The power of Creole

Beneath Haiti’s problems lies a deep conflict with its own language. An MIT professor has a bold plan to fix that.

Michel DeGraff with students at the Creole-language school Lekòl Kominotè Matènwa in La Gonave, Haiti. DeGraff is an MIT Associate Professor of Linguistics, Syntax, Morphology, Language Change, Creole Studies, and Haitian Creole. (Dieu Nalio Chery for The Boston Globe) Michel DeGraff with students at the Creole-language school Lekòl Kominotè Matènwa in La Gonave, Haiti. DeGraff is an MIT Associate Professor of Linguistics, Syntax, Morphology, Language Change, Creole Studies, and Haitian Creole.
By Leon Neyfakh
July 24, 2011

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When Michel DeGraff was a young boy in Haiti, his older brother brought home a notice from school reminding students and parents of certain classroom rules. At the top of the list was “no weapons.” And right below it, DeGraff still remembers: “No Creole.” Students were supposed to use French, and French only.

It was like this all over the country, and still is. Despite the fact that the vast majority of Haitian children grow up hearing and speaking exclusively Haitian Creole--the language used in their villages and homes, in their music, and in their proverbs, jokes, and jingles--the minute they start school they are forced to start all over in a language they don’t know. French is the language of Haiti’s tiny ruling class, and for children who come from that world, this poses no problem. But for all the others, being forced to use French makes it nearly impossible to learn. Many students just stop talking in class, going silent. And according to an estimate from the Ministry of Education, less than a third of students who enter first grade reach sixth grade, and only 10 percent of those who start high school pass the exam that is given at the end.

A language gap in the classroom may seem like a modest problem compared to the rest of what ails Haiti: the earthquake that ravaged the country, the hunger that cripples its communities, and the extreme political instability and violence that have dominated its history over the past 200 years. But for DeGraff and other Haitian thinkers who are trying to figure out how to heal the bruised and damaged country, it sits at the very heart of the problem.

“Haiti will never be able to rise to its potential if you have 90 percent of Haitians who cannot be instructed properly,” DeGraff said. “Once you open up that reservoir, what can happen? So many things can happen....Imagine how many well-prepared minds you would have to try to solve the country’s problems.”

DeGraff is now an associate professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and he is using his influence to try to destroy the barrier that essentially fences off most of Haiti’s children from a real education. For the past three years, he has been involved with an experimental Creole-language school there, and works tirelessly in both Haiti and the United States to promote an unusual and ambitious idea: that in order to solve some of the troubled nation’s most intractable problems--to breathe life into its economy, to rebuild its infrastructure, to make progress fighting crime and disease--the Haitian people must transform their relationship with their native language.

Making that happen is going to be about more than school policy. Haiti is a former French colony, and the stigma against Creole has deep roots in the country’s history of class division. Though the two languages are related, Creole is younger--it developed on the island roughly 300 years ago from a combination of French and other languages--and has its own grammar, pronunciation, and spelling. And as long as Haitians have been speaking it, Creole has been seen as an inferior, primitive tongue--a corrupt, misshapen version of French that isolates the people who speak it from the rest of the world. Though linguists today consider it a full language in its own right, a deep-seated disdain towards Creole still exists at all levels of Haitian society, including among people who can’t speak anything else. There is a pervasive belief that in order to succeed in life--to get a good job, to become part of the middle class--a person must know French.

The movement to change this goes back to the 1960s. But DeGraff, at age 48, has recently emerged as its unofficial leader in the academic world. As Alix Cantave, founder of the Haitian Studies Association at UMass Boston, put it: “Michel has been the leading scholar on this issue, by far.”

DeGraff is waging a campaign on two distinct fronts. One is in Haiti, where in addition to working with kids and conducting field research, he has been promoting the cause of Creole with members of the country’s Ministry of Education. Back at MIT, meanwhile, DeGraff spends his time doing the work of an academic linguist, speaking at scholarly conferences and publishing research papers that challenge the idea that Haitian Creole and other similarly formed languages are simplistic or primitive.

At the school he works with in Haiti, where every subject is taught in Creole, DeGraff has seen firsthand the transformation that can take place when children can finally learn in the language that they, and their parents, speak every day.

“They are so thirsty for this chance to prove themselves,” DeGraff said recently in his office at MIT. “One kid is always calling me, ‘Look, look, look, I get this!’ And he’s so excited. A kid like that, who could be the next Einstein, perhaps--that kid is going to be wasted....Now, imagine--multiply this by generations and generations and generations. Imagine how many kids like that are going to be wasted.”

What does it feel like, being a Creole-speaking kid in a Haitian school? What’s it like doing homework? Studying for tests? DeGraff tells a story about an evening last spring, when he was walking through a public square in Port au Prince during one of his regular trips to Haiti. It was a tense moment in the academic calendar, as the nation’s sixth-graders were preparing to take a mandatory national exam that would determine whether they could move on to seventh grade. Kids had gathered in the public square to study because there was light there, and most of them didn’t have electricity at home.

Though the square doubled as a tent city for people who lost their homes in the earthquake, the scene looked encouraging on the surface: children studying together at night. But when DeGraff listened closely, what he heard was not encouraging at all. In a desperate effort to pass their exams, the students were reciting sentences in French that they’d copied out of their textbooks, trying to memorize them phonetically, in chunks. It sounded almost like singing, DeGraff said, and it was clear that most of the kids had no idea what they were saying. Whatever the subject they were studying for, they weren’t learning it.

Haiti’s tortured history with the French language can be traced back to the mid-17th century, when French colonists first made their way to the island of Hispaniola. The region quickly became a lucrative asset for France, producing massive amounts of tobacco, cotton, and sugar, all of which were harvested by huge numbers of African slaves.

Haitian Creole is believed to have emerged sometime around 1700 as the language of those slaves, who had been brought to Haiti from all over Africa. Though it combined elements of French and a variety of African languages, Creole developed into a full language distinct from all of them --it followed its own structure and was unintelligible to people who didn’t speak it. (To linguists, a creole is a new language that arises as a hybrid of more established languages--and though it may be popularly dismissed as more primitive, linguists have observed that when a generation of children grows up speaking a creole, it develops a full grammar and the expressive power of any natural language.)

Haiti’s 1804 slave revolt made it the world’s first independent black republic, but French remained the official language, and persisted as the language of the island’s land-owning, well-educated elite. Today, Creole and French are both designated official languages of Haiti, but they are nowhere near equal in status. All government business is conducted in French, including all court proceedings and records of parliamentary debate. French is also the language of all formal documents, like deeds, medical records, and building permits. Road signs are written in French. So are the names of most public buildings. The two main newspapers in the country, Le Nouvelliste and Le Matin, are primarily in French, as is Le Moniteur, which publishes all new laws and government decrees. The cumulative effect is that Haitian society is sharply and conspicuously divided between the minority of people who can meaningfully participate in the official, French-driven world around them, and the majority, who can’t.

There is an “ideology of disrespect and degradation” surrounding Creole, according to Arthur Spears, a professor at the City University of New York, who coedited a recent volume of essays on Haitian Creole. And it can be seen not just among members of the Haitian elite but the masses, as well. “It’s internalized oppression,” Spears said. “They’ve always heard that the way to succeed is to know French. The people who are important in society know and speak French. It’s all about French if you want your child to do better than you did.”

Given all that, it’s not hard to see why parents in Haiti would generally expect and insist that school be conducted in French. But when it comes to what actually happens in Haitian classrooms--total and sudden immersion in French, even if it means rote, singsong memorization--that whole idea breaks down. The kids end up missing out on math, science, history, and literature. In most cases they don’t end up learning to read or write at all. And it’s not just because they can’t understand their teachers. In the tiny village schools that dot the island, many of the teachers aren’t actually fluent in French themselves.

“Often what you find is that mistakes are being introduced by the teachers who don’t know French well,” DeGraff says. “And the kids, as they copy what they see on the board, because they don’t understand what they’re copying, they introduce further mistakes.”

The alternative--the future that DeGraff and his allies imagine for Haitian education--is to teach kids to be literate in Creole first, building up their basic knowledge in the language they know. They can then learn French later, as a foreign language. That vision is driven in part by long-accepted research from applied linguistics and education theory, which shows that children have a far easier time first becoming literate in the language they speak.

As more Haitians became literate in Creole, the thinking goes, the changes would start reshaping the society. The language would shed its stigma, creating a new route to the middle class for the countless people who now can’t get even basic office work because so many jobs require French. “The employers [say] they’re desperate to hire qualified people. It’s crazy that in a country where the unemployment rate is somewhere between 50 and 80 percent, the employers can’t hire anybody,” said Brian Concannon, director of the Boston-based Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti. “Inequality and poverty are the driving force behind most of the problems in Haiti. And if you’re able to reduce that by getting some people into the middle class and giving others the hope that they could be in the middle class, that would make a huge difference.”

There was a moment, some 30 years ago, when it seemed like Haiti’s education system was going to move in this direction. Thanks to the work of men whom DeGraff considers heroes, Creole’s spelling was standardized in 1979. Then, in 1987, it was legally acknowledged by the Haitian government as an official language of Haiti. Most controversially, a set of laws known as the Bernard Reform were introduced around this time requiring Haitian schools to spend four years teaching kids primarily in Creole before adding French as a separate subject.

DeGraff says the laws held immense promise, and could have radically changed Haitian education for the better--but they were undermined from the start. Parents, even those who only knew Creole, insisted their children be taught in French, as did officials in the government who thought the laws marked a betrayal of Haiti’s heritage as a Francophone country.

“Very quickly it became just a piece of paper without any bite,” says DeGraff.

DeGraff sat in his cluttered office at MIT on a recent afternoon talking about his upcoming trip to Haiti. He goes every month for a week or more, flying there from Logan by way of Miami, which is just 90 minutes from Port au Prince. Lately, he has been working on introducing a suite of educational computer games in Creole to a class of fourth-graders at a school, called Matènwa, located on a tiny island called La Gonave off the Haitian coast. The families there are almost all poor, and a lot of the kids come to school hungry. Hardly anyone speaks French.

DeGraff is planning to write a book about his experience, describing the effect of teaching kids in their own language instead of trying to get them to magically absorb French. He is also collecting his observations from the program to publish in scholarly journals, and plans to present them in talks to his colleagues in linguistics. In so doing, DeGraff will be carrying out the academic leg of his mission, which is very different from his field work in Haiti but is just as focused on the Creole cause.

DeGraff’s academic work amounts to a rebuke to what he calls the pernicious idea that Creole cannot be used to express complex ideas. He has written extensively on the technical properties of the Creole language, mapping its grammatical rules and analyzing its syntactical structures. In papers like 2005’s “Linguists’ Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Creole Exceptionalism,” DeGraff argued against the idea that creoles, as a category, are somehow fundamentally different from other languages. He disagreed with linguists who wanted to study creoles as a means of unlocking the mystery of how languages are first formed, arguing that creoles are every bit as sophisticated and complex as older languages like French or English.

There’s an immense distance, of course, between the scholarly journals where he publishes and the Haitian villages whose schools he wants to transform. But DeGraff believes that in order for Haitian Creole to become fully accepted in Haitian society--for the people who speak it to start being proud of it--a profound cultural shift will have to take place that will require a broad coalition that involves parents, politicians, academics, and even Haitian celebrities.

The process is hard to jump-start, but DeGraff believes that it would become self-reinforcing if more parents started seeing their children flourish when allowed to speak Creole at school. At the school in La Gonave, he said, there’s an emphasis placed on demonstrating for parents--as well as inspectors from the Ministry of Education--that Creole, the language of the home and the street, can also be a language of learning.

“At first the parents were not on board--they were afraid that if their kids don’t learn French they are not going to make it,” DeGraff said. “But now they see that with Creole, the kids are learning--they’re reading, and they’re understanding what they’re reading. And the school does a very good job of raising consciousness, and showing them, ‘Look, your kids will not be stuck with Creole. Creole is the right trampoline to get your kids from where they are to various heights.’”

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail

Clarification: This article implied that Creole is prohibited in schools across Haiti. The majority of schools teach in French, but Creole is not banned.