LINGUIST List 21.3469

Mon Aug 30 2010

Disc: Medium of Instruction for Creole Languages

Editor for this issue: Elyssa Winzeler <>

        1.    Patrick-Andre Mather, Medium of Instruction for Creole Languages

Message 1: Medium of Instruction for Creole Languages
Date: 29-Aug-2010
From: Patrick-Andre Mather <>
Subject: Medium of Instruction for Creole Languages
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There are issues in sociolinguistics that intersect with first and second-language acquisition, historical and genetic linguistics, creole studies, language policy, language pedagogy, and post-colonial politics. One such issue is the language of instruction in countries and communities where Creole languages (also spelled Kreyòl) coexist with their respective lexifier languages, such as Jamaica, Barbados, Mauritius, Reunion, and Martinique, to name only a few examples. One country that has received much attention lately is Haiti, partly because of the natural disaster that claimed so many lives and led to international attention to the plight of this island nation. Since its independence from France in 1804, the first language of virtually all Haitians has been Haitian Creole (henceforth 'Haitian'), whereas the official language and language of instruction in all schools, colleges and universities has remained French. This paradoxical situation is rooted in long standing prejudices against Creole languages, which until recently were not considered real languages, since they were spoken primarily by illiterate former slaves, and were reserved for the private domain. Typically, following Ferguson's (1972) terminology, many Creole societies were characterized by diglossia, with the lexifier language being the "high" variety. Fortunately, thanks in part to the efforts of linguists and anthropologists since the 1960s, Creole languages have gained some legitimacy in several nations, and have been gradually introduced in education, despite resistance from some parents and educators. This is the case in Haiti since the reforms of the 1980s, which have only been partially implemented.

The debate on the language of instruction in Creole societies, and in Haiti in particular, touches several issues. Here are some theoretical and empirical issues which may have an impact on this debate:

(1) First and second language pedagogy: Over the past 50 years or so, empirical studies on the first language pedagogy have shown that children clearly benefit from instruction in their native language, especially in the first years of literacy. When they are forced to study in a second language from grade 1, speakers of minority languages are often alienated and display higher rates of failure and slower development than children whose first language is used in schools. This is a very compelling argument in favor of using Creole languages as the principal medium of basic instruction in countries such as Haiti, Surinam, and Mauritius for example, where virtually all children speak Creole (and often only Creole) when they enter primary school. In Haiti, education reforms in the 1980s and 1990s have introduced Haitian as the medium of instruction in primary schools, a positive development, even though there has been some resistance on the part of both teachers and parents. On the other hand, using the L1 in primary instruction does not preclude the introduction of a second or even a third language in the school, once children have acquired basic reading and writing skills in their L1. For example, in Canada (Quebec), native languages like Inuktitut are used during the first 2 or 3 years of instruction, after which other languages are introduced, such as French and English. Thus, children are perfectly capable of acquiring native-like proficiency in more than one language.

(2) Creole studies and theories on Creole genesis: The debate on the origin and genesis of Creole languages is much too vast and complex to be summarized here, although theoretical stances on the respective role of substrates, superstrates and universals of language acquisition may have some bearing on the usefulness of using the European lexifier as a language of instruction in Creole societies. Some creolists (such as Lefebvre) consider Haitian, a radical Creole, as an essentially West African language (in terms of its morphosyntax and lexical semantics) which has be relexified with French phonetic strings. According to this analysis, there is no direct relationship between French and Haitian, and therefore the use of French in schools and universities appears unmotivated. On the other hand, most creolists have advocated a more mixed or complementary approach to Creole genesis (including Mufwene, DeGraff, and this researcher), arguing that Creole languages have inherited features from both substrates and superstrates, as well as innovations due to processes of first and second language acquisition. In addition, in many Creole societies, creoles co-exist with their respective lexifier languages (for example in Jamaica or Reunion), with intermediate varieties (or 'mesolects') being used as distinct registers by speakers, often in a situation of diglossia (see Ferguson). In this context, it would seem only logical to use both Creole and the lexifier as languages of instruction in the school, since children are exposed to both in their daily lives. Finally, some creolists (so-called superstratists, like Chaudenson) argue that creoles are in fact dialects of their respective lexifier languages, in which case it makes perfect sense to use the standard dialect in the school, alongside the basilect.

(3) Genetic linguistics: This issue is related to point (2). Ever since Schuchardt began a scientific study of Creoles in the 19th century, creoles have eluded the traditional classification of languages, which is based on the comparative study of languages to establish regular correspondences in the areas of the lexicon and morphology. Though there are obviously lexical correspondences between creoles and their respective lexifiers, Creole morphology is typically very distinct from that of European languages, with a notable absence (or quasi-absence) of inflectional morphology, and derivational morphology based on the grammaticalization of lexical items or other processes. In other terms, creoles, and especially radical creoles like Haitian, Sranan or Mauritian, are typologically completely different from English or French, and thus represent a major difficulty for children who receive instruction in the lexifier language only. Lexical similarities are, arguable, rather superficial, since the morphosyntax and semantics are completely different in Creoles and lexifiers.

(4) Culture and Geopolitics: One cannot dissociate the presence of French or English (or other lexifier language) in the education system of Creole-speaking communities, from the legacy of slavery and other racist and discriminatory practices. Creole languages have long been looked down upon, even by some linguists, because they were spoken primarily by the descendants of African slaves. This legacy has been used to exclude Creole speakers from economic and social opportunities, and to reinforce low self-esteem among children who were raised speaking Creole languages. The low status of Creoles was (and still is) often reflected in the absence of official status for these languages, and in most communities the only recognized, official language is the European lexifier, thus perpetuating the colonial legacy, even after these countries have achieved independence (over 200 years in the case of Haiti). Few would dispute the argument that it is about time Creole languages be given the recognition they deserve, and that they be recognized as both official languages and languages of instruction. This will both facilitate the alphabetization of children and improve the pride and self-esteem of Creole speakers. In fact, in Haiti, the introduction of Haitian in schools over the past 20 years has led to a major increase in literacy rates: in 1980, 80% of the population was illiterate, whereas by 2008 the literacy rate rose to 50% according to some estimates (according to Carol Joseph, Haitian Secretary of State for Alphabetization, speaking in 2008 on Radio-Métropole). What is interesting, however, is that in addition to the increased literacy rate in the L1, Haitians are also increasingly literate in French, since both languages are used in school. Thus, one could argue that an increased emphasis on the use of Haitian in schools and universities need not mean an elimination of French as a medium of instruction. Rather, literacy in both Haitian and French may lead to better economic and social opportunities for all Haitians, if one can surmount the old stigmas once associated with Haitian (as the language of the poor and uneducated masses) and French (as the language of the former colonial power and of a small bourgeois elite).

In the preceding paragraphs, I have outlined briefly some of the issues involved in the debate over the use of Creole languages in the education system. There are no doubt other considerations and arguments, and I hope my summary can serve as a baseline for an interesting and fruitful debate.

Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics Language Acquisition Sociolinguistics

Page Updated: 30-Aug-2010