Language Issue: My Perspective (Guy Antoine)

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Language Issue: My Perspective (Guy Antoine)

Post by » Wed Mar 09, 2005 11:08 pm

Are the languages truly in opposition to each other? I have yet to see a fork (on its own) attack a spoon, or to witness the fork and the spoon plotting against the knife. You could choose to debate which of the fork, the spoon, and the knife is truly the most useful. As for me, I'd rather have all three.

Though if all I really had to my disposition were a fork, I would not want you to teach me the art of eating a fine meal with a spoon while you're eating and I am starving...

For our discussion on language to become truly relevant, we need to frame it better. We need to establish some parameters. When we speak of education for instance, are we talking about literacy, are we talking about primary, secondary grades, or university? It would help to know just what you have in mind.

Are we talking of conducting world diplomacy in Haitian Creole, or the basic affairs and responsibilities of the State in regard to its citizens? Are we talking of conducting commerce with the Dominican Republic or with Nassau, or whispering some "bons mots" in the ears of the belles that we might wish to seduce?

In a country as polarized as Haiti, are we talking of the privileged (who certainly did not attain their status due to their mastery over any language... but predominantly to other factors) or are we talking about the great majority of Haitians who currently speak nothing BUT Kreyòl, and do not know how to read and write?

Why is it that in Haiti, every Haitian understands Kreyòl, yet many Haitians would not be caught dead speaking Kreyòl to other Haitians in certain social settings? Why? Please answer that.

Why is it that Danish people can learn in Danish (and yet learn to speak German, French, Spanish, Italian, or Russian as a second or third language), but Haitians are thought to be frivolous when they speak of educating Haitians in the primary Haitian language (and still have the opportunity to learn to speak German, French, Spanish, Italian, or Russian as a second or third language) ? Why? Please answer that.

Did not the Catholic Church stop using Latin as the exclusive language for conducting its masses, when it finally realized that people were mouthing prayers without any true understanding of what they were saying? Some still regret the solemnity. It could be that there no longer is a mystery about their communication with God. Why, it suddenly appears so mortal, definitely less magical, and wasn't it so much more beautiful when we really could not understand it?

Learning a language is not an easy process. Albert Einstein declared that it was the greatest single feat that could be accomplished by the human brain and that the second greatest was learning a second language. But with Haitians, many of us had rather teach them French Literature before they learn of the existence of any work of Haitian Literature written in Kreyòl. Some of us would like them to speak well a second language when they have been made to feel inferior for speaking their first language!

It would be foolish I think to advocate that we restrict the use of other languages when we undeniably live and operate in a geopolitical and economic sphere where the key players speak English and Spanish, and when so much of our cultural history is so thoroughly soaked with French... But should not the Haitian people learn to feel comfortable in their own skin first? Once liberated, there is no telling how far they will go. All that talk about what Kreyòl can or cannot do is really just a smoke screen. The key concept here is participation in the national life, and to what extent you are allowed to use the tools you already own.

I grew up speaking French as the primary language spoken to my parents and all of my school teachers. Today, however, I consider French for what it really is: a language, a specialized and wonderful tool for communication with French-speaking people, but no more and no less. It is truly NOT "the language of the Haitian people", but the language spoken by an ever insignificant middle class in Haiti. It is the language of our colonialist past. I do not reject it, because I embrace all world languages, but I am ever cognizant of French's historical role as a stringent class marker in Haiti, a role that is still enforced by Haitian society today.

Though as beautiful a language as any, English does not lend easily to the expressiveness, inventiveness, and sheer poetry of good Kreyòl speakers. I say "good" to distinguish such speakers from the tortured language artists of the Diaspora, who often mix in all manners of French and English in the language. However English is fast becoming the de facto primary/secondary language among Haitian-Americans and Haitians living in the U.S., and increasingly so among Haitian youths in Haiti as well. Some people see this as a form of cultural corruption. I see it as an awakening to the reality that we are isolated with our French colonialist baggage. Haitians need to become more fluent in both English and Spanish in order to communicate on the level with our North American, Caribbean and Latin American neighbors. This does not mean that speaking French is a sin, far from it, but we should recognize the limitations of speaking only French and Kreyòl, in a geopolitical and commercial sphere that is predominantly English/Spanish. Haitians generally learn to speak English with relative ease. After all, English syntax is much easier to master than the formidable French syntax.

As Kreyòl goes, so do the Haitian people. Daniel Fignolé, Maurice Sixto, Felix Morisseau-Leroy, and other great speakers of Kreyòl passed away but their messages live on. "Kreyòl pale, Kreyòl konprann." There are different ways of interpreting that idiom. But I attach to it a certain universality that transcends the language itself. No matter what language we speak, what we communicate is often independent of the actual words we use. The message is what counts.

At this moment, the message spoken by our elites and our politicians to our Haitian countrymen might as well be conveyed in the most obscure of China's dialects. Until the Haitian people start to enjoy the fruit of their labor, and participate to a much greater extent in the reshaping of our national life, all of our words are not worth a damn.

Guy S. Antoine
November 1998

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