‘So yuh a de man me hear bout!
Ah yuh dem seh dah teck
Whole heap a English oat seh dat
yuh gwine kill dialec!’
Louise Bennet Coverly- Bans A Killin’
It is the fifth period of the day. My class of approximately thirty-four pubescent girls sit attentively in their well-arranged sits. Decked out in impeccable royal blue and white uniforms at an all-girls Catholic school, misbehaviour during class isn’t much of an option at this point. The Geography teacher would like someone to read aloud. As usual, I – being the nerd that I have been for most of my school life – would like to read. However I will not raise my hand. I will not participate. Not because this topic is not that intriguing to me or because I am impatient for lunch, but simply because I am fearful of being mocked for my so-called ‘country-bookie’ or as some countries would say ‘country-bumpkin’ accent.
Looking back at it, perhaps the jeering and teasing that I received from my classmates were made more in jest than as an act of malice. However, being thirteen, self-conscious and having no more than two friends in the class at that time, the comments about living in ‘bush’ only added to my insecurities. It is also important to add that I lived only an hour away from my secondary school, in the south of a 238-square-mile island. Yet, there seemed to be such great differences in language spoken by the people living at the ends of these extreme cardinal points that it warranted the necessity to split the giant land mass into two rather diverse language groups; ‘Up north’ and ‘Down South’. Perhaps, it is this experience and also being bilingual, I speak English and French Creole, which triggered my interest in languages. I am currently a Spanish Major at the University of the West Indies Cave Hill Campus (UWI) and surprisingly enough, it is through the studying of a foreign language and culture that I have learnt to appreciate my own.
First of all, let me add, that learning the ‘standard’ version of any language can be a benefit as well as a disadvantage. In any home, community, or country, exists its own vocabulary, phonetic style and grammatical rules. Language is a reflection of heritage, culture and history, hence it would be safe to deduce that any differences in the aforementioned areas would cause some alteration in the language itself. This is why, although the countries of South and Central America and Spain are listed as Spanish speaking countries, there are quite a few variations in the way that Hispanic and Spanish people speak. I experienced this phenomenon first hand, whilst being assisted by one of my Venezuelan peers, who was unfamiliar with some of the words that he came across in my primarily Spanish text.
In addition, it also helped that some of the literature we read were by bilingual authors. Even when written in English, the text would be peppered with Spanish words and expressions. This is known as ‘code-switching’, an aspect of bilingualism, whereby a speaker ‘switches’ from one language to the next, in one conversation. This is very common in St. Lucia, but I did not really pay much attention to it, until I arrived in Barbados. During casual conversations with some of my Bajan colleagues, I would struggle to find the equivalent of creole words, such as ‘pawòl’. Recognising, that differences in language are extremely common in all countries and is in fact recognized by the linguistic world, I have become less aware of my Saint Lucian English Creole accent and more accepting of my tendency to ‘code-switch’.
However, although variation in language is very common, why is it that we suffer from what I sometimes call an inferiority complex when it comes to our own language? Why have I so often heard-to my utter dissatisfaction- people describing a dialect or creole as ‘broken’ English or worse yet, parents denying their children the right to speak a language that is part of their history and culture? These are questions that I still struggle with and as in most cases, there is no straightforward answer.
One popular explanation is that the English creole which is used on a daily basis is not ‘correct’ and cannot be used in the professional world. Therefore, it is important that children do not continue using these varieties of the language, in an effort to make them more efficient in the professional world. This is an argument that I cannot refute completely. For instance, as a university student who often addresses people from many different nationalities, I cannot use my own language to communicate effectively with my audience.
In preparing for my A-Level examinations, my classmates and I were asked repeatedly to speak in Standard English because our lecturers rationalized that this habit would help us to write in Standard English. Thereby, making our essays more comprehensible to our evaluators who most likely learnt English as a second language. For example, in St. Lucia we use the expression ‘take advantage of’ to mean ‘exploit or use’ whereas in Standard English, it actually has a positive connotation and means ‘to use to one’s advantage’, similar to the Spanish verb ‘aprovecharse’.
Yet, I believe that there is a flip side to this. The result of forbidding the use of a certain language or dialect can lead to the labelling of that variety as ‘bad’ ‘incorrect’ or the language of the uneducated and ignorant. The effect of this is the rejection of an aspect of what is yours, something I consider abominable. We seem to label and undermine our own but quickly adopt the vocabulary and pronunciation of the more ‘developed nations’.
In addition, one of the best things about being a UWI student is interacting with people from different countries and comparing our accents and vocabulary. I believe that a trip to Jamaica, would not be as rewarding, if everyone there spoke immaculate Standard English, neither, would soca by Machel Monatano have the same ring to it if sang in the ‘Queen’s English’.
I know there are many people who would disagree with me. However, I am simply suggesting that we educate our people to speak clearly and eloquently in Standard English, but also to embrace their own creoles and dialects. We need to engrave in our minds that everyone speaks differently. It is unfair and impractical to expect that we would sound exactly like our colonizers, but sometimes I believe that this is the ruler used to measure our competency and if it is, then we will never ‘measure up’; hence the ‘inferiority complex’.
So what is my resolution? Well in the case of St. Lucia, I believe that we need to begin teaching English as a second language and not our first. This has been proposed in Jamaica for years by activists who advocate for Jamaican Patois as the First language, in order to alter the way English is taught in schools.
Regionally, the issue of language has already been discussed, which explains the line ‘The Caribbean is a linguistically diverse region. The development of communicative competence in Caribbean Standard English (CSE) enables citizens to function nationally, regionally and internationally; this is found in the Rationale of the Caribbean Certificate Of Secondary Level Competence® (CCSLC) English syllabus. However what exactly is Caribbean Standard English? And have our people really come to understand and accept their own Standard English? If I use my own experiences as a guide, I think not, there is still a lot of work to be done.
We often claim that limiting the use of dialects is necessary to survive in the globalised world. However, I still believe that one of the reasons for shunning our languages stems from insecurities about our cultures. We claim unconditional patriotism, waving our flags and celebrating historic victories, yet deep down in us is rooted the belief that our culture is inferior and not ‘up to par’. Are we really free of all prejudices when it comes to our own history or culture? Or are we still like that thirteen year old girl in her impeccable blue and white uniform, afraid to participate in the world, because our ‘sing-songy’ accent, as it is sometimes called, will be ridiculed or considered ‘broken’? Then again, are we really to blame? A few weeks ago a colleague of mine applied to teach English in a non-English speaking country, the applicants were asked to possess Canadian or American accents…