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Opinion

Learning to Read and Write in Your Native Tongue

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By Jacques Pierre

Translated by K. Adele Okoli, Tulane University

Author’s note: In the spirit of International Mother Language Day, I am very pleased to present this translation of my article, “Ou pa ka li ak ekri Kreyòl oswa ou pa vle aprann li ak ekri Kreyòl?”, which first appeared on October 28, 2015 in the online journal Potomitan. Even as this article is firmly anchored in the sociolinguistic realities of Haiti today, I hope that it also carries broader meaning for many people who continue to struggle with accepting and living out the full potential of their linguistic identities.

I was inspired to translate this article in English because the readership it most urgently addresses cannot yet read the original version in Haitian Creole. I stand with Jacques Pierre for the promotion of written expression in Creole against the neocolonial linguistic domination of European languages wherever people of Haitian descent may be, particularly in the spheres of education and political participation. –K. Adele Okoli

You aren’t able to read and write Haitian Creole, or you don’t want to learn to read and write Haitian Creole?

No one on this blessed earth ever learns to read and write their own language unconsciously. Either they have the good fortune to go to school to do this (if their school is taught in that language), or they take the initiative to do this themselves, finding a way to decipher the mechanics of that language after countless hours of practice. In the Haitian context, the majority of the small handful of people who attended school before the 1970s and 1980s never had a single class in Haitian Creole. Consequently, you’ll find that the vast majority of people of these generations have difficulty reading and writing Creole. However, those of these generations who would like to learn to read and write Creole should take the necessary steps to achieve this goal.

The paths we must take to correct this error are neither numerous nor thorny.

1.  Make an effort to understand the orthography of the language.
2.  Seek out people who are skilled in the writing of the language to guide
you.
3.  Read in the language and write in it.

All the steps of this path have already been well travelled and traced for us. The Haitian Creole language has had an official orthography since the year 1979. There are linguists and others in the field of education who are experts in the written language and who would be happy to help you. Furthermore, there are a rich variety of books in Creole available on many subjects. Learning to read and write Creole, and then producing written works in Creole, does not mean you have to turn your back on other languages you already know.

Schoolchildren study at Ecole Marie Dominique Mazzarello in Port-au-Prince, which has classrooms built as part of the PHARE program of USAID. Photo copyright Kendra Helmer/USAID

Schoolchildren study at Ecole Marie Dominique Mazzarello in Port-au-Prince, which has classrooms built as part of the PHARE program of USAID. Photo copyright Kendra Helmer/USAID

Now it’s up to us to wonder, do we want to read and write in Creole?
To tackle this question, many of my compatriots prefer to come up with a number of excuses, such as:

1.  “Our generation didn’t use Creole in school.” There are people who are
part of the same generation as you who didn’t study Creole in school either,
yet know how to read Creole and write it.

2.  “Creole makes our eyes and heads hurt.” When we take a closer look at
this claim, English, French, Creole, Spanish—to cite a few languages—use
almost the same set of letters. But I never hear from those people about how English, French, and Spanish strain people’s eyes or give them headaches.

3.  “Creole won’t help us find any jobs.” Let’s consider these words more critically. Many of the people who claim that Creole won’t help them secure work are already employed. Now, do these people mean to convince us that they’ll lose their jobs if they learn to read and write Creole? For those who are currently looking for work, and who already know other languages, will learning Creole diminish their chances of finding jobs?

4.  “We already know Creole; it’s skills in other languages that we really need.” Yet, the foreigners who are learning Creole know their own languages already too. And, when we say we know Creole already, we should be more precise: we know how to speak Creole already. Well then, this is the very reason that makes it easier to write Creole and read Creole, because you already have a blueprint of the language in your head to build from. Moreover, everyone on earth speaks at least one language, with the exception of those whom—for one reason or another—nature has not given that capacity. Yet, in spite of this, they have ways to communicate amongst themselves.

All Haitians speak Creole. However, the problem lies in the level of writing and reading, which lags behind. I will understand many of my compatriots if they speak this unfortunate truth plainly—we don’t want to read and write Creole. It’s the right of each person to make choices according to their own wishes. But, as we linguists know, the language of a person’s daily life is his or her true means of self-reflection. Which is to say, if some people don’t want to look at themselves in their own mirror, we can’t force them to do that. Only they themselves and (their) God know the true reason behind this choice.

My dear brothers and sisters, don’t feel ashamed to tell people that you don’t know how to read and write your native language. What should really bother you is your habit of inventing excuses to hide your lack of willingness to learn to read and write your language. This shame finds its roots deep within the school that makes the few Haitians who had the opportunity to receive a formal education believe that they were able to read and write French without any conscious effort. Well, even French people whose French is their mother tongue were taught to read and write French.

My compatriots, the time and hour has come for us to learn to read and write our language, and in so doing, combat linguistic prejudice, lest we remain trapped in a game of hide and seek with our linguistic identity. Don’t forget the Haitian Creole proverb that says: “Eyes full of shame are eyes that fill with tears.”

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
Feb. 24, 2016

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