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Editorial | JTA must take stand in Patois debate

Published:Wednesday | August 10, 2022 | 12:08 AM
Winston Smith, president of JTA
Winston Smith, president of JTA

It is surprising that the Jamaica Teachers’ Association (JTA), a professional and advocacy group for the island’s educators, never engages in the public debates on the status of Jamaican Creole/Patois, or how English should be taught in schools.

Yet, mounting evidence suggests that students’ weakness in English, the language of instruction in schools, is a major contributor to the poor outcomes, amounting to a crisis in Jamaica’s education system. It is past time, therefore, that the JTA puts the issue on its agenda. It should begin with a declaration from its annual conference later this month that insists on a resolution of the language question, and that it should be part of the education transformation process upon which the Government is about to embark.

Although this isn’t the country’s official position and many in the society – and government – dispute the idea, linguists are firm that Jamaica is a bilingual country and that English, although it is the official language, isn’t most people’s ‘mother tongue’. It is not the language in which they are most comfortable or in which most communicate naturally, such as in their homes and communities. That language is Jamaican Patois, the Creole that evolved organically from the forced interaction between African slaves, speaking their various tongues, and English-speaking colonists and slave owners. The concept, expressed differently, is that Jamaican Patois isn’t ‘broken’ English, but a separate language with form and structure.

Clearly, acceptance of this argument has implications for the positioning and treatment of Jamaican Patois and the country’s approach to teaching English. Indeed, the data show that even if the vast majority of Jamaicans may have enough grasp of English to go about the basics of their daily lives, their facility in the language is insufficient to negotiate deeper, or more complex matters.


This problem is embarrassingly apparent in the island’s classrooms. In this regard, an observation from the Orlando Patterson-led commission on how to transform education in Jamaica bears repeating.

A third of the island’s grade six students – the point at which they enter high schools – end their primary education illiterate. Which means illiterate in English, the language in which they are taught. These students require significant remedial attention. That, however, isn’t the entire story. As the Patterson Commission pointed out, 56 per cent of the grade six students have serious difficulty writing and “57 per cent could not identify information in a simple sentence”. Which is to say a sentence written in English. It ought to be noted that these are children between ages 12 and 13.

The problem, unfortunately, doesn’t end in the primary system. Annually, nearly 30 per cent of Jamaican students who take the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) English exams fail. A huge chunk of those who pass do so with the lowest acceptable grade. The island’s universities often find it necessary to have remedial English classes for students who, presumably, met their matriculation requirements.

These outcomes can’t only be because these students are inherently inadequate at English. Rather, they seem to align with arguments of linguists about the problems faced by students who are not primarily English speakers and that the way English is taught doesn’t take into account that it isn’t, for most, their mother tongue. That problem may not have been as apparent in the early days of limited access to schooling for Jamaicans. In the old days, though, the system of teaching English was closer to the approach for, say French or Spanish – as a foreign language.

Inherent in this approach must be founded in an acceptance of Jamaican Patois as a real language, distinct from English, and that a practical accommodation of both will have practical advantages, rather than the negative fallout of disengagement, from a global economy dominated by English, which some people fear. The far greater likelihood is of more Jamaicans being afforded access to English, and thereby, in a system of instruction based in English, greater access to a wide array of subjects.


Grace Baston, the principal of Campion College, Jamaica’s most successful high school, measured by examination outcomes, recently underlined the logic of a formal coexistence of the two languages, and of the potentially liberating influence the engagement of Jamaican Patois in the education environment would have, not only on teaching and learning.

She said: “We continue to ignore that profoundly alienating and disenfranchising effort of not recognising that most of our children from poorer homes have a first language which is not Standard English … the failure to take this reality seriously (and) to draw on the research done by our linguistic scholars at the UWI (University of the West Indies) and to have teachers trained in the ability to engage students in their first language and then, through that language, to introduce to Standard English, is an injustice.”

It is an injustice that the JTA shouldn’t allow to persist. Indeed, it is in the interest of teachers, who usually bear the brunt of the flak for the failures in the education system, that it should end.

This, of course, shouldn’t be interpreted as an argument that resolving the tensions between Jamaican Patois and English will be a fix to all of Jamaica’s problems in education.

Rather, it is one of the smorgasbord of issues to be attended to, which a rejuvenated JTA should insist the Government has on the agenda. Now!