(by Dr Joyce Jonas)
Cradling her baby, the young woman in the maternity ward approached the staff nurse newly recruited from a London hospital: “Nurse, de baby get operation.” Somewhat puzzled, the London nurse hastened to reassure her: “No, my dear. Your baby is just fine. He hasn’t had an operation, and he doesn’t need one!”
But the mother insisted, “Yes Nurse. Dis morning de baby get operation. De nex’ nurse tell me fuh tell you!”
Creolese speakers will have no problem in understanding: the mother was reporting that baby’s bowels were in good working order. But for the London nurse, the word “operation” had a totally different connotation–surgery.
Even though we advertise ourselves as being the only English-speaking country on the South American continent, we in fact do not speak English: we speak Creolese. Our Standard West Indian speakers slide relatively easily along the continuum to function in Standard English, but for the majority, Standard English, both spoken and written, is a foreign language.
Each year when the CSEC results are published, concerned parents and educators bemoan our dismal performance in the English exams. The official pass rate is below 50%, and if we take into consideration that hundreds of school leavers or drop-outs simply don’t take the exam, the real percentage is probably below 40%. Where are we going wrong? What can be done? Does it even matter?
Yes, it matters. Tremendously. To function confidently in today’s world, school leavers need the skills outlined in the CSEC English syllabus. They should be equipped to understand the written text, summarise it and extract the salient points, make a formal report in a clear, logical manner, recognise shifts in tone, present their opinion on a topic, bringing suitable arguments to support their case—all the time expressing themselves with grammatical accuracy.
The Literature aspect of the English syllabus takes the student even further—to be able to appreciate and write about literary texts, whether drama, prose or poetry, showing an understanding of the themes and techniques employed by writers. So does it matter that less than half of our children can pass the exam? Surely it does! Surely we would want all of our young people to be empowered and equipped to use language to their advantage! Surely we want all of them to enjoy the works of great writers—from the Caribbean and beyond.
So how can we bring about change? We began with a reminder that our mother tongue is Creolese. Many academics believe that until and unless we take that as our starting point, our expensive remedial programmes and literacy initiatives will yield only minimal results. The challenge, though, is how to upgrade our children’s performance in Standard English AND at the same time build in them an appreciation for and pride in Guyanese Creole. Unless we achieve these twin goals, we are guilty of perpetuating debasing colonial attitudes.
Some linguists insist that our children should be taught the structures of Creolese before they are introduced to Standard English. But, as Hamlet said, “Aye, there’s the rub!” Because we do not have, as yet, a formal analysis of the structure of Creolese— which itself is constantly evolving in response to changes in the world around us.
In and of itself, Creolese is not a problem. But interference from Creolese does contribute to poor mastery of Standard English and poor performance in English exams. Another factor is that neither parents nor teachers give quality time to helping children develop proficiency in reading, comprehension and expression. I am quite sure that a survey of the students who shone like stars in the CSEC exams would reveal that their parents (or grandparents) spent many hours reading to them, listening to them read, explaining and discussing what had been read. The stars, I’m sure, were already competent readers and writers BEFORE they entered the school system.
Education is not just about schooling and lessons; it’s a holistic experience. I heard of a 17 year old student who came to Georgetown from a country school with reading and writing skills that even an eight-year-old might be ashamed of. The student was put through 18 months of remedial work: reading aloud daily, extracting and learning new vocabulary, learning lists of spellings, writing a minimum of 300 words every day. The literature texts were read and discussed together with the instructor, notes taken, and essays written on them at regular intervals. The learning environment was friendly and encouraging, often filled with giggles.
After 18 months that student gained Grade 2 in English A and Grade 1 in English B. The secret? Consistency, interest shown by the adult, encouragement rather than criticism, fun rather than fear, and a fair amount of practice. The student was clearly capable, but equally clearly had been failed by the system.
An individual can, of course, function perfectly well through life knowing only Creolese. But increasingly the world is shrinking, and Creolese speakers are a relatively small community. For better or worse, it is Standard English, not Creolese, that is the vehicle of communication in most formal situations, and certainly so whenever we are interacting with the world outside Guyana.
English A skills are needed to deal with application forms, job interviews, academic textbooks, instructions on how to use your medication or prepare for your colonoscopy. Indeed, almost everything that will enable us to find our way in the modern world requires a working knowledge of Standard English.
In this high-tech age, finding a good job can be very difficult for those who lack good language skills. A young Guyanese businessman, now living overseas, tells me he has interviewed scores of Guyanese applicants responding to advertisements for online work opportunities with his company, but over and over again he has found that the language skills of the would-be staffers are simply not at the required level. Ironically, second-language applicants from places like India and the Philippines can boast of far better language skills than Guyanese applicants (not to mention a far better work ethic!)
Better minds than mine have struggled to solve the problem of poor literacy in Guyana—sadly without much success. But we dare not walk away from the challenge. The success story of that 17 year old can be replicated in each of our school leavers.
If we have the political will. If parents step up to the plate and recognise their responsibilities regarding their children’s education. If teachers are properly trained—not only in content and methodology, but in their attitude and the emotional environment they create. If classes are made smaller and teacher remuneration more encouraging. If resources of television, radio and internet are creatively exploited. If voluntary groups already working on the problem are appropriately supported. If the media are required to improve the quality of printed material they present to the public.