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Discussion Details

Title: Medium of Instruction for Creole Languages
Submitter: Patrick-Andre Mather
Description: 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

(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.
Date Posted: 30-Aug-2010
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Language Acquisition
LL Issue: 21.3469
Posted: 30-Aug-2010

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