Michel DeGraff

Language barrier

Creole is the language of Haiti, and the education system needs to reflect that

By Michel DeGraff
June 16, 2010

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SINCE THE devastating earthquake in Haiti in January, international agencies have committed billions of dollars to build a better educational system and create a level playing field. But one crucial aspect of Haitian history must be considered — one that revolves around language.

Creole is the only language spoken and understood by all Haitians, and the majority speak Creole only. Yet, the language of instruction in schools is French. Schoolchildren are penalized for their use of Creole, even though the State’s national curriculum prescribes its use in primary schools and even though the Haitian Constitution states that “Creole and French are the official languages.’’

The use of French as the language of instruction excludes around 90 percent of Haitians for whom French is an inaccessible foreign tongue. Students are mostly taught and tested in French, and most textbooks are in French. Yet most teachers are not fluent in French.

Creole bears many structural similarities with its French and West-African ancestors. Most Creole words have their etymological roots in French through a historical process somewhat similar to the evolution of French from Latin. But Creole and French have distinct word and sentence structure and distinct sound patterns, and many key words have distinct meanings in the two languages. The Creole-only speaker is hampered when instruction is in French.

Haiti became independent from France in 1804. Even though Creole was, and still is, the only language available for nation building, the elites — mostly mulattoes — promoted the use of French for élite closure. Though he was a ruthless dictator, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, a former slave and the first president of the new nation, had certain egalitarian objectives: he favored land redistribution to former slaves, he defined all Haitians as “black’’ no matter their complexion, and he favored the use of Creole. After his assassination in 1806, mulatto political power and élite closure won their way.

To this date, Haiti is a state of “linguistic apartheid.’’ Haitians who speak only Creole are often treated as second-class citizens. Nowadays, NGO cluster meetings, where the allocation of billions of dollars of international aid is under discussion, are conducted in French and English, excluding the majority of Haitians — those who need the most aid.

As a linguist and native speaker of Creole, I know that the language can express complex and sophisticated concepts. The patterns of development of Creole structures find analogues in the history of languages such as English. Contrary to popular claims, Creole does not isolate Haitians from the rest of the world. In the Americas, more people speak Creole than French, and in the Caribbean, the language has the second-most speakers, after Spanish. Thus, it is French that would isolate Haitians from their neighbors, and it is Spanish or English, not French, that should be promoted as a link between Haiti and its neighbors. Besides, there are countries with populations smaller than Haiti’s, such as Albania, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, and Norway, whose native languages are the languages of discourse within these respective nations.

French should be taught as a foreign language for Haitians, with Creole as the language of instruction. That way, all academic subjects could be adequately taught.There have been timid and unsuccessful efforts since the 1980s to use Creole in the schools. More recently, a few linguists and educators have been working with schools that already use Creole, alongside innovative technology as another indispensable tool. Our goal is to promote accessible, collaborative, child-friendly, child-centered, inquiry-based and hands-on learning as an overdue substitute for the age-old and oppressive rote-memorization of French texts that most students and teachers do not understand. This is an uphill battle.

Without the design and enforcement of a well-structured array of Creole-based and technology-based curricular reforms and teacher training, billions of dollars of international aid will go into the rebuilding of schools that will enlarge the cruel divide between the few haves and the millions of have-nots.

Michel DeGraff, who was born and raised in Haiti, is associate professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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