There was not so long ago an animated debate on Twitter and elsewhere about whether Jamaican children should be taught in English or in their first language, Jamaican Creole. It is a complex issue that has preoccupied our island since I did my teacher’s diploma eons ago. In at least two respects, the status quo has remained much the same over the intervening decades. The low performance of students in English in the Caribbean regional examinations persists with little variation, as does the linguistic- performance-demographic of the discussants – how’s that for a term? – who are almost invariably people expert in the ‘prestige’ language of English and who also have expertise in the ‘deprecated’ Creole language.
The nature of that debate need not preoccupy us at the moment. What is interesting to me as a Canadian and as a Jamaican is that the politics of language here in Canada is not entirely dissimilar. One could argue that, willy-nilly, English is the prestige code in Canada, and that French speakers carry a chip on their shoulders that is not unlike the baggage that creole speakers carry about the Creole. Most people in the two communities of speakers are fiercely proud and very defensive about their respective languages, sometimes to the exclusion of good sense.
I have no interest in resolving the issue. I wrote a PhD dissertation many years ago that theorized that Caribbean people operate a cognitive style that doesn’t invest in resolution; that we are happy functioning with variations and even contradictions. (I was pleased, when I read, many years later, in Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers, that according to Hofstedt’s Dimensions, the only people more disposed to tolerating ambiguity than Jamaicans in the populations Hofstedt measured were folks from Singapore!) I’ve given up investing in arguments about what is true or right. What is is, and everything is everything, to quote Ms Lauryn Hill, who may not pay her Federal Income tax, but knows a ting or two about tings. My agenda now is simple: (1) we stop killing one another; (2) we nurture our children; (3) we treat women with respect; (4) we take care of one another; (5) we take care of the planet. These are the issues that engage me urgently. All other discussion is gentle (and often ironic, because I am a Jamaican) exchange.
I am a fiercely proud Creole speaker – not so defensive, though, and not interested much in arguments any more. Indeed, when it comes to choosing a language to use when I write, Mi mek mi bed an mi lai dung in i – I make my bed and I lie down in it, meaning I make my choices and I take the consequences. I often choose to write in the Creole. That effectively limits my audience, though it needn’t – adventurous readers like to be stretched. It limits audience primarily because it discourages publishers, who, in these days of the vanishing book, want a sure thing. Plus, it doesn’t help if one is not out there, on the circuit, reading, conferencing and engaging with new audiences, as I am mostly not. But in all my experience of reading poems and stories in creole, I have never once encountered someone who failed to enjoy them because they didn’t speak the language. Jamaican creole has a largely English lexicon, and thus the words are all familiar.
In my children’s play, El Numero Uno, which premiered in YPT’s 2009-2010 season, the characters spoke French, Spanish, English, Jamaican Creole and Dread Talk and the linguistic variety didn’t interfere with anyone’s understanding the play. True, the French and Spanish interventions were limited, but I think the point that we need to learn to function in many languages was made. In my novel, Red Jacket, which Thomas Allen will publish on 28 February 2015, the characters speak English, a Caribbean Creole and French. They also use some vocabulary from the invented language of Mabulians, the people of (the imagined country of) Mabuli. So, lotsa languages!
My language politics are simple. A language is the best way to enter a culture, to discover both the good and bad of it. English-speaking Canadians should learn French. Not to do so is to deprive oneself of a culture and history rooted in the place that we all call (by an Iroquois name!) Canada. Creole speakers should learn English, or French, or Dutch, whatever is the linguistic code lexically related to the creole they speak. In that way, they own both their creole and its imperial root. But they should learn other languages as well, European ones, and Amerindian ones and Hakka and Hindi, and any other languages needed to communicate with proximate linguistic groups, or even those farther afield. Not to do so is foolish, since the communities of creole speakers, whether Kwéyol or Tok Pidgin or Krio, are currently small and relatively powerless. It may not always be so, but that is how it presently is.
And anybody who can should learn to speak a creole – not the easiest task, but well worth the trouble! Like most other languages, it is easier to understand it than to speak it. The protagonist in Red Jacket, Grace, has a Canadian roommate at the University of Toronto who gives it a shot, with considerable success. There is no equivalent cultural-linguistic experience! Ask the Japanese reggae enthusiasts. Ask Eminem, or Sinead. So let’s off-load the baggage and invest in languages, the more the better. As I just today learned to say in Shona, Rurimi rumwe haruzadzikisa mutauro – One language is never enough!