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What Creole Means to Haitians

Haiti is not a bilingual country, however it is true that French and Creole are spoken in the land, but their role and status are so far apart that it is hard to qualify them as interchangeable. Haiti has been and still is simply a volcanic crossroad between the French language of a few and the Creole language of the powerless masses. Yes, Creole is derived from French, but its phonetic and grammatical structures are African. 205 years after independence, Haiti’s illiteracy rate is the highest in the western hemisphere. Therefore, why continue with the traditional French educational system that only allows a few geniuses to reach the Promised Land? We should envision a Creole educational system which could better serve a greater number. Like the American, Dutch, Swiss, and Belgian, our mother tongue; Creole, should be at least the language of primary school education. Based on our rate of illiteracy and our lack of fluency in French, we can safely conclude that the French education is inefficient and inimical to our conditions. Creole, as the ultimate Haitian mode of expression and the fastest vehicle of Haitian thought should be at least the language of primary education. Haitian stamp from 1954 with image of Boisrond-Tonerre.

As a nation, our collective bovarysm is obvious. Boisrond Tonnerre, an indigenous officer, is known as the author of the Independence Act; a document that was written in French. Before handing the final draft, he stated: “We need a white man skin for parchment, his skull for inkwell, his blood for ink and a bayonet for pen”. Tonnerre’s words selection, imagery, poetic style and language sound very sophisticated. If this historical sentence was really stated in French, was it fully understood by everyone, including Dessalines? Why a nationalist, rebellious and anti-French document like the Independence Act was written in French? Perhaps, our founding fathers, even those who could not read, as prisoners of their time, never consider Creole as a language in its own merit. Even with their nationalistic fever, it appears that they never processed the French language as incompatible with their ideals.

Many great Haitian nationalist writers such as Massillon Coicou, Joseph Janvier, Anthenor firmin, Jean Price Mars and Demesvar Delorme have used the French language to defend Haitian interests. None of them left any significant piece in Creole. We must admit that throughout Haitian history, there are always a few mavericks that break with tradition to create Creole masterpieces. Among those renowned masterpieces, we can mention: Choucoune of Oswald Durand (poem), Antigone of Morisseau- Leroy Felix (Play), Bouki Nan Paradi of Franck Fouche (play), and Dezafi, Pelin Tet, Totolomannwèl, Melovivi Minywi mwen senk, Kalibofobo, and Foukifoura of Frank Etienne (Play). It is obvious that our sensibilities are shared by two forces that can be, at times, complementary, parallel, and contrary. Even prolific Creole writers such as Franketienne, has many books writing in French. The French Language is so tightly linked to our history and institutions that it is impossible to dismiss it. But it is due for a reconstructive surgery since we can not have better results with the same old tactics.

The Haitian spoken French and Creole are both products of our under-developed status. Our spoken French is not like the Parisian French. It is simply a particular French language with its own characteristics reflecting a different social and cultural milieu. In a book “Creole Francais: Une Fausse querelle” by Frantz Lofficial we read about a Samedi Soir’s editorial regarding a seminary on nutrition: “On paper, on speeches, we found an antiquated style and a lack of substance. But it is used to determine social status and is greatly served in the hiring process”. (Pp 41)

Meanwhile, Pierre Vernet in Format 60 TV Show mentioned : “ the Creole is a direct, colorful, and dynamic language, capable of absorbing new words and new concepts”. As a language spoken by every Haitian why not using it as the primary language of our educational system? This would free all of the students and teachers from the cultural and psychological ills that are created by learning or teaching the rudiments of education in a foreign language. Then Creole will allow those students to learn from their native tongue; a language that reflects their soul, reflexes, conditions, aspirations, interests and history.

We all know about how the French language has impacted our national life and especially on the masses. For many, French represents beauty, money, job, wealth and better life. And Creole symbolizes all the opposites. Considering the social, economical, and cultural repercussions, why should a parent be attracted to a Creole education in which nothing of importance is expected?

Bilingualism is possible as long as we are willing to make changes and sacrifices.

With new paradigm, we can change the literacy rate. It is easier to learn the basics of education with the mother tongue. It is scientifically proven that it is easier to learn a second language through the mother tongue. In most countries, mother tongue is used to teach the rudiments of education. Psychologically, the mother tongue represents symbols that can easily be understood, explained and related to. Sociologically, it brings a sense of belonging to ones community and environment. Pedagogically, it enables the students to learn faster than it would have in another language. By using Creole as the first language of learning will free both teacher and student from the foreign languages constraints. We will approach other languages with a different but universal touch. That will put us in line with our selves, others and the world. Then we will be more comfortable and less frustrated to learn and speak any other languages without fear of making mistakes and been ridiculed.

French is not our mother tongue and can only be taught as a foreign language. More energy should be spent into teaching Creole the same way American students learned their mother tongue. After mastering the Creole language and its grammar, the student will have better understanding of language in general with its abstractions, symbolization and particular organization. With our native tongue, we will have a greater grip at the world from our point of reference. We will be more willing to read books that use symbols and local stories that we can relate to. Our writing skills and reading level will improve and be more comfortable at expressing our views in social, political and philosophical debates.

We should adopt a Creole education and add French, math, social sciences, Health sciences, Spanish, chemistry, history, Physics and geography to the curriculum. The whole Haitian education has been primarily focused on trying to learn French. French Reading, French writing, French spelling, French grammar, grammatical and logical analysis of French text, French vocabulary, French elocution, essays on French literature. Even Haitian literature and foreign languages are taught as extension of the French language.

Ironically, with all that emphasis on French, only a few master it. According to Frantz Lofficial, a great percentage of those who speak French do not valorize clarity, directness and simplicity. Words and concepts are used to impress and show up, rather to be understood and communicate. We need an educational system that can eliminate our cultural blockage and is capable to adjust to our needs and national identity. Education does not operate in a vacuum. The system has to be a function of our structural, economical, educational, cultural, and political elements. It should be seen as a means to an end, not an end in itself. Results should determine its raison d’etre and for 200 years it has failed.

The Haitian Education system has never reflected the cultural and the material needs of the nation. Its aim has always been to create a few administrators in an ocean of illiterates in order to maintain the status quo. It was designed by the dominating classes with their infinite European sensibilities to prove to the western world that the Haitian man is not a savage African but a French of a darker complexion who happens to live in the new world. Le bovarysme collective de Jean-Price Mars!

Throughout Haitian history, the dominating classes, selfishly, have been consumed by French fever. French always has been used as a weapon of division, alienation and of mass destruction. It is true that progress has been made. Matter-of factly, the Jean-Claude Duvalier regime is credited for incorporating Creole class in primary Education. This infusion of Creole in our educational system is considered by many as Joseph C. Bernard legacy, the ex-Chairman of the Education Department. Also, in the 80’s, the Catholic Church through Alpha, a non-profit Organization has initiated a humongous literacy project that did not succeed as promised.

Thereafter, Haiti’s 1987 Constitution upgraded Creole to its official status like French. Those three milestones prove our timid effort to free our mother tongue from colonial prejudices. The Creole sensibility has not quite reached every Haitian fiber. However, bit by bit, we are moving forward. With vision, sacrifices and commitment, we are sure that in the near future, the Education Ministry will be willing to dethrone the selfish French for the more altruistic Creole. And many textbooks, world classics, and other famous books will be translated in Creole for greater good. It is a civic duty to educate the citizens!

Creole is neither an abstract concept nor a scientific matter. It is simply the only language of the Haitian masses. By degrading it to a lower status, we are simply hurting ourselves. We must fully use Creole in our Education system. Simultaneously, we must encourage and create structures for our students to learn and speak as many languages as possible. In this globalized world, we understand the necessity to be multilingual. Children are cut to pick up languages easily. The facts remain that with this natural and strong Creole foundation, learning new languages will be smoother. Creole will be used as a tool in the war against illiteracy and under-development. In general, people do not like change in Education and Bertrand Russell brilliantly put it in those words: “It is because modern education is so seldom inspired by a great hope that it so seldom achieves great results. The wish to preserve the past rather than the hope of creating the future dominates the minds of those who control the teaching of the young”.

What is embarrassing is not the spoken language but our rate of illiteracy. Any approach that does not take into consideration Creole and the power of Creole speaking masses is doomed to fail. Lyonel Paquin in his book “TheHaitians” mentions: “Creole is the cement among all Haitians. It is our common culture for it is the embodiment of our folklore, and traditions including the humor, the proverbs, and the songs”. (Pp236). The old French system was designed to divide, and justify the status quo. It was never an all-inclusive method set toward economical progress, and social mobility. Our educational system must move away from traditional strategies and realign itself with contemporary needs and roles. We must tackle the pressing needs for mass Education; a mass Education that can not be achieved without Creole education. It is a civic duty to educate our countrymen.

Haitian Times

Haitian Times

The Haitian Times was founded in 1999 as a weekly English language newspaper based in Brooklyn, NY.The newspaper is widely regarded as the most authoritative voice for Haitian Diaspora.
Haitian Times
May. 05, 2012

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