Rispek for paying attention to patois

Black pupils would benefit if teachers recognised speakers as bilingual, experts argue

Kerra Maddern

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Black children are failing to make the same progress in school as their classmates because teachers don't understand the value of the Caribbean patois they speak and see it only as broken English, according to campaigners.

Experts are calling for teachers to be educated in Jamaican and other languages from the region so they recognise that pupils who speak them are bilingual rather than just using another dialect.

Black boys regularly underperform in GCSEs and other formal tests. A conference will hear this week this is because their confidence is dented through struggling with literacy tasks.

School staff with the correct training would be able to help them separate the two languages.

A new project, Learning Links International, formed to mark the bicentenary of the abolition of slavery, will help set up new Caribbean languages courses for teachers throughout this year.

Reggae artists, poets and academics will share their experiences of how this should best be done at Rispek juu, a conference marking 50 years since Jamaican and Creole were recognised as languages, held around the country from June 3 to 8.

"All teachers need to know about Caribbean languages, particularly in early years. They need to know how to adapt their approach and support those who are bilingual, but Government guidance is not very accurate," said Liz Millman, who runs Learning Links International.

"Even if they have been born in the UK, children from Caribbean heritage backgrounds will be bilingual if their parents speak another language at home . In fact, the child will not recognise the fact they are bilingual."

Gus John, an expert on the education of black and minority ethnic children and activist whose work led to the Race Relations Act of 1968, believes teachers need to be educated about the history of Caribbean languages before they can help pupils who speak them.

"There was obviously an interface between African slaves, colonial rule and the languages that sprang up and this explains their unique development," he said.

"Many older people have the same issues as children, but then it's not being understood by doctors. Culturally we have the view that Caribbean people don't need help because they speak English.

"We need an urgent debate about this language issue in schools or children will always be disadvantaged. At the moment they are being told the way they speak at home has little value. This makes them feel inferior."

Natalie Fagan-Brown, a specialist English teacher who works in schools across the Black Country and runs Caribbean language courses for teachers, believes school staff should learn Jamaican to give them an even better insight into children's literacy levels.

"It will help them learn correct English and make the transition to speaking both languages," she said.

Learning Links will work with schools, colleges, universities and other organisations, running conferences and training opportunities, promoting and producing educational materials.

Also speaking at the conference is performance poet Yasus Afari. He believes a focus on Caribbean languages can also help children who develop multiple personalities or other mental disorders as a result of being within two cultures.

"If you can't express yourself clearly it leads to suffocation and will stop children from being assertive," he said.

Other speakers are Professor Hubert Devonish, director of the Jamaican Language Unit at the University of the West Indies, Morgan Dalphinis, author of Caribbean and African Languages: Social History, Language, Literature and Education, Barbara Ledgister, Jamaican attorney-at-law and co-founder of Patois Personnel and Macka B, reggae artist and songwriter.

Insight into languages

English was Jamaica's main language during colonial rule, but since the country won independence the use of patois has become widespread.

The language uses a different kind of grammar, with words being pluralised. Enthusiasts say this is the living legacy of the island's former slaves. Other Caribbean languages developed differently, for example French influences are found in St Lucia.

The first conference on Creole languages was held in 1959 at the University of the West Indies. The Jamaican vocabulary is derived from several West African languages as well as Spanish, French, Portuguese and English and includes words such as abeng, brawta, choops, mouta and wanga.

The first sailors from Europe and local West Africans spoke in "pidgin" to get by and trade goods. However, when thousands of people from Africa were forcibly taken to the Caribbean islands as slaves the necessary communication between Africans, and between the Africans and the European people, became a patois.

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