Andrew Holness’s commentary on language use in school

Dear Mr. Holness:

I read your commentary in today’s Observer, and while I will comment
in a more public fashion later, I thought it more appropriate to
respond to you directly at this time.

For far too long, public policy in Jamaica has been crafted in a silo
– one defined by political allegiance and expediency, and completely
separate from (as well as contrary to) the mountains of relevant
research and scholarship that exists on a given topic.  The government’s lack of coherent policy on how to treat Patwa and English in the formal school system is a casualty of that silo approach.

Jamaica is neither special nor unique as a post-colonial society
possessing both an indigenous language and a formal, inherited language.  Nor is this country unique in treating the indigenous language as inferior to the inherited language.  What is different (and quite troubling) about the Jamaican context is the absence of reasoned discussion and focused understanding among policymakers about what issues are at stake, how the issues overlap, and concern about the unintended effects of any policy on the population in the short and long term.  No topic can be meaningfully understood by casting it in polarized terms.  A debate requires multiple points of view, not simply the ones that are loudest or best mesh with political agendas.  This silo approach to public policy is simply unacceptable and, as we have experienced for decades, detrimental to the social health of the society.

In my view, your comments reflect the problems created by such an approach.

It may be in vogue to claim that Jamaica needs to get its people ready to participate in the information age and become “key players” in the “global economy”, etc. etc.  However, the country already does that.  What is being asked – indirectly – is for all institutional systems to work together to improve that performance, and to expand how (and which?) Jamaicans participate.  What is also being presumed, but not made clear, is that better facility in English expands such participation, and to what end.  And yet, you have not presented any evidence to support this point of view; nobody has, to date.  As [outgoing] Minister of Education, it would behoove you to make this argument crystal clear, providing whatever systematic evidence that exists about how English will improve Jamaicans’ economic and social standing.

It’s not enough to say that “English is a universal language.”  It could be argued that Jamaica does not observe other “universal” conventions, so what makes this situation different?  Indeed, is it true that we don’t speak it enough or adequately? Why should we speak it more than we currently do?  To me, good public policy is premised on being able to provide answers to the basic questions, rather than leave everyone guessing what those answers might be.

At this moment in the 21st century, there is also little value or sense in telling Jamaican youth that their future in a global environment rests [only?] on their ability to converse in the ‘universal’ tongue, English. The evidence simply doesn’t support that claim. To be “Jamaican” is already a distinct identity in the global marketplace, and one of those markers is that we possess a language of our own, Patwa, through which we convey what is unique to us.  It is a rather sorry state of affairs when Patwa speakers can be recognised as contributing to world culture but not to our own society. In case you weren’t aware, in a moment where hundreds of languages are dying every year, we have contributed a new one, and whose users grow every moment!

While I certainly agree that the quality of writing and speaking in mass media is paltry, that’s not about lack of respect for English (frankly, the warping/dancehall-izing of Patwa is just as bad), but about the generally low standard to which decision-makers hold and subject the population in all areas, from education to politics: appearance counts more than content.  Again, public opinion and impressions are not adequate bases for good public policy.

What you seem to be getting at, and which I do agree, is that not being able to speak, read and write English well does constrain the choices that individual Jamaicans do have and how much influence that one has over their lives. While facility in English does not remove all constraints, it is worthwhile to note that the limitations that youth may experience because of non-fluency in English are not created by the choices that they make.  Instead, those limitations are imposed by the kind of thinking that you are also guilty of, and which has already been embedded in the education system.

That is, there is no formal recognition that Patwa is a language, separate from English, and is not “broken English”. Those who come to school not speaking formal English are never taught to do so; they are dismissed as dunce, slow and backward, and treated accordingly. They are never given the tools they need to help them excel, and so leave school (often early)
feeling like they are not worthy members of the society.  In a similar vein, non-English speakers are treated with disdain in every quarter of the society except the ones where *only* Patwa speakers dwell.

It’s not a coincidence that those arenas are also the ones where you
won’t find well-stocked libraries, well-run schools, banks, effective
community organisations, etc. and where criminality and alternate
economies flourish.  So, it is indeed disingenuous for you to say that
you don’t “buy” the argument that non-recognition of Patwa in the
classroom is a form of marginalization, when the very working of the
institutions over which you are responsible is the touchstone of that

Unfortunately, your stance “It is not one or the other, we must be
able to speak English” is least supported by research-based
scholarship.  Perhaps you should have added “…as well”.  Jamaica is
a bilingual society; this is not about what one wishes or believes to
be true.  It simply is so.  Consequently, public policy on language
use in the classroom (and elsewhere) has to be crafted based on the
understanding of what that means for us, and what will work in the collective best interest of Jamaicans.  Cutting edge practices in
literacy and in Education today recognise that one cannot simply replace, ignore or wish away another language that already exists. Rather, one must figure out how to work with it to attain fluency in
another language.  This is a critical area of concern in your policy
recommendation, and which was never articulated clearly or addressed
properly in previous policy frameworks. For that reason, Jamaican
children have emerged from elementary education over the past two
decades as, at worst, illiterate in both languages and at best,
literate in one and completely ignorant of the other. And yet, this is
the precise area that will determine whether this new policy is
workable. I think everyone would appreciate some elaboration of how
you expect this to work, teachers included.

Getting Jamaican children fully fluent and literate in English does not lay in simply dictating that English be made the lingua franca of schools.  There has to be a process for making this so, one which takes note of the problematic way that Patwa is currently treated in schools i.e. as a non-language that is not being used to educate children in an adequate way.  In order for English language to become the formal language of school contexts, Patwa and English must first be treated as equal and complementary language systems. Administrators will have to communicate in the language.  Teachers will also have to treat Patwa as distinct from – not an inferior or broken form of – English, and be able to teach English as a language.

You must also deal with the systematic discrimination against people (including children) for not speaking English, including within the ministry’s jurisdiction.  In a context where value is attached to ability to
communicate in English, Patwa will retain its power as the language of
opposition, dissent and subversion.  How will this focus on English
affect how children (and staff) are treated when they don’t use English to respond to the authority figures? Does this expectation include non-teaching staff?

As you may be aware, the majority of teachers do not know how to
distinguish or move back and forth between English and Patwa except to
say “that’s wrong” or “speak properly” or to characterize Patwa as
“broken English”, as you did.  That approach is neither useful nor effective, pedagogically speaking.  Thus,  the teachers’ capacity to work with the languages must also change. In addition, you are essentially requiring teachers to use only English in schools, when you have no assurance that they even speak and write the language well enough to conduct instruction in it.  In fact, this may be an important moment to further distinguish between Jamaican English and textbook English; too many conflate these, as we see in the newspaper columns.

If your proposition is a backdoor strategy to delegitimizing Patwa, it will backfire quickly. Neither public opinion nor one’s biases about the problems of Patwa (and merits of English) are adequate or legitimate bases for making policy or taking public stances on this (or any!) issue. The language question is a sufficiently complex issue that requires you as incoming Prime Minister to step back from the fray, to tease out all (not just some) of the merits and drawbacks of the various approaches to a dual-language environment, and to present a careful, thoughtful, knowledgeable and pragmatic position to the public. Whether or not you like or approve of Patwa is irrelevant and ought not to figure *anywhere* in whatever decisions are made.  What should be done is what is best for the country, given what is known and understood.

I write this as an educator and as someone who is very invested in improving the capacity of every single Jamaican to be able to make
choices about their lives, including the ability to speak back to
power.  That is why I have been working to create a community-based
literacy programme that immerses children in reading and creative
activities in an English language environment.  I want children to know English because their social value and future possibilities are being determined by that language within a deeply unfair system.  I believe that they need to be given the tools they need in order to show what they are capable of, and to be able to choose how they express themselves over the course of their lives.  It’s why I tell parents to spend time talking to their children in English so that the link between what their children hear and speak and what they encounter in books, public airwaves, etc. is easier to forge.

But nowhere do I convey the message, subtly or otherwise, that it’s not
acceptable to speak in Patwa, that Patwa is somehow inferior to
English, or that if they do not speak English they won’t be able to get a job.  None of that would be true, and for obvious reasons. Indeed, I do correct parents when they restate my request as “telling the children to speak properly” – one can speak properly in Patwa as well!  The children also get to write and create in Patwa, and be able to read that back to themselves.  Myself and the other instructors teach them how both languages operate, so they are able to understand the differences and know how to use them.  Eventually, they will be able to tell when what they read or hear is “incorrect English”, separate and distinct from what is Patwa.
Knowing how to make that distinction is a form of cultural literacy. Unfortunately, this is not a form of literacy that is widely available or encouraged. Tellingly, your approach – English or else – does not support that form of literacy either; your comments certainly do not distinguish
between “broken English” and Patwa, nor do you seem to realize that in
a bilingual environment, a distinct form of communication emerges that
is a hybrid of the existing languages.

This is what silo thinking does: it blinds you to the complex
realities that do exist, and reduces those realities to dualisms that
are easy to swallow and to offer opinions about. Sadly, what Jamaicans
need more experience with is the ability to think in nuanced ways, and
to accept gray areas as legitimate spaces in which to work.  The
position that you have spelled out takes us a few steps backward in
that regard.  This issue calls for an attitude of respecting the
history and utility of each language form, and for making a case for
why English should be taught with more precision and attention in
schools than has been to date.  It is not necessary to create more
discord and to take potshots at Patwa in order to advance that

Your goal as chief policymaker ought to be to devise effective public
policy that reflects the cultural situation as well as creates a more
vibrant and inclusive society.  Such policy has to create better
outcomes than what went before, and needs to be useful to everyone
interested in promoting the social well-being of Jamaican citizens.  I
hope that you are able to meet that goal with regard to the language
issue and schooling in contemporary Jamaica.


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