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Uninstalling the defective Jamaican Creole software: The pathway to learning English

By Nigel Nelson

Thursday, November 15, 2018


Currently, one of the topical discussion points in Jamaica is the conundrum of delayed English learning, but before this can be resolved there is an urgent need for the majority of its citizens to uninstall defective language software downloaded during their childhood.

Questions are being asked about the possibility of making Jamaican Creole an official language, or at least allowing for its liberal use in our public education system. My purpose is not to add to this debate, but rather to create an orifice for a spectacularly new one.

I ask: After exposure, what is the average time for someone to learn a new language? Is it two, five, or 10 years? Incredibly, after 15, 20, 25, or 30 years, many Jamaicans — having completed their education at different levels of the formal educational system — are yet to demonstrate at least modest English speech or writing. Now, how could this be? This is simply mind-boggling, and is an inconvenient truth within the Jamaican society, in which some politicians (who obviously are linguistically challenged) even dangle the idea of Spanish becoming Jamaica's second language. Against the context of this delayed English learning, allow the idea of Spanish being Jamaica's second official language to marinade momentarily. Such a thought is undeniable insanity.

How could we formally introduce Spanish within our society when our citizens take forever to learn English? Greater emphasis must be placed on demonstrating more positive attitudes toward Jamaican Creole and acknowledging it as a language of value, thereby affording it greater national recognition. Until this is done, this delayed learning of English may, unfortunately, persist. For if one cannot find love within his native language, how can he find it in another.

For clarity, I am not making the point that the feeling of Jamaican Creole being undervalued by the State is solely responsible for most citizens not being able to speak English fluently. Admittedly, factors such as a paucity of English speaking models, fossilisation of Creole structures, and infrequent reading practices all contribute to the English learning conundrum. Interestingly, maybe the key to a successful intervention lies in an examination of our formative years of language exposure.

During our nascent years of language socialisation, we are taught, whether directly or indirectly, the historically oppressive messages about Jamaican Creole, and that those who speak it only are uneducated and frowned upon by society because it lacks prestige. Quite commonly, the Creole speaker hears: “Yuh chat bad, een pickney!” Or, “yu cyaan talk prapaly?” Inevitably, this results in the development of an inferiority complex among us as users and the hardwiring of programmes which lead to a prolonged and insidious self-rejection that ultimately leads to us not only rejecting the view that we have a language of any value, but also causes us to give up on learning any other language through this process of learned helplessness. The pathway to counteracting this helplessness is to use the old to learn the new.

As lucidly outlined in language-learning related literature, for one to learn a second language (L2), one has to use the first (L1) as the basis of its learning. Hence, what follows is that — through collaborations between the Ministry of Education and local linguists such as Professor Hubert Devonish — a concerted effort should be placed on helping Jamaican Creole speakers to understand the syntax, lexicon, semantics, morphology, and phonology of their native language from as early as the kindergarten level. After which, they could move on to learn about English, contrasting it to Jamaican Creole as they do so. For example, syntactically, how many Jamaican Creole speakers recognise that, while 'a' is used restrictively as an indefinite article in English, in Jamaican Creole it is used as either an indefinite article, a copula, or an auxiliary verb. Considerations along this approach most certainly will offer genuine pathways and hope of future successes relative to understanding and using English.

However, for any success to be achieved, the uninstalling of defective Jamaican Creole software must take place, simultaneously allowing for the downloading of social programmes which embrace the acceptance, celebration, and overt prestige related to the usage of Jamaican Creole in all spheres of life.


Nigel Nelson is a lecturer in the Language Department at Moneague College in St Ann, Jamaica. Send comments to the Observer or