St. Lucia plans to implement the teaching of Kwéyòl in schools — but is it enough to revitalise the language?

'Mother tongue develops a child's personal, social and cultural identity'

English may be the official language of St. Lucia, but Kwéyòl — sometimes called Patois or Patwa — is widely spoken; its unique intonation makes its way into the beautiful lilt of the St. Lucian accent, even when people are speaking English. So common is the use of Kwéyòl (a language that is a mix of syntax from West African languages and 17th-century regional French vocabulary, a reflection of the Caribbean region's colonial past), that many government communiqués and even media newscasts are conducted in both Kwéyòl and English. Now, the focus is on formally teaching the language in St. Lucian schools.

News of this most recent initiative has been garnering public attention for a couple of years now, but online discussion about the importance of mainstreaming the Kwéyòl language has been going on for much longer, region-wide, with some St. Lucians worrying about the language dying out within two generations if not passed on to the country's youth.

In a WhatsApp conversation, Hubert Devonish, linguist and Professor Emeritus at the University of the West Indies in Mona, Jamaica, put the initiative in context. After the St. Lucia Labour Party (SLP) won the country's first post-independence elections in 1979 and Kenny Anthony became the country's minister of education, a seminar was held to devise a standard writing system for Kwéyòl. This is the system, Professor Devonish says, that “became established and will most likely be used in formal education now under the new policy.”

Politics being what it is, however, progress was stalled when administrations changed, and even when the SLP was re-elected in the mid 1990s, this time with Anthony as prime minister, not much was done around the issue of language. While the current SLP government plans to change all that, Professor Devonish noted:

In 1980, the majority of children entering the school system [had] Kwéyòl as a first language. And the majority of the others had some competence in the language. Forty-two years on, according to the language education policy, less than 20 percent of children entering school have Kwéyòl as a native or home language. A policy which, had it been adopted and implemented 40 years ago would have provided effective education in the children’s first language is now one which is going to have to take the form of teaching Kwéyòl as a second language for the majority of the children in schools.

Better late than never? Professor Devonish isn't so sure. History, he says, is “filled with cases where the introduction into education of a low prestige language kills it rather than supports and promotes it as a language of everyday usage”:

Though the introduction of Kwéyòl into the school system could play an important role in the revival and revitalisation of the language, this is not where the battle will be won. Unless there is a commitment on the part of ordinary people to use it in their homes, with their children, in everyday life, in jokes, at play and at work, even when it is stressful and uncomfortable because they are not yet at ease with using the language in those contexts, the school could end up being the graveyard for the language.

He, therefore, supports the policy, “but ONLY as part of a broader campaign for national revival of the language in everyday use by all sectors of society.” Otherwise, he predicts, learning to read and write the language in school will become “another symbol of identity alongside the madwa (madras) head tie in the national costume:

National identity, particularly in relation to language, is a lived identity. Using an endangered language (and that’s what Kwéyòl is right now in St. Lucia) in school, is only useful as part of a series of other national measures to support the language and is not a substitute for such measures.

The embracing of Kwéyòl in St. Lucia has, to some degree, included integrating the language into the arts and culture; the country even has two bilingual Kwéyòl-English dictionaries (also available as an app):

Meanwhile, the government's goal is to have fully bilingual students leaving primary school and fully bi-literate students graduating from secondary school. One Twitter user explained why this was important:

Attitudes towards Kwéyòl have also been changing, with the language being seen as a source of pride:

In an article for the St. Lucia Voice, Sylvestre Phillip, a longtime advocate of teaching Kwéyòl in schools, wrote:

It is a fact that Creole is our ‘Mother Tongue’ or first language. English is our second language, but we are busy teaching our children in English when many of those children are coming from homes where Creole is the main medium of communication.

Noting that Haiti has begun teaching Haitian Kreyòl in schools in lieu of French, he added:

Mother tongue makes it easier for children to pick up and learn other languages.

Mother tongue develops a child's personal, social and cultural identity.

Using mother tongue helps [children] develop their critical thinking and literary skills. […] Fluency in their mother tongue helps them understand where they came from. And they are better able to decide where they are going.

Professor Devonish cited other such regional examples:

Creole (French-lexicon Creole) is the national language of Haiti, one which the constitution says ‘unites all Haitians’ and is one of two official languages of the republic, the other being French.

In Martinique, Guadeloupe and Guyane (French Guiana), which are overseas departments of France, Creole has official recognition as a regional language, on par with the other regional languages of mainland France such as Basque and Catalan.

In Dominica, (French-lexicon) Creole is receiving some attention in the education system where efforts are being made to teach it as a second language via a programme introduced last year. Loss of competence in Kwéyòl has advanced much further in Dominica even than it has done in St Lucia.

Jamaica, however, has a much more complicated relationship with its English-lexicon Creole language (aka Patois/Patwa). This Twitter user suggested that English language competency might be “complicated” by teaching Jamaican Patois, to which a compatriot responded:

Opinions about the value of Jamaican Patois can be charged. When there was talk of making Spanish the island's official second language back in 2016, there was an outcry, with many people feeling that Patois had, as usual, been discounted.

What about the impression that Creole languages are widely considered to be second-class languages? Trinbagonian linguist Jo-Anne Ferreira explained the origin of that perception, particularly with regard to the French-lexicon Creoles, in an e-mail interview:

Haiti, and French Guiana, Guadeloupe and Martinique (the latter three being the départements français d'Amérique or DFA) have rejected the proper name Patois and the label patois, because patois in French and in France refers to a set of regional, rural varieties of the French language. (Unfortunately, socioeconomics and sociopolitics often cause rural to be equated with ignorant and inferior.) Haitian and French Caribbean Creole speakers (and others) generally do not use the name Patois (to avoid confusion with French patois), simply because French-lexicon Creole is not French — the languages just share vocabulary sources. They reject the identification of their speech as a “patois” of French. They opt for the label Kreyòl/Créole which marks their speech as belonging to a language separate from French. (In France, Créole is actually France's number 1 langue régionale, not a dialect or patois of French!) The naming of the language as Kreyòl/Créole avoids non-existent links to and unnecessary (and odious) comparisons with French (especially for those territories which still have some ties to French and France)*, avoids stigmatisation, and is about language equality, not superiority or inferiority. (*Note that Trinidad, Grenada and Venezuela treat Patois as an autonym, with no disrespect, because of different sociohistorical and sociolinguistic realities, with less of a connection to France.)

Professor Devonish added:

Haitian Creole is spoken by two-thirds of the [Caribbean Community] CARICOM population and is an official language of two-thirds of that population. Thus, French-lexicon Creole is the preeminent language within that trading bloc, whatever our own perceptions might tell us.

In keeping with its support for multilingualism as a tool for inclusion, social integration and the sustainable development goal of quality education, The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is helping St. Lucia with an implementation plan for its language education policy. Working sessions with stakeholders like teachers, curriculum designers, researchers, etc. are carded for July.

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