The power of Haitian Creole

Beneath Haiti’s problems lies a deep conflict with its own language. An MIT professor has a bold plan to fix that, as Leon Neyfakh reports for the Boston Globe. Here are some excerpts from the article, with the link to the full text below.

When Michel DeGraff was a young boy in Haiti, his older brother brought home a notice from school reminding students and parents of certain classroom rules. At the top of the list was “no weapons.” And right below it, DeGraff still remembers: “No Creole.” Students were supposed to use French, and French only.

It was like this all over the country, and still is. Despite the fact that the vast majority of Haitian children grow up hearing and speaking exclusively Haitian Creole–the language used in their villages and homes, in their music, and in their proverbs, jokes, and jingles–the minute they start school they are forced to start all over in a language they don’t know. French is the language of Haiti’s tiny ruling class, and for children who come from that world, this poses no problem. But for all the others, being forced to use French makes it nearly impossible to learn. Many students just stop talking in class, going silent. And according to an estimate from the Ministry of Education, less than a third of students who enter first grade reach sixth grade, and only 10 percent of those who start high school pass the exam that is given at the end.

A language gap in the classroom may seem like a modest problem compared to the rest of what ails Haiti: the earthquake that ravaged the country, the hunger that cripples its communities, and the extreme political instability and violence that have dominated its history over the past 200 years. But for DeGraff and other Haitian thinkers who are trying to figure out how to heal the bruised and damaged country, it sits at the very heart of the problem.

“Haiti will never be able to rise to its potential if you have 90 percent of Haitians who cannot be instructed properly,” DeGraff said. “Once you open up that reservoir, what can happen? So many things can happen….Imagine how many well-prepared minds you would have to try to solve the country’s problems.”

DeGraff is now an associate professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and he is using his influence to try to destroy the barrier that essentially fences off most of Haiti’s children from a real education.  . . .

Making that happen is going to be about more than school policy. Haiti is a former French colony, and the stigma against Creole has deep roots in the country’s history of class division. Though the two languages are related, Creole is younger–it developed on the island roughly 300 years ago from a combination of French and other languages–and has its own grammar, pronunciation, and spelling. And as long as Haitians have been speaking it, Creole has been seen as an inferior, primitive tongue–a corrupt, misshapen version of French that isolates the people who speak it from the rest of the world. Though linguists today consider it a full language in its own right, a deep-seated disdain towards Creole still exists at all levels of Haitian society, including among people who can’t speak anything else. There is a pervasive belief that in order to succeed in life–to get a good job, to become part of the middle class–a person must know French.

. . .

DeGraff is waging a campaign on two distinct fronts. . . . At the school he works with in Haiti, where every subject is taught in Creole, DeGraff has seen firsthand the transformation that can take place when children can finally learn in the language that they, and their parents, speak every day. “They are so thirsty for this chance to prove themselves,” DeGraff said recently in his office at MIT. “One kid is always calling me, ‘Look, look, look, I get this!’ And he’s so excited. A kid like that, who could be the next Einstein, perhaps–that kid is going to be wasted….Now, imagine–multiply this by generations and generations and generations. Imagine how many kids like that are going to be wasted.”

. . .

As more Haitians became literate in Creole, the thinking goes, the changes would start reshaping the society. The language would shed its stigma, creating a new route to the middle class for the countless people who now can’t get even basic office work because so many jobs require French. “The employers [say] they’re desperate to hire qualified people. It’s crazy that in a country where the unemployment rate is somewhere between 50 and 80 percent, the employers can’t hire anybody,” said Brian Concannon, director of the Boston-based Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti. “Inequality and poverty are the driving force behind most of the problems in Haiti. And if you’re able to reduce that by getting some people into the middle class and giving others the hope that they could be in the middle class, that would make a huge difference.”

. . .

DeGraff’s academic work amounts to a rebuke to what he calls the pernicious idea that Creole cannot be used to express complex ideas. He has written extensively on the technical properties of the Creole language, mapping its grammatical rules and analyzing its syntactical structures. In papers like 2005’s “Linguists’ Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Creole Exceptionalism,” DeGraff argued against the idea that creoles, as a category, are somehow fundamentally different from other languages. He disagreed with linguists who wanted to study creoles as a means of unlocking the mystery of how languages are first formed, arguing that creoles are every bit as sophisticated and complex as older languages like French or English.

There’s an immense distance, of course, between the scholarly journals where he publishes and the Haitian villages whose schools he wants to transform. But DeGraff believes that in order for Haitian Creole to become fully accepted in Haitian society–for the people who speak it to start being proud of it–a profound cultural shift will have to take place that will require a broad coalition that involves parents, politicians, academics, and even Haitian celebrities.

The process is hard to jump-start, but DeGraff believes that it would become self-reinforcing if more parents started seeing their children flourish when allowed to speak Creole at school. At the school in La Gonave, he said, there’s an emphasis placed on demonstrating for parents–as well as inspectors from the Ministry of Education–that Creole, the language of the home and the street, can also be a language of learning.

“At first the parents were not on board–they were afraid that if their kids don’t learn French they are not going to make it,” DeGraff said. “But now they see that with Creole, the kids are learning–they’re reading, and they’re understanding what they’re reading. And the school does a very good job of raising consciousness, and showing them, ‘Look, your kids will not be stuck with Creole. Creole is the right trampoline to get your kids from where they are to various heights.’”

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