground in Haiti!

    In relation to Jamaica and Singapore, please don’t get caught up in that hype as again most people focus on the success story and not on the fact that this was achieved under circumstances akin to a dictatorship. Development economics will help to clear that cloud.

    Our patios, luv it bad. I always get some new words when I visit the rock. I agree its ours and its an excellent way of communicating our thoughts. However, we need to be able to understand and speak standard English. Teaching English as a foreign language could be a solution. At college we used a Miss Lou poem for an English class and asked children (in groups of 2) to write a letter to a pen pal in Canada to explain to them what the poem was saying. I have never seen primary school children get busy with an assignment. More creativity perhaps and different ways of teaching English?

    Btw, contrary to what you think, thanks to ODPEM, Jamaica has been doing EQ drills and we know what to do even if we don’t do it. Barbados had a tremor in 2008 and this was the first one for nearly 50 years. It was something else. Most people didn’t know what to do, it was very interesting.

    More anon.

  4. Thanks, CJ 😉 And yes there is much hype surrounding Singapore. BUT some would say that Jamaica needs that firm hand of a dictatorship because we (as a country) simply run amok and have no discipline. Honestly, sometimes I wonder myself how much worse we can get and if we don’t know need someone with a firmer hand to keep us in line…but then my commitment to democracy pinches me and my conscience rears its head. As for development economics: yep it will clear up the fog for me.

    Your example of using patois is brilliant, definitely is in line with what Annie suggests. Kaydia commented on the other post about patois ( that we need to teach English like a real language, and not just a subject to be passed at CXC etc… Different thinking is definitely needed.

    Thanks for your comment, much appreciated!

  5. Yasmine says:

    Hey Cucumberjuice! Very interesting post as usual, I don’t comment but I am reading all the posts and comments and I am SO SO much about JA! Thanks 😀
    Please I need a clarification on “we need to teach English like a real language, and not just a subject to be passed at CXC etc…”. Isn’t it what is already done? I mean English is the language tought in schools right?
    In my country Cameroon, where we are “supposed to be” bilingual, you have Francophones’ and Anglophones’ schools, so in these schools, yes English or French is the additional language but one of the two languages is definitely used to teach and is spoken. Do peolpe just learn English to forget???

  6. You don’t ask easy questions do you? Lol. In Jamaica students are taught in English but are not really taught English, say in the way an English or French Speaker would learn Spanish or German. It’s assumed that one learns it at home and therefore knows it well enough. This really isn’t the case – any longer anyway and for various reasons – because many students primarily speak patwa/patois. In a way that’s their first language. This doesn’t mean that they don’t or can’t understand English, just that it’s not their first language so it’s difficult for them to properly grasp all the subjects being taught in English.

    Based upon what you said about Cameroon it would be like a primarily French speaking child going to school and only being taught in English, instead of being taught in French with English as an additional or second language, or instead of using French to illustrate concepts being taught in English.

    This issue is HUGE in Jamaica + it’s complex, and a very emotional one because of how patois/patwa is viewed by some Jamaicans versus English. Here are some other bloggers’ takes on the issue that may be helpful for you:,, and several from Annie Paul:, I also did a follow up post to this one and it discusses the issue some more:

  7. Yasmine says:

    Sorry for commenting back this late! Here was I thinking my question was quite easy eeh! Thank you very much for the links. I went through them all, learned a lot and I’m surprised and disappointed. I naively thought that Patois and English cohabited peacefully, English being used in school and Patois out of it! It was silly of me to think also that Patois is not THAT different from English as even though I’m a foreigner, via Dancehall, I learned and understood it quickly and easily. To make a long comment short, I was scandalized at the attitude of these people who refused to speak patois when those in front couldn’t understand English! I still have a LOT to learn about JA…

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