The Arts and Language Learning






The Arts and Language Learning in Post-Secondary Caribbean Education


Ancestral whisperings;

soul of my identity,

blueprint of my history,

my mother tongue speaks!


Melva P. Davids (2012)


Language awareness at the post-secondary level in the English Speaking Caribbean is necessary in order to create an ethos where students, especially those from Creole speaking background will no longer see English as the tedious chore they had deposited in the closet or on a shelf once the Caribbean Examination Council (CXC) board had given them a passing grade in the subject at the end of High School. In a particular Arts oriented tertiary level institution in the Caribbean, many students  expressed that they did not expect to do English after C.X.C, others lamented that they were there to perform a particular Art form so they had little time to bother about English. To a large extent, English was treated as a nuisance that got in the way of students’ achievement in the Arts. Could this attitude be linked to how some Caribbean students met language in general and English in particular?

Jamaicans, like other natives from the English speaking Caribbean are erroneously tagged as being English speakers based on their colonial past so when a Jamaican switches back and forth between English and Jamaican they are either seen as incompetent users of English, illiterates or in the Jamaican parlance just ‘chatting bad.’ Interestingly, another speaker whose first language is, for instance, French or Spanish can switch from English to their native tongue barely intelligibly enough to be understood by the listener in English and this language act is referred to as code switching. The fact is, some Jamaicans use Standard Jamaican English as their mother language, others are in a transitional state and use an in-between version of both languages while the vast majority are speakers of the native tongue, Jamaican Creole.
Interestingly, many Jamaicans usually discover as a vicarious experience that the language of home or the first language is totally different from the language at school. Being told constantly to ‘speak properly’ or ‘yu chat too bad’ is like a broken record for many young Creole speakers. As a result they may, learn to avoid participation in discussions in formal settings or learn to test the waters of negotiating the two systems of communication that their socio- cultural situations bestowed upon them. No explicit formal attempt is usually made to get students to treat both expressions of language separately based on the context, so as a result, students usually apply a ‘hit or miss’ approach in trying to use language.

Of course, this trial and error approach defies most basic theories of how best learning occurs. Jean Piaget, noted constructivist theorist, offers that information is stored in schemes or mental blocks or framework based on common criteria. Do Jamaicans store their language in a monolingual framework or in a bilingual framework with distinct separation of linguistic rules? Another constructivist’ principle is for content to be organized starting from the known to the unknown or from simple to complex. Jamaican as a language is known and understood by most if not all citizens, even those who are passive users of the language. Bilingual education where the native tongue of most Jamaicans is used as the springboard for learning is a concept that reflects the core essence of constructivism which rests on the premise that the personal experiences of the learner should provide the bridge for new knowledge. A third pedagogical principle that is being contravened by not explicitly teaching the internal structures of both languages is the idea of meta-cognition. Meta-cognition involves learning how we learn to promote self-regulation and independent learning. It supports empowerment of learners through self-knowledge and honing of self-regulatory skills.


Nowadays, English is usually introduced to Caribbean students from Creole speaking home environments through cartoons and games that assume the role of babysitters or surrogate parents in this fast moving reality of a digitized environment. Unfortunately, many rural families do not have access to such luxuries and the approach used decades ago in remote rural schools has been shelved as teachers embrace more culturally relevant approaches and materials with less emphasis on memorization. I met English in the nursery rhymes ,ring games,  gems, poems, scripture verses, hymns and sayings or proverbs that I had to rote learn at early Primary school but I was never explicitly taught how to separate the rules of English from the rules of Jamaican. I had to figure these out as I matured cognitively and made reading my leisure activity. As a young child, I cannot recall ever consciously thinking of Creole as a discrete language. Creole utterances were instead conceived as failed attempts at ‘trying’ to communicate especially when uttered in formal settings.

The eureka experience of three Year One college students shared in a reflective activity represents a step forward in terms of an enlightened view of the language situation in which we co-exist as a people. The first student from St Elizabeth explained the traumatic way in which she came to realize that the home and school languages were separate with the former variation becoming a source of ridicule when she visited her mother in Kingston. While playing with new friends in Kingston, they taunted her about how ‘funny’ she spoke. Her Aunt with whom she lived in St. Elizabeth as well as her teacher encouraged her to “speak properly” but in her reception of language she did not perceive any difference in the way they spoke and the way she did. No one modeled how to “speak properly.” The second student from Trelawney had asked his Mum at a tender age to “shub deh palish deh gi mi.” and was told by Mum to “speak English and use the magic word.” His ingenious response was, “Mammy, shub di palish gi mi, please.” His Mums laughter and explanation that his response was not English remained fresh in his mind to this day. Later, at Primary School, he would not participate during class discussions and eventually developed “twang” or foreign accent after he was placed in a seating position next to a student visiting from overseas. A third student from an inner city community did not pay attention to English until he was being prepared to sit the C.X/C English Paper 1 during Fifth Form.
What is clear from these narratives is that the way the languages were revealed to each student had mostly disquieting and puzzling effects on their language attitude and acquisition in ways that are untenable and undeserving. Quite frankly, as a sovereign country, we have rendered a disservice to a wide majority of the generations of Jamaicans who have been schooled here since our political independence some fifty years ago.

During this milestone celebration of our fiftieth year of self-determination, a clear linguistic path on which the future of the country stands should have been a resounding undertaking on the part of policymakers. Both English and Jamaican need to be recognized as important aspects of our identity as Jamaicans. The draft National Language Policy formulated over a decade now is yet to be fully endorsed and implemented and revised to match the changing needs of speakers. As a result, we have over time etched out two worlds divided along linguistic lines and social inequity where the individual who was born in an environment with opportunities to interact in English on a frequent basis develops a close approximation to the acrolectal form of Jamaican English that is used in schools and other formal settings. On the other hand, the Creole speaker who has little exposure or opportunity to indulge in conversation with speakers of English will lag behind in many areas of school and personal life. The former individual is therefore at a head start in being able to participate in formal main stream schooling while the latter  must first leap the hurdle of learning the rudiments of English to confidently participate and benefit fully from what mainstream schooling has to offer. In reality, teachers tend to teach to the mainstream using a close approximation to Standard Jamaican English as the language of instruction. As he or she matures, the learner whose language is in sync with the language of school, to a large extent,  is able to understand and participate in most formal discourses including politics, finance and the legal framework of the country. On the other hand, the child born in a Creole speaking environment where opportunities to interact using English are minimal or non-existence; will most likely develop a mesolectal or basilectal Creole language that replicates the variation most prevalent in his or her immediate social environment. This inequity in effect excludes him or her from engagement in formal discourses that affect his personal life in a definitive way.

The literature shows that some teachers, especially some in rural schools do not use Standard English themselves, hence, the distinction between first language (L1) and second language (L2) becomes more difficult for Creole speakers even way into High School years. The resultant dissonance in the attitudes some Jamaican students display towards language and their linguistic identity has far reaching effects even at the tertiary level and beyond.

To mitigate the impact of the inequity in the linguistic differentials and life chances of both groups of learners, a bilingual education where the distinction between both languages is made explicit to learners using highly communicative approaches is crucial. For learners whose first language is English, the need to know about the history and structure of Jamaican Creole is as equally important as it is for the Creole speakers to learn about the inner structures of both languages. From a student-centered or a constructivist perspective, rich interactive environments should guide the language curriculum of even the very young Caribbean speaker. Both languages should be modeled to match appropriate contexts. For example, in telling folk stories or Classic English fairy tales,young  students should determine what variety of the language is being used and the culture in which the story was developed as soon as they are able to differentiate both languages. As they get older, they should be guided in retelling using either of the two languages. Although this approach may cause concerns with some parents with their own language fears and prejudices, translating from one language to this next at an early age would mitigate against the linguistic ignorance described by the older students mentioned earlier.

An overriding thought about the whole matter is that language is a core aspect of culture that impacts the psychological well-being of speakers. Jamaica is a country where its Art forms or culture is pivotal to every other aspect of living. Lev Vygotsky, Russian psychologist, views language as a cultural resource or tool that mediates learning during interaction. For Vygotsky, interchanges afforded through language facilitate the learner “first on the social plane” then converts to thought on “the psychological” or mental plane. Jean Piaget, noted educational psychologist and biologist, also established a clear link between thoughts and language but depicts language as being first an inward experience as the learner accommodates and assimilates new experiences in his or her schema or mental structure.  For Piaget, thoughts precede social interactions. If language is intricately link to thinking and learning as is being proposed here, then a clear path to effective language instruction is extremely crucial.

If we were to explore the ideology of democracy in its broadest sense, then we would need to also examine the dynamism and the legitimacy of the cultural tools used to express this ideal. Language is at the core of almost every human activity on earth. Speaking from principles of social inclusion embedded in the Jamaican motto or from principles of participatory governance as an ideal of true democracy, it is clear that mother tongue language or the language of intimacy also called the heart language is intricate to positive outcomes in crucial areas such as language instruction or participatory governance. The underpinning principles of social justice, democracy and self-regulatory learning are important ideals in an enlightened age. If the mother tongue language of over 97% of a population is not fully liberated or recognized then psychological impacts such as having a warped sense of what the late Rex Nettleford and Barry Chevannes refer to as ‘smaddiness’ or  self-identity should not seem incomprehensible to anyone.
Are the social maladies including acts of barbarity which have become ubiquitous in Jamaica indicative of this twisted sense of identity? Non-recognition of the mother tongue or home language of the majority is a blatant act of exclusion from the formal mechanisms that govern lives. This is tantamount to an act of disenfranchisement on those mandated to make enabling policies on behalf of the masses. This neglect of duty goes against the ethos of social inclusion entrenched in the Constitution that is guided by the International Convention on Human Rights established in 1948 and to which Jamaica has been a noted signatory.
In the regional space of the Caribbean, stakeholders in Language Education should, through policies and practice, inculcate an attitude where knowledge of language and language competence is viewed as being economically sound since language as a commercial entity is necessary to successfully and creatively negotiate and communicate in arenas of the Arts. We want our students to see knowledge of and competence in use of the dominant mother tongue and Standard English; the acclaimed lingua franca of the global community as being liberating and valuable. We want students to view competency in and knowledge of language as power in itself as well as access to power. Being ill equipped linguistically in this knowledge based economy and shrinking global space is tantamount to closing the doors of opportunities in one’s own face. We therefore, want students to realize that in an increasingly seamless global space, the core of one’s self-definition should be fully understood, preserved and anchored. Of equal significance, is the need to master competence in several key world languages to remain relevant and marketable! This need to be linguistically rounded should be seen as a bread and butter issue for artists or artistes who are being prepared to interact and compete in a global space where global trotting is a way of life especially in the realm of entertainment and cultural exchanges.
We cannot afford to get sidetracked by the prevailing vortex where Jamaicans sense that to be accepted as accomplished citizens, they are required to unlearn or shed their home language. This language represents a defining aspect of their core being. For it to be replaced by a perceived superior English language is ill perceived. Surely, we would have failed to recognize the cultural goldmine on which we have been sitting in the creative space of the region where culture and language are crucial to our mission and Caribbean economy. While we sit complacent and distracted, the international entertainment arenas including Hollywood have repackaged and re-branded a hybridized version of the Jamaican national language to their advantage. It is now being said that Paris is the new capital of Reggae. Will the mother tongue of most Jamaicans take a north bound flight and follow course? Jamaica should not wait to discover a response. Jamaicans should embrace what is a part of their inner being without losing sight of the need to master English in a comprehensive manner.

January 2013




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