Tue | Sep 22, 2020

Letter of the Day | Solving the Patois problem

Published:Saturday | January 18, 2020 | 12:00 AM


I just read Dr Alfred Dawes article ‘The Patois problem’ published in last Sunday’s Gleaner on Patois (Jamaican Creole – JC). For full disclosure, let me first state that I am a graduate of the Jamaican Language Unit (JLU).

I appreciate a good joke and usually thoroughly enjoy sarcasm. However, while the article is the sort of thing I’d normally laugh at, I didn’t find it funny. This is not because I’ve been brainwashed by the folks at the JLU, but because I find it unfortunate how the Patois debate has been and is being mis-focused (just made that up, sorry).

I was exposed to the JLU’s position on JC while on the programme of study, but, having given it some thought, I formed my own opinion. Call it hubris or egotism on my part, but I think my position is better than the JLU’s and I think the efforts to change the views of the Government and the ‘educated classes’ about Patois would be better served if the argument were presented as I see it.

Here is my position:

The JLU has done its research, which, consistent with research in other countries, showed that children perform better when taught in their native tongue. Whenever I have spoken about the need to teach in JC, I have been met with irritation if not anger and some expression – almost always in JC – of “I don’t want my child to be taught Patois!” (which, as you will appreciate, is not what I would have proposed).

From this experience, I learned to instead pose this question (rhetorically): Imagine when you started school and were learning Spanish (or French or any other second language) that you were simultaneously being taught all your other subjects – mathematics, history, Science, etc. – in that language. Do you think you’d be at a disadvantage relative to a student who already knew the language? That always seems to set them thinking, though maybe not change their position.


There are children in Jamaica who grow up speaking English and understand English perfectly well. The majority, I dare say, do not. As a result, even when they get to the tertiary level and beyond, they do not fully comprehend English, even though some of them are able to produce passing English sentences.

To level the playing field, some children need to learn English at school from an early age.

An improvement on my idea, proposed to me by someone recently, is for instruction to be given in Patois during the primary years, with English being taught simultaneously as a second language. Beyond the primary level, instruction would then be solely in English. (Of course, there can be adjustments to this, for example, Patois instruction might not be needed for the full six years of primary school.)