Back to roots of learning

27th May 2005 at 01:00
As adult learners' week draws to a close, Dorothy Lepkowska reports on an innovative course in the Jamaican language

Jamaican was never spoken at home when Lorraine Moxam was a child.

Her father forbade it, believing it sounded uneducated. He encouraged his children to speak only English.

Now, at the age of 42, Ms Moxam, who was born in Britain, is learning about her family's origins and heritage.

Every week the civil servant makes a round trip of almost 200 miles from Sheffield to Birmingham to attend classes in Jamaican language and culture.

"Jamaican as a language seems to have a lot of stigma attached to it. Many people still don't think of it as a real language but something that comes from the streets," she said.

"But a lot of Jamaicans are very proud of their origins and, as a mother of two, I want to instil that in my children."

The course, believed to be unique in Britain, is run at the Handsworth campus of Birmingham's City College. About 30 students, aged 14 to 60, attend the three-hour classes once a week. They learn spelling, grammar, literature and cultural traditions such as music and dance.

The course was set up earlier this year after the Institute of Linguistics acknowledged Jamaican as a language in its own right, rather than a dialect.

The course has been shortlisted for the European Award for Languages 2005, but it is yet to be accredited.

It is hoped successful candidates will eventually achieve an Open College Network level 2 (GCSE grade A-C equivalent) qualification, followed by a diploma in public service interpreting.

Natalie Fagan, who came to work in Britain from Jamaica three years ago, is one of six teachers who works free of charge teaching the course. She volunteered after seeing Caribbean children under-performing at school.

She said: "Jamaican children are often treated as if they have special needs, rather than as having language difficulties. It is one of the main reasons these children are under-performing.

"Of course, they must be fluent in English but this course acknowledges that they have additional skills in knowing another language."

Many believe that Jamaican, also known as Patois or Creole, is a dialect of English, but in reality it reflects the island's history.

Influences include French, Spanish, Portuguese, Taino - the original language spoken on the island - as well as west African languages such as Igbo and Efik, spoken in Nigeria, Fante, from Ghana and Kikongo, which is spoken in Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The college is planning further courses to cater for the demands of the different levels of speakers, including awareness sessions for public-sector workers, family learning courses and introductory courses for those who wish to learn from scratch.

John Wyatt, 58, an IT consultant, learned Jamaican when he lived on the island for 12 years.

He said: "I keep in touch with my friends there and wanted to keep up the language. This course is vital, especially for young people, because there are a lot of things you can only express in your own language."

Daynia Ebanks, 15, a pupil at George Salter school, in West Bromwich, came to England three years ago and was encouraged to attend the classes by her teacher. She said: "I don't think enough Jamaican kids have enough interest in where they come from or their traditions. It is really important to me."

Her schoolfriend, Nadia Brown, also 15, arrived four years ago and the family speak Patois at home.

"I have learned things about Jamaica that I didn't even know about while I was living there. My parents are pleased that I come," she said.

Friday magazine, 8

* dorothy.lepkowska@tes.co.uk

JAMAICA FACTS

* Capital: Kingston

* Population 2.7 million

* Discovered: By Arawak Indians in AD 600

* Size: 4,000 square miles

* Official language: English - but Patois more widely spoken

* Head of state: The Queen

* Government: Independent from the UK since 1962

* Famous people: Black nationhood campaigner Marcus Garvey, reggae artist Bob Marley and cricketer Michael Holding

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