Editorial | JTA must take a stand in the Patois debate | Comment

It is surprising that the Jamaica Teachers’ Association (JTA), a professional and advocacy group for educators on the island, never engages in public debates about the status of Jamaican Creole/Patois or how the English should be taught in schools.

Yet mounting evidence suggests that students’ weakness in English, the medium of instruction in schools, is a major contributor to poor outcomes, amounting to a crisis in Jamaica’s education system. It is therefore high time that the JTA put the issue on its agenda. It is expected to start with a statement from its annual conference later this month that insists on resolving the language issue, and that it should be part of the education transformation process the government is about to embark on. embark.

Although this is not the official position of the country and many in society – and government – dispute the idea, linguists are convinced that Jamaica is a bilingual country and that English, although it being the official language, is not the mother tongue of most people. ‘. It is not the language in which they are most comfortable or in which they communicate most naturally, such as in their homes and communities. That language is Jamaican Patois, the Creole that evolved organically from the forced interaction between enslaved Africans, speaking their various languages, and English-speaking slave settlers and owners. The concept, expressed differently, is that Jamaican Patois is not “broken” English, but a distinct language with form and structure.

Clearly, the acceptance of this argument has implications for the positioning and treatment of Jamaican Patois and the country’s approach to teaching English. Indeed, data shows that while the vast majority of Jamaicans are proficient enough in English to address the basics of their daily lives, their language proficiency is insufficient to negotiate deeper or more complex issues.


This problem is embarrassingly apparent in classrooms across the island. In this regard, an observation by the commission headed by Orlando Patterson on how to transform education in Jamaica bears repeating.

A third of the island’s sixth graders – the time they enter high school – complete their primary education illiterate. Which means illiterate in English, the language in which they are taught. These students need significant remedial attention. That, however, is not the whole story. As the Patterson Commission pointed out, 56% of sixth graders have serious writing difficulties and “57% could not identify information in a simple sentence.” That is, a sentence written in English. It should be noted that these are children aged 12-13.

Unfortunately, the problem does not stop at the primary system. Each year, nearly 30% of Jamaican students who take the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) English exams fail. A large portion of those who pass do so with the lowest acceptable grade. Universities on the island often find it necessary to have remedial English classes for students who presumably have met matriculation requirements.

These results cannot be solely due to the fact that these students are inherently inadequate in English. On the contrary, they seem to agree with linguists’ arguments about the problems faced by students who are not primarily English speakers and that the way English is taught does not take into account that it is not s is not, for the most part, their mother tongue. This problem was perhaps not so apparent in the early days of limited access to schooling for Jamaicans. In the past, however, the system of teaching English was closer to approaching, say, French or Spanish as a foreign language.

Inherent in this approach must be based on an acceptance of Jamaican Patois as a real language, distinct from English, and that a practical accommodation of the two will have practical benefits, rather than the negative fallout of disengagement, from a global economy. dominated by English, which some fear. The greater likelihood is that more Jamaicans will have access to English and therefore, in an English-based education system, greater access to a wide range of subjects.


Grace Baston, Principal of Campion College, Jamaica’s top performing secondary school as measured by exam results, recently underscored the logic of a formal coexistence of the two languages ​​and the potentially liberating influence that engaging the Jamaican patois in the educational environment would have , not just on teaching and learning.

She said: ‘We continue to ignore this deeply alienating and disenfranchising effort to fail to recognize that most of our children from poorer homes have a first language that is not standard English…the inability to take this reality seriously (and) to rely on the research done by our language specialists at UWI (University of the West Indies) and to have teachers trained in the ability to engage students in their first language and then, through that language, to introduce them to standard English, is an injustice.

This is an injustice that JTA should not allow to persist. Indeed, it is in the interest of teachers, who are usually the hardest hit by the failings of the education system, for this to stop.

This, of course, should not be interpreted as an argument that resolving the tensions between Jamaican Patois and English will solve all of Jamaica’s educational problems.

Rather, it is one of many issues that a rejuvenated JTA should insist the government put on the agenda. Now!

Norma A. Roth