The Language of Education

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The Language of Education

Post by admin » Fri Mar 11, 2005 11:40 pm

The Language of Education
An Attempt at Unity
Conor Bohan
June 1999

In an attempt at unity in this divisive language issue, could we all start out by agreeing with several premises?
  • "The more the merrier." Are we not all better off if we speak two languages as opposed to just one, three as opposed to two, and so on? The advantages of multi-lingualism should be apparent to all. Certainly the Haitians contributing (in flawless English) to this discussion will not argue this point.
  • English is the undisputed Universal language and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. English is the international language of business and commerce, science, academia and entertainment (movies, TV, music etc.) Whether this is a good or bad thing is up for dispute, but the dominance of English is not.
  • Given politics, geography and recent history, Haiti is increasingly under the "sphere of influence" of the United States and its cultural ties to France are fading. For Haitian business, technology, and tourism (to name a few) English is the most important 2nd language.
  • French has been, and will continue to be, the language of higher education in Haiti and the written and publicly spoken language of the Haitian bourgeoisie.
  • The upper-middle class and upper class in Haiti will never send their children to schools where the primary language of instruction is Haitian Creole. They will continue to send their children to Union School, Canado, Lycée Francais, Lalue, St. Louis Gonzague etc. in P-a-P, and to the "fréres" and "soeurs" outside the capital.
  • Thus, if primary and secondary public education is conducted primarily in Haitian Creole, the "verbal class distinction" will be further institutionalized. Those who do not speak French and/or English will be, as they are now, denied access to many jobs and to higher education.
  • In the era of "Globalization" a person who speaks only Haitian Creole will be linguistically marginalized in the modern world. This will diminish the educational, economic and social opportunities available to them within their own country and to a greater extent outside their country.
  • Shouldn't the goal be, not to continue language division in Haiti, but to eliminate it by making every Haitian high school graduate bilingual (Creole and French) if not trilingual (English)?[/*:m]
This is NOT an attempt to diminish Haitian Creole as a language or as a means of instruction. Creole is a tremendously rich language which should not be denigrated but officially encouraged. The government could do this in several ways:
  • Encourage Creole writing in schools by making Creole poetry and literature a part of the "core curriculum" and making Creole a mandatory subject in the Bacc. exams.
  • Stage Creole productions at the National Theatre, sponsor nation-wide high profile Creole writing competitions for grade schools, high schools and universities, and perhaps film and drama festivals. (Prizes for the winners of these competitions could be trips to other Creole speaking countries)
  • Make passing a Creole exam (and perhaps a French exam) a prerequisite for admittance to the State university and for getting a coveted government job, ANY gvt job. (Similar law exists in Ireland with respect to Gaelic).
  • For a model of how to officially promote your own language we have only to look to the French who are experts at this with their "institutes" and "Alliances" worldwide. These promotions would not be expensive but would serve to "valorize" Haitian Creole.[/*:m]
It is not a question (as has been suggested) of having anyone "master" their maternal language before moving on to other languages. In fact the latest research on language acquisition shows quite the opposite - that the earlier children are exposed to the different sounds of a new language, the faster and better they acquire it. People who grow up perfectly bilingual don't "wait" to learn the second language. The brain is more than capable of handling these two things at once.

Thus the sooner the better. Basic instruction in French could start in early primary school. Before 6eme, instruction could be entirely bilingual (half the classes in French and half in Creole) and English could be introduced as a third language. Six years of decent English instruction will provide a reasonable level for those who need English for tourism and business within Haiti.

For those who ask if there is anyplace that educates everybody in a language other than their native one the answer is yes. There are several. Does anyone do it well? Yes but the list is smaller. (Switzerland and the former Soviet Union come to mind, as does Holland where instruction is bilingual and most Dutch high school graduates speak flawless English.)

Last year in Haiti I met a Swiss university student who grew up in a Swiss-German speaking suburb of a French speaking city. The language of her house was Swiss-German (a Creole German of sorts). At the local grade school the language of instruction was "High German." French was studied beginning in early primary school, and English was started in the sixth grade. The high school in a neighboring town drew people from both French and German speaking areas and instruction was bilingual with continued study of English. University in the French city was also bilingual; the professors could lecture in their choice of French or German. Regardless of the language the class was delivered in, the students could pose a question in German or French. The professor was obliged to respond to the question but not necessarily in the language of the questioner.

The woman I met was a biology student and she told me that since English was the international scientific language, after the first year all scientific papers had to be written and presented in English. This woman was educated in 3 languages, none of which was her native one.

Of course it's complicated, but it works. And certainly graduates of these primary, secondary and tertiary institutions are much better off than their monolingual counterparts in Haiti or anywhere else. I will add that this woman expressed regret that she could not write her native Swiss German as well as these other languages, thus my proposals for strengthening Creole requirements.

Teacher training is obviously the biggest issue. However it is not much harder to train bilingual teachers than it is to train monolingual teachers. The bulk of decently prepared teachers in Haiti who will actually teach in public schools will come from the ENS. (Most graduates of the education programs at private universities prefer to go into the Ministère or into private school administration.) Most graduates of ENS speak decent enough French to teach it. The real problem is that in order to start decent French instruction in primary school, Haiti needs a whole new generation of well-trained primary school teachers. Many Haitians never make it to secondary school and many that do are already hopelessly behind.

Thus the focus should be put on training primary school teachers. (I believe that there is a state recognized primary teacher-training program run by Catholic nuns although I do not know any of the details. Perhaps someone else could fill us in.) The government needs a massive teacher training program for primary school teachers. The state should offer free post-Bacc. training to qualified candidates on the condition that graduates of the program owe a certain number of years (2, 3, 4) teaching in public schools to which they are assigned by the state. This will ensure that decent teachers are dispersed across the country and not just concentrated in P-a-P. There are several successful models for massive teacher-training and subsequent nationwide education and literacy programs. Post revolutionary Cuba is one example. Cuba's pre-revolutionary literacy rate was probably no more than 20%. 20 years later it was over 90% and today, at 96%, is greater than that of the U.S. I'm not here to debate the merits of the Castro revolution; only to point out that we don't have to go very far to find an example of a successful national education initiative accomplished in a short time span. There are other examples in post-colonial African nations.

These are my proposals based on the 8 rather simple premises. My plan is for a strengthening of ALL language instruction with the goal of :
  • strengthening Creole's role in Haitian society
  • erasing the verbal class distinction that the educated classes use to separate themselves from the uneducated majority and
  • increasing English proficiency so that the Haitians will be able to fully participate in the global exchange of goods, services and ideas to which they are all entitled and to which they have something extremely worthwhile to contribute.[/*:m]

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