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More on Haitian Kreyòl and the education system

Some interesting comments on the education system in general in a
New York Times Editorial on Haitian Education

These comments were posted in response to the Petition to have textbooks in Kreyòl in the schools (the last post on this SLA Blog):

Nancy Reyes says
Are you implying that Haitian kids are dumber than kids whose first language is Catalan, Swiss dialect, Cebuano or Karanga but have to study books written in the language of the majority (Spanish, German, Tagalog, Shona)?

For younger kids, immersion works,In Africa, the teacher speaks slowly and explains things in the local language when they have a problem. And the cost of printing all textbooks in the local dialect is huge: remember, even in Haiti there are three local dialects.

Instead of spending oodles of money to print “new” textbooks in local dialect, if you want to improve education, find a way to give out cheap protein supplements into the villages and given out in school nutrition programs, so the kids brains aren’t damaged by malnutrition.

and, FYI:
It is corruption, not language, that is the cause of Haiti’s problems.
August 13, 2010, 6:31 pm

Patrick-André Mather, University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras says
Dear colleagues,
I have read the petition by Yves Dejean, and as a linguist and creolist, I am probably the only “voix discordante” in this apparently unanimous support for Haitian Creole as the sole language of instruction in Haiti.

Suggesting that the current principal language of instruction (French) is the sole or main culprit for Haiti’s failing education system seems unfair and misguided. There are many examples of successful diglossic situations throughout the world, for example in Switzerland where the majority of the population speaks Swiss German, yet is educated in Standard German, without any apparent problem in students’ success rates. To think that changing the whole educational system to Haitian is going to solve the poor perfomance, low literacy rates, and underfunding of the schools is not very realistic.

Most Haitian parents WANT their children to learn French in school. Who are we to tell them otherwise, even if we mean well? How likely is such a move to succeed, if it goes against the wishes of a substantial part of the Haitian population? Learning French, in addition to Haitian Creole, gives Haitians access to a major international language, from which most of their vocabulary is derived, and which is part of Haiti’s historical and cultural heritage, whether you like it or not. It also facilitates access to all kinds of exchange programs with French-speaking countries and universities, and should not be seen purely as an instrument of discrimination. In other countries, such as Canada (Quebec), native languages like Inuktitut are used during the first 2 or 3 years of instruction, after which other languages are introduced, such as French and English. Children are perfectly capable of acquiring native-like proficiency in more than one language, and I think well-meaning American linguists should perhaps ask the Haitians themselves if they think French should be eliminated from the education system, or whether a more moderate, mixed approach should be adopted, strengthening the teaching of both Haitian AND French, instead of using French as a scapegoat for the failings of a corrupt and underfunded education system.
Although I hold the authors and signataries of this petition in high regard (some are colleagues and personal friends), I cannot sign it as it is currently worded, because it is completly one-sided, and apparently does not take into account the wishes and opinions of Haitians themselves, who are, after all, “les principaux intéressés”.
Patrick-André Mather
August 15, 2010, 12:01 am

Ronald Kephart says
The fact is that the status quo, which denies Haitian children access to literacy and at least early education through their first language, Kreyòl, is at best educational malpractice and arguably a crime against humanity, a crime by the way that virtually all the nations of the West Indies are guilty of. See the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

There is of course no doubt that Haitian children can benefit from learning French, as well as English, Spanish, and whatever other languages they might find useful. But to claim that this means that Kreyòl should not be used in schools, and especially that it should not be used for literacy acquisition, is to be oblivious to the mountains of research that have shown that children only need to learn to read once, and that they accomplish this more easily and efficiently (not to mention enjoyably) in their first language, the one they are most in tune with. Learning to read first in Kreyòl will not cut children off from French, or any other language they want to learn.

After all these centuries of abuse, can we not give these children the benefits of our linguistic and educational research?
August 17, 2010, 10:11 am

Patrick-Andre Mather says
Dear colleagues,
Haiti’s educational reforms of the 1980s and 1990s specifically mention that Kreyol should be used as the language of instruction during the first years of schooling. In addition, Kreyol and French are now both official languages, which is a welcome development. The problem is that the educational reforms have not (yet) been properly implemented, due to lack of funds, awareness, etc.. If they were, then the mixed approach which i mention in my first post would be a reality. The central problem in the Haitian education system, is that there is neither the will nor the funds to properly implement reforms that would (a) ensure that ALL Haitian children have access to free, universal public education and (b) ensure that ALL Haitian children be afforded the possibility to be educated in BOTH official languages (and also in foreign languages like Spanish and English). Trying to eliminate French from the curriculum in itself will achieve nothing.

Patrick-André Mather

3 thoughts on “More on Haitian Kreyòl and the education system”

  1. A couple of things, quickly, before I try to comply with Leila’s request for some references on literacy:

    (1) “It is corruption, not language, that is the cause of Haiti’s problems.” Well, no, not really. Corruption is itself a symptom of deeper problems, most of which go back to the ways in which Haiti has been (mis)treated since the creation of the sugar colony of Sent Domeng. The problems begin with slavery, but they did not end with independence. First, you have US refusing to recognize the new Republic, fearing that our own slaves might get ideas. Then, in 1826, France, that beacon of “civilization,” begins to extort from Haiti restitution for the wealth of the sugar colony that France had lost. Imagine if the British had tried to demand such payment from the newly independent USA! Haitians finally finished paying off France in the 1940s or 50s, to the tune of what today would be 21.7 billion dollars. To manage this, Haitians had to curtail education programs, social services, and who knows what else for well over a century. And then, of course, there’s the US’s brutal 1915-1934 occupation of Haiti by US Marines, who carried back to the US bizarre lies about Vodoun, etc. I could go on and on, but let me refer you to Noam Chomsky’s chapter “The Tragedy of Haiti” in Year 501: The Conquest Continues, South End Press 1993. Anything Paul Farmer has written on Haiti is also certain to be helpful.

    (2) I don’t think anyone is arguing that Haitian children shouldn’t be given the opportunity to learn French (though personally, I think that given their location in the world Spanish and English would probably serve them better). Nor is anyone arguing that they should be “taught” Kreyòl. They come to school already knowing Kreyòl; they need to learn to read and write, and what I think we are arguing is that Kreyòl would be the best medium for initial literacy. I will try to provide some references for this assertion later.

    (3) It might be also worth calling attention to the fact that varieties of French Creole, including Haitian, make up after Spanish the second most widely spoken language group in the Caribbean region. There is an ever-widening community of French Creole readers and writers across the West Indies, from Haiti to French Guiana. These creoles are, with some adjustment, mutually intelligible. So literacy in Kreyòl would not necessarily be isolating at all, but rather would open Haitians up to a wider community of French Creole speakers, writers, and readers.

    (4) May I use this forum to make the plea that The French Academy, in its Infinite Wisdom, adopt the Haitian IPN spelling for Standard French? Written French would then actually be comprehensible to us poor mortals who struggle with all those unnecessary letters!

  2. I agree completely with (4) : I *wish* the Academie Française would adopt phonetic spelling for Standard French. I have spent the past 12 years teaching French to foreigners, and thanking Heaven (though I’m an atheist) for having learnt French as a first language. I would *hate* to have to learn it as an adult.
    In terms of the French Creole communities in the Caribbean, I hope the various creole languages can be given more room in academia, in the press, the media, etc. But surely you know that creole speakers in Martinique, Guadeloupe and French Guiana are also quite fluent in standard French. Haitians could be, too, if there education system were revamped and made available to all.
    Again, my point is : Haitian Creole alongside French, not *instead* of French, in the schools.

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