Love of language

MassBay president draws on ties to her native Haiti for her new book on the history of Creole

(Massbay Community College)
By Alex Beam
Globe Staff / December 11, 2010

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Q. Tell me about your experience with Creole, and why you wrote this book.

A. I was born in Haiti, left at the age of eight, and grew up in New York City. I learned to speak French and Creole at home, and was always interested in languages. My father was a diplomat, who traveled, and I came from a very multicultural family. I heard a lot of languages growing up as a child. I became a teacher in the 1970s when bilingual education was coming back in the US, and I prepared myself to teach languages to children. There were very few foreign language programs for children, even though they learn languages so easily.

Q. Is there much Creole-English bilingual education out there?

A. There is some in New York and Miami. Boston doesn’t have much bilingual education for anybody. The rich appreciate that bilingualism is a good thing, so many private schools know the value of learning a second language.

Q. Your book calls Creole a “stigmatized language.’’ Why?

A. There is some confusion about that. Creole means “less than,’’ or “mixture,’’ because Creole emerged through contacts with European languages. At some point in its development, it became a full-fledged language.

There is still a stigma against Creole, because the society doesn’t value it. If it’s not the language of industry or education, people won’t think it’s useful. Haitian people think the only way their kids will make it, is if they learn French. Sometimes, when the schools try to teach Creole, the parents will say, “You’re trying to hold my child back.’’ That reality hasn’t changed.

My hope in doing this book is that we’ll see this language as a useful tool. It’s been an official language of Haiti since 1987, along with French, and some people now call Creole the Haitian language. But you can’t tell people what to call their language.

You know, French and Spanish used to be considered “corrupt’’ Latin. But people don’t call them that any more, because they have become languages of their own, they have their dictionaries and books.

Q. But I read in your book that Creole doesn’t have much of a written tradition.

A. Yes, written Creole is fairly new. The first Creole orthography dates from the 1950s, with another version coming out in the 1970s. This occurs with all languages in development. Creole doesn’t have the history of, say, French. If you go to Haiti now, you’ll see billboards in Creole that weren’t there when I was a child.

Q. How has the crisis in Haiti affected you personally, and has the college undertaken any aid or relief efforts there?

A. MassBay has adopted a K through 8 elementary school in Jacmel. We had a delegation that went there in the summer, they brought backpacks and other supplies for the children.

I have felt a great deal of pain and helplessness. I went to Haiti in October to cochair a higher education consortium meeting organized by UMass-Boston. There were over 100 attendees and over 50 colleges, universities, and national organizations represented, from the US, Europe, Canada, the Caribbean, and South America. We are trying to organize colleges that could partner in rebuilding the higher education system. The state university of Haiti had 13 buildings, and 11 were destroyed. They lost faculty and students.

It was hard for me to go there and see the devastation. Everyone knows that Haiti is a poor country. Even before the earthquake things were bad so you can just imagine what that does now to that fragile infrastructure. Interview was edited and condensed.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is


The president of MassBay Community College, is the co-editor of a new book, “The Haitian Creole Language: History, Structure, Use, and Education.’’