More on Patois

Earlier this week and after my post on Singapore & its “English Campaign” I was involved in a twitter conversation with @anniepaul and @bigblackbarry about patois.  The conversation started because of a RT by Annie about Chinese/Mandarin being taught in Indian schools soon.

The article is here.  This brought up a previous twitter conversation about whether or not patois should be taught in Jamaican schools.  For his part, Barry believes that patois has its place and that is outside of the classroom; English should be the national/official language with patois confined to its widely accepted cultural space, a space in which it thrives.

Now, Annie is a strong supporter of patois being recognized as a language in Jamaica (and for children not be punished for using it) though she doesn’t advocate it being the language of formal instruction (something I & @bigblackbarry had misunderstood from that prior conversation).  What Annie does suggest, and which I agree with, is that patois be used as a method or method of instruction (i.e. linking items and concepts in patois to the English equivalent, as Spanish or German are taught).

No, I don’t think that it’s teaching patois in schools.  I think that it could very well be an effective method of teaching Jamaican students how to communicate in English without devaluing patois.  She also raised the valid point that much of the instruction in Jamaican schools is done in English – something that many simply do not understand or even use when they step outside of the very classrooms in which they learn – and therefore puts our students at a disadvantage when learning other subjects (math, science, etc…).  Honestly, this point had not occurred to me before.  I thought of learning to master English more as a means to being able to better communicate and think; to analyze and be able to make informed decision because that ability to communicate and think opens a world of possibilities.  Just as reading a book is more than understanding the words on a page.  But I also know that learning a language is an excellent window into another culture (which is supposedly part of what India is thinking).  Anyway, for whatever reason it did not occur to me that a deficiency in English had a disadvantageous effect on one’s ability to learn Math or science.  Talk about missing the obvious *facepalm*.  More to think about (well, for me anyway :))

Today Annie shared this article: “Does Your Language Shape How You Think?“, which appeared in the New York Times Sunday Magazine a few weeks ago. It’s an excellent read and I highly recommend you take a few minutes to check it out and to absorb its hypothesis. Mr. Deutscher delves into the meat of the article by pondering

the real force of the mother tongue: [and so] if different languages influence our minds in different ways, this is not because of what our language allows us to think but rather because of what it habitually obliges us to think about.

I paused to really consider the implications: my mother tongue, my first language obliges me think about something in a particular way? How? Wow.  It may seem obvious now that I read the article but, hmm, not so much.  Deustcher went on to note that

When your language routinely obliges you to specify certain types of information, it forces you to be attentive to certain details in the world and to certain aspects of experience that speakers of other languages may not be required to think about all the time. And since such habits of speech are cultivated from the earliest age, it is only natural that they can settle into habits of mind that go beyond language itself, affecting your experiences, perceptions, associations, feelings, memories and orientation in the world.

Questions zinged around my brain: What does patois oblige us to think about and pay attention to versus English?  What are the benefits of being bilingual?  What effect is this having or has had on Jamaicans who only speak patois but must function in “formal Jamaican society” by using English? Keeping in mind the male/female/neuter classification of many European languages, how do we analyze patois?  Do we assign gender to some words unconsciously and if so, why? Having studied German I can safely say that the der/die/das assignment is very arbitrary (aside form words that refer to an actual male or female) so are patois speakers doing this as well without using articles? How do we begin to study this and figure out how to make it useful to Jamaicans, and our education system? I really would like to know the answers to these questions.  Wait, has someone studied or is someone already studying this? paging Dr. Carolyn Cooper!

The discussion in the rest of the article was really provoking so, once again, I suggest you check out the full article.  I think I may go read it again now! I’m such a nerd.  Needless to say, I am and have been fascinated by language and its use for some time.  (And yes I am a bit of a grammar and spelling police officer; chief of the division, even.)

Despite my fascination and agreement with Annie on using patois as a tool for teaching, my concern remains.  Jamaica needs to be positioning itself (rhaatid, we should have been doing this for the past 10 or so years) to compete against countries like Singapore or, closer to home, Barbados and Trinidad & Tobago (and soon Cuba) .  Much as I respect, adore, and value our culture and patois I am practical enough *smile* to recognize that we must balance our rich heritage against the demands of 2010 and beyond.  So far, we have not done the best job of achieving – or even seeking – this balance.  Clock’s ticking.

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8 Responses to “More on Patois”
  1. Annie Paul says:

    again its not a matter of teaching Patwa in schools but of teaching through Patwa instead of banishing it from the school room and from all formal spaces altogether. Even England is ahead of us…when they arrest a Patwa speaker there they provide an interpreter for them, they don’t assume the person understands English. I really like the cartoon you used at the head of this blogpost. STAND UNDER. It really captures the problem in Ja which is that Patwa speakers are simply expected to understand English when in fact the truth is that many of them stand under English which looms over them like an oppressive barrier–the English ceiling as it were–

    Patwa didn’t hold back Marley or any of the many musicians who have put Jamaica on the map. So let’s not treat it as if it’s a liability rather than an asset…

    • Hey Annie, thanks for your comment!

      As for England: I’m glad they’re so accommodating but they can afford it; Ja has a ways to go before being able to have that type of administrative or other accommodation for patois. When we can then by all means, let’s do so.

      Patois is only one mode of communication; why shun a more popular, useful, and more accepting one that opens many more doors? I don’t mean at all to pain patois as a liability or English as an oppressor (though I see how the latter may be, especially for our ancestors) but I do want Jamaica and Jamaicans to be able to access and attract as many opportunities as we can, and I do believe that in a globally competitive world an important way to do that is to have skilfull command of English. Let’s not make ourselves a liability, burden, or invisible outside of our cultural contributions.

      Again, I’m not advocating eradicating or emilinating patois. Not at all. I don’t think that it’s primary place, however, is in our cultural space. It has its very comfortable spot there; it rules. And as you’ve rightly pointed out it’s patois – via dancehall, reggae, poetry – that has put Jamaica on the map. I think of our gem Miss Lou who I consider the Queen of Patois: while she wrote some of the most profound material in patois in any interview she was able to communicate effectively in English and patois. Bob Marley’s English may not have been pretty but I think of him as an effective communicator. (Even) Bounty Killer I think is able to reach many because he has a good grasp of English and patois. Same with Kartel. I cannot say the same for many other public figures from entertainment or other sectors.

      Jamaica is a small island state with global reach because of patois…but when people come to us to take advantage of the other things we have to offer (e.g. financial services) why increase the transaction costs? We’re in a region with Brazil, T&T, Bim, and Cuba. O and the U.S. We’re in a world with China and India. We must be able to compete – that’s all I’m pushing for, not
      any sort of assignment of patois as a liability.

  2. Kaydia Salmon says:

    You know this teased my brain a bit. With almost two decades being exposed to Spanish and a fluent Speaker of the language, I must say it improved my English significantly. I was able to make connections between the two and appreciated English even more. I DID NOT UNDERSTAND ENGLISH IN PREP AND HIGH SCHOOLS. Now that I am training my daughter in Spanish, I see the same thing that took me years to master, is being done within days for my 23 month old child. So I believe that in schools we should have a more linguistical approach to language and stop treating it as subject to pass. Language (local and foreign) is something to be embraced as a part of our culture like music.

  3. shumpynella says:

    Kaydia is so right….I feel like a dunder head when it comes to learning languages. Some connection is missing for me and I don’t know if it is a result of how isolated we teach languages in school or what. On patois, I appreciate it’s value (at times I wish it were less decipherable lol) but I don’t know what long term benefits there would be to teaching it. I do agree with utilizing it in the teaching process. It is all some students understand. We can’t ignore it. Good post.

    • Yeah I don’t recall learning English as a language…it really was a subject to pass and get behind you. I’m even more grateful for the love of reading that my family instilled in me.

  4. This is the 2nd occasion I have come across your blog post in the last couple weeks. Seems like I ought to take note of it.

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