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Michel DeGraff on Haitian Kreyòl

Comments by Michel DeGraff on responses to his petition on Haitian Kreyòl

As it turns out, these responses echo age-old arguments about the (mis)use of language in Haitian schools and in Haitian society at large. Yves Dejean and many others have addressed such arguments in previous publications. See, for example, Yves Dejean’s 2006 book _Yon lekòl tèt anba nan yon lekòl tèt anba_. As shown in Dejean’s publications, many of these counter-arguments against his petition have been made made and un-made over and over again.

Unfortunately my current schedule won’t allow time to engage in these discussions. The good news is that I have already addressed similar arguments in a couple of mailing lists targeted to (mostly) non-academic types interested in Haiti and to educators and NGOs in Haiti—people who are much closer to the facts (and to the trenches!) of these debates. My responses on these mailing lists seem to apply to the responses that you’ve forwarded to me. So I’ll just cut-and-paste from these earlier posts and add a few more specific comments here an there.

Also see my recent Op-Ed articles in the Boston Globe in the U.S. and Le Nouvelliste in Haiti:

Re the question “Kreyòl instead of French” vs. “Kreyòl alongside French” and re the comparison between Haiti vs. Germany, Switzerland, etc:

XXX in her post, like many before, has mis-interpreted the fundamental objective of Professor Dejean’s petition and my own position.

Fortunately some of the core issues in XXX’s post are already addressed in the following paragraph in Dejean’s petition—which I would invite XXX and others to re-read:

“Many countries in the world, especially in Africa and Asia, have 2, 3, 4 or more areas that lack a common language. This problem exists nowhere in Haiti. With Creole (i.e., a language that EVERYONE speaks in Haiti) as the language of instruction, all children would be able to study calculus, geography, history, etc., with utmost earnestness. Similarly they will be able to take advantage of any good program for the study of French, a language that has been implanted in Haiti since colonial times.”

Far from us any thought to “limit education” to Kreyòl and impose monolingualism on all Haitians. Our objective is “simply” for Haitian schools to make systematic use of Kreyòl as the language of instruction for all academic subjects, and especially for literacy, This objective is based on decades of research of the beneficial role of the native language as medium of instruction and on the robust fact that Kreyòl is the one language that *every* Haitian in Haiti speaks—and most as their *only* language.

Of course, using Kreyòl as the language of instruction does not prevent any Haitian schools that *already* have the financial means—a minuscule number in Haiti—to look and pay for *adequate* teachers to teach French, Spanish, English… and perhaps even Fongbe, Yoruba, Swahili, Chinese, etc. But all these languages would be taught as what they are, that is as *foreign* languages.

For now it’s not clear to me how many schools in Haiti would even be able to find and pay teachers who are competent to adequately teach French to the general population. The vast majority of Haitian teachers are still not fluent in French. No wonder that after two centuries of education in French (or some version of French) the vast majority of population still cannot speak French. Compare with, say, Spanish-speaking Haitians in the Dominican Republic, English-speaking Haitians in the U.S., French-speaking Haitians in Montreal, German-speaking Haitians in Germany, etc. The issue is clear: in Haiti for the past two centuries there simply has not been any adequate linguistic or pedagogical milieu that would allow Haitians to learn French.

Be that as it may, the education system in Haiti is still struggling to fund basic training of Haitian teachers and publication of Kreyòl text books, especially in mathematics and experimental sciences for the higher grades. So my hunch is that it is such efforts that currently deserve highest priority—efforts to ensure that the majority of Haitian children receive adequate instruction in their native languages so they can gain mastery in other domains, without any linguistic chip on their shoulders.

Another highest priority is a well-informed and massive educational campaign so that teachers, parents and students all understand the value of using children’s native language in their schools as an indispensable basis for building knowledge in all other cognitive and academic areas—as documented in decades of linguistic and pedagogical research.

For some online references on this topic, see:

Re the claim that French should be used as language of instruction in Haiti because most Haitian parents (allegedly) want their children to learn French in school—let’s assume, for the sake of argumentation, that there’s empirical support for such a claim (I myself don’t know of any such reliable statistics about “most Haitian parents”):

I remember studies going back to the 1940s and 1950s that suggested that most African-American children prefer to play with white dolls instead of black dolls. See, e.g., Kenneth and Mamie Phipps Clark’s famous dolls studies. For a fictional take on this syndrome, see Toni Morrisson’s “Bluest Eye.” In the Clarks’ studies, the majority of black children found the black dolls bad, dirty and ugly, while the white dolls were considered nice and pretty. And the black children often refused to identify with the black dolls.

In a related vein, there are studies from the 1960s onward that have documented the various ways whereby francophone Canadians in Montreal often look down upon their native French and consider anglophone Canadians superior (see, e.g., Lambert et al’s 1960 article “Evaluative reactions to spoken language” in _Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology_).

The “most Haitian parents wants French” argument could then be extrapolated to these cases to argue for: (i) the massive distribution of white dolls among African-American children, and (ii) the promotion of English over French in Montreal. Fortunately, black civil-right leaders like the Kenneth and Mamie Clark and Thurgood Marshall in the U.S. and pro-French language-policy makers in Québec knew better—though much work remains to be done on both fronts!

And I suspect that most serious scholars would not have used the Clarks’ and Lambert et al’s studies to argue for the widespread distribution of white dolls to black kids and the wholesale adoption of English in Québec. What these studies suggest is that stigmatized groups often internalize the stigmatization they suffer from, thus the need for aggressive policies to combat said stigmatization—be it linguistic or otherwise.

Here’s a quote from Kenneth Clark’s 1965 book _Dark Ghetto: Dilemmas of Social Power_ about “The Psychology of the Ghetto” (p63f):

“Human beings who are forced to live under ghetto conditions and whose daily experience tells them that almost nowhere in society are they respected and granted the ordinary dignity and courtesy accorded to others will, as a matter of course, begin to doubt their own worth. Since every human being depends upon his cumulative experiences with others for clues as to how he should view and value himself, children who are consistently rejected understandably begin to question and doubt whether they, their family, and their group really deserve no more respect from the larger society than they receive. These doubts become the seeds of a pernicious self- and group-hatred, the Negro’s complex and debilitating prejudice against himself.”

So I myself would not take the claim that “most Haitian parents want French for their children” (a consequence of external and internalized discrimination) as a serious argument that French, a foreign language for most Haitian children, should be used as language of instruction in Haiti. The use of French as language of instruction for Kreyòl-speaking children in Haiti is exactly what Dejean’s petition argues against. And this petition is one step among others toward fighting centuries of “ghettoization” against monolingual Kreyòl-speakers in Haiti (i.e., the vast majority of Haitians).

Here are some related comments cut-and-pasted from a previous discussion on this topic on another mailing list:

As for the resistance you mention on the parts of parents about Kreyòl-based education: It is a well-established result in social psychology that the oppressed often internalize the stigmatization that is imposed on them by the élites of their society. The Martinican psychiatrist Frantz Fanon has offered many case studies of linguistic insecurity in the context of colonial and neo-colonial societies, with an analysis of francophilia among (wanna-be) francophones in Africa and the Caribbean. The Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci and French
sociologists Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu have written quite on how State institutions, including the school systems, create and maintain these self-hating attitudes across generations that despise their local linguistic and cultural assets.

In the particular case of Haitian Kreyòl-speaking parents, their resistance to Kreyòl-based education seems related to the very sort of attitudes illustrated at ONG cluster meetings where Kreyòl is, by and large, effectively excluded and to the sort of arguments and value
judgments voiced in your email below about French and Creole, with your claim that lack of fluency in French (i.e., taking French as a foreign language in Haiti) would be a cause of “impoverishment” in Haiti.

You wrote today (July 21, 2010) that we should convince these parents that teaching in Kreyòl is, not a step backward, but an efficient teaching method. You also wrote that we should do so, not with words, but with paractice and exemple. Yet the practice so far—for example,
the practice by yourself, by the education cluster and by many state and private organizations—is to use French or English, and exclude Kreyòl, thus excluding the very people that need to be convinced that Kreyòl is a valid language!

In effect, all these practices and examples convey the perception that Kreyòl is not “good enough” as a language and that it is drastically inferior to French, and that Haitians who speak Kreyòl only are not valid interlocutors in these debates about their education. In turn,
these parents find themselves in an ideological trap that the State, the ONG and other public and private organizations have implicitly set up: these parents become victims of the widespread and deeply entrenched perception that social promotion in Haiti is irremediably linked to mastery of the French language, and that fluency in French is a proof of
intelligence. But many Haitians know better. Witness the Kreyòl saying “Pale franse pa vle di lespri!” (=”Speaking French doesn’t mean that you’re intelligent”). Examples are not hard to find.

Instead of defending their children’s human rights and instead of insisting that they be educated in their mother tongue (per UNESCO’s own charter) so they too can have access to a quality education, Kreyòl-speaking parents become victim of this anti-Kreyòl perception
and want their children to learn to read and write in a foreign language, namely French. When children are first taught to read and write in a language that’s foreign to them (and that’s what French is for most Haitian children: a *foreign* language), they cannot comprehend
what they are “taught” and are reduced to silence in the classroom and to rote-memorization of French texts. Worse yet, they run a high risk of becoming academically handicapped for the rest of their lives. These facts have been established for more than 50 years of research and
practice in psycholinguistics and education.

What’s sorely needed is a vigorous and sincere campaign for both the systematic use and the systematic promotion of Kreyòl in all social contexts—a campaign that will educate all demographic sectors about the social, psychological and pedagogical virtues of the use of Kreyòl at all levels of education, especially at the fundamental stages,
starting with pre-school, in order to create strong cognitive foundations in the minds of our children. Such foundations simply cannot bypass the linguistic and cultural assets from our children’s homes and communities.

Such a campaign to elevate the status of Kreyòl and to ensure that parents and educators believe in its use as language of instruction has to start with the Haitian State and with the various organizations engaged in education in Haiti, including the NGOs and individuals on
this email list.

To repeat, the practice and examples in NGO clusters, governmental offices and private businesses that rarely, if ever, use Kreyòl are among the factors that reinforce the perception that Kreyòl is not to be considered on a par with French. Given such practices, Haitian
parents, even those who don’t speak French (the majority!), are simply making what they consider a “wise” investment in what they see as the differential values of the goods offered by Haiti’s “linguistic market”—to use a term-of-art from the work of sociologist Pierre

So, Mr. XXX, let’s work together in *concrete* fashion via “practice and examples” so that one day the majority of Haitian children in Haiti, just like the majority of French children in France, can blossom in pre-schools, in schools and in universities that make systematic and
expert use of their native language as language of instruction. That way, our children can grow to become competent and self-confident professionals in the language that they will most need to interact with virtually all their compatriots.

Re the “the teaching of both Haitian AND French” in Haiti, more cut-and-paste from a previous post to another list:

Re your stated desire that all Haitians become bilingual: My linguistics
training and expertise, plus everyday observations of language learning
in different contexts, have convinced me that fluency in any language is
imposible without a certain minimum of exposure to data from that
language. In Haiti, there’s simply not enough fluent French speakers or
competent French teachers to ensure such required exposure to French.
The only linguistic immersion in which most Haitians find themselves is

Haitians in the Dominican Republic, in the U.S., and in Montreal
routinely learn Spanish, English and French, respectively—much better
than they ever manage to learn French in Haiti. This seems to me clear
evidence that Haitians can indeed learn any language once they’re
immersed in the adequate linguistic milieu.

Here’s one possible solution to this dilemma—one that may help achieve
*total* bilingualism in Haiti: What about importing hundreds of
thousands of competent French teachers or millions of fluent French
speakers and disperse them throughout Haiti? This seems to be a minimal
condition to ensure that some 9 million Haitians who speak Kreyòl only
would, one day, become perfectly bilingual in Kreyòl and French.

Re the status and teaching of French in Haiti, another cut-and-pasted passage:

it may seem ironic that the best way to teach French to Kreyòl-speaking
Haitians is to actually start with the fact that they don’t know French
and to teach them French as a foreign language.

Such teaching of French cannot be relegated to teachers who don’t know
French (the majority in Haiti), who have no formation in the teaching of
French and whose jobs is to teach other subjects—reading, writing,
math, science, etc. The teaching of French in most Haitian schools must
happen in French-language classrooms by teachers who know French and who
are trained as French-language teachers. It is a well-attested fact
that most Haitian schools lack teachers with such a profile.

As for the claim that non-fluency in French will impoverish the country,
this is a self-fulfilling prophecy—a myth that too many Haitians have
bought into for too long, with the complicity of the élites and
organizations that ignore the linguistic and cultural assets of our
nation. This myth, among other fallacies, is at the root of the
State’s failure to-date to educate its general population.

That’s why it’s so important to get rid of all these explicit and
subliminal messages that put Kreyòl the status of a second-class
language and to enlist every opportunity to use and promote Kreyòl in
all institutions operating in Haiti, including NGOs, governmental
offices and private businesses. How about a Morisseau-Leroy Prize or a
Frankétienne Prize for professors that make the best use of Kreyòl in
their classroom? Without relentless pro-Kreyòl-advocacy, parents (and
teachers) will continue to reject Kreyòl (and Kreyòl books) as a valid
medium of instruction. Unfortunately this rejection eventually impedes
the cognitive and academic development of most Haitian children.

When Haitian schools start making competent use of Haitian children’s
mother tongue, they will, at last, stand a chance to successfully teach
them a variety of useful skills which they can use to serve their fellow
Kreyòl-speaking compatriots, and they’l be able to do so in Kreyòl
without any linguistic insecurity. Such practical skills can, in turn,
concretely contribute to socio-economic improvement. In the current
system, children in most schools do not learn to adequately read or
write, they do not learn much that is useful, and they do not become
fluent in French. What they end up “learning” are a bunch of formulaic
phrases that they mimic without much understanding. Anyhow, in most
rural communities, French is of relatively little practical value as
compared to Kreyòl. So most schools amount to a waste of money, a
waste of energy and a waste of hope.

I think we can do better than that.


3 thoughts on “Michel DeGraff on Haitian Kreyòl”

  1. The notion that French is a “foreign language” in Haiti is ludicrous. French has been spoken as a first and a second language in Haiti for four centuries, longer in fact than Creole. It is also an official and administrative language used in government, higher education, and in the mass media. Haitians are therefore exposed to French in many ways and, whether you like it or not, this language is an integral part of Haiti’s cultural and linguistic heritage. Citing Bourdieu and Foucault changes nothing to the fact that French is the main lexifier of Haitian Creole, and that many (and yes, most) Haitians do want their children to be fluent in French in addition to Creole. No one questions the usefulness of promoting Haitian Creole as a medium of instruction, for many reasons (pedagogical and cultural among others). But the solution is not French OR Creole, it is French AND Creole, since both are official languages in Haiti. Again, there are many examples (in Canada for example) of countries where children are schooled in 2 or more languages, and are perfectly capable of acquiring native-like proficiency in these languages. The promotion of Haitian need not be at the expense of French, quite the opposite : in recent posts on the Linguist List for example, I have argued that promoting Haitian Creole as a medium of instruction can actually help in the acquisition of French (and other languages). The main challenge is to overcome historical prejudice against the use of Creole, and more recent positions that seek to demonize French as the language of (neo)colonialism. English was also a language of oppression and enslavement for centuries, yet no one is arguing against the use of English in schools in Jamaica or Barbados, as far as I know.

  2. Mr. Mather,

    If French is a first and second language in Haiti, how many Haitian who speak French and this includes those who have secondary education?

  3. Do the french still use latin? NO
    so why should we use french. I will admit creole does need a MAJOR orthographic reform but other than that it could be used proficiently in schools

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