By Maya Earls
On an overcast Monday, nine students offered a cheerful, “Bonjou” as they passed their professor. Each student found a chair around a long wooden table and opened his or her textbook to the previous night’s assignments. From the outside, the Haitian Creole class appeared like any other college course. However, with this fall being the first time New York University (NYU) offered the language, every class meeting was an experiment.
“I have a general structure and a general timeline of what I want my students to learn,” said Wynnie Lamour, NYU’s adjunct Creole instructor, “But things shift as you go from day to day.”
The class meets three afternoons a week. One recent class began with students presenting their Creole word of the day such as “rele” (to shout) and “maladi” (sickness). During class, students were free to give stories related to words they’ve learned. For instance, after Lamour explained “tonbe nan renmen” (to fall in love), one student shared how she literally fell while looking at an attractive man.
“Now you are teaching me as much as I am teaching you,” Lamour said to a laughing classroom.
After 10 minutes of speaking Creole, the class ended with an explanation regarding the differences between “Ye” (are) and “Se” (is).
Haitian Creole originated from the meeting of French settlers and African slaves in Haiti, which was the former French colony of Saint-Domingue. Haiti recognizes both Creole and French as the country’s official language. As the country’s population soared to 6.6 million, the Haitian Constitution of 1987 identified Creole as the language for all citizens to hold in common.
“Our language has historically been an oral language,” Lamour said. “You’ve got to tell a good story, for people to remember it generations later.”
With both parents from Haiti, Ayanna Legros decided to audit the class since she never learned to formally write or read Creole. Through the class, Legros said her ability to speak Creole has improved by learning the technical aspects.
“I only have one grandparent that’s living, and she basically doesn’t speak any English,” Legros said. “It’s nice to know that I can communicate with her better now.”
Jill Lane, director of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean studies at NYU, said the university was able to offer the class through Title VI funding. Established by the U.S. Department of Education, Title VI supports schools offering students training in less commonly taught languages.
“We have wanted to offer Haitian Creole for a very long time,” Lane said. “We were really motivated by a very strong faculty who felt that our work in Caribbean studies was not complete.”
As of now, NYU is the only university in Manhattan offering basic Haitian Creole this fall. The City University of New York has Elementary Creole as a course offering, but it is not scheduled for this year. Brooklyn College (CUNY) also offers basic Creole writing and reading skills, but the course is aimed for students who already speak the language in their home environment.
Lane said that she was surprised by the amount of support the center received from a variety of faculty members.
“I have not encountered anyone who didn’t think it was a great idea,” Lane said.
Lane, however, did face some hurdles in creating the class. Since Haitian Creole is a less commonly taught language, there are only a few textbooks to offer students that are up to date. Finding a professor was also a challenge; there are very few Creole speakers with little to no training to instruct a class.
“You will have someone with all the expertise in the world in a given language, but just may not have the proper training to teach in a classroom setting,” Lane said.
Fortunately, Lane found exactly what she was looking for in Lamour.
Before teaching at NYU, Lamour, a Haitian-American, taught various Creole classes around New York. In 2013 at the age of 29, she founded the Haitian Creole Language Institute, an institute located in Brooklyn. It provides classes for both non-Haitians and those with Haitian roots.
NYU is part of a language consortium, therefore students from Columbia University and Lehman College can enroll in the Creole course. The course counts as an elective for students, but Lane wants to add more classes so that students can use Creole as their foreign language requirement for graduation. For Lamour, the class is a chance to teach not only a language but also a culture to her students.
“I made sure the first day of class to tell my students that the space we occupy within the classroom is a safe space,” Lamour said. “I hope they can leave here with a clearer, factual, and a more positive image of Haiti.”
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