What is it like to speak one language and be educated in another? Most of you will never know. Some, such as those who are immigrants from a country where English is not spoken actually have a harder time than us who are in countries where English is spoken, but there is another local tongue. Many others of you who grew up speaking Ebonics will have at least some idea of what I had to go through.
Among ourselves, we speak a Jamaican Creole, also called Patois (pronounced “Patwa”). There are small regional variations, but they almost create no difficulties. The local language gets most of its vocabulary from English, but the grammar is from elsewhere. Many of the words are of West African origin, maybe the grammar has the same source, but there might be some 17th century Spanish influences. When we attend school, however, we are taught in English; from elementary school up. Now, this creates an often very great barrier to the student.
Since we hear English being spoken around us, (radio, foreigners, Jamaicans fluent in the language) we almost never have much problem understanding standard, everyday English, but those of us who rarely use it cannot speak or write it properly. For such persons, formal and academic English is often unintelligible. I once listened to a lecture from one or our university professors and could understand only a few of his sentences; it was so pregnant with inlellectualese and the entire lecture was very academic in structure and language.
When you are used a similar-sounding non-English vocabulary and are required to write and/or speak in English, you often don’t know when you get it wrong. To illustrate: “Develop” is one word in English, yet the equivalent in Creole is two words; “devel up” that give the very same pronunciation, so the Jamaican student will often not know that the expression, “They plan to devel it up into a park” is wrong and makes him/her sound unintelligent.
The differences in grammar, sentence construction and the way ideas and thoughts are conceived and expressed create another big problem. We don’t exactly have a verb “to be” in our Creole, there are three other verbs that are used according to the situation: “A” for identity, “de” (sometimes pronounced “di”) for location and “tan” for condition, characteristic or constancy. The English expression, “Where are you?” is expressed in patois, “A whey yu de?” literally, “Is where you are?”, and that is how it is often said when a Jamaican tries to say it in English. The Jamaican term, “How im tan?” depending on the context, can mean, “How is he (or she)?” or it may mean “What is he (or she) like?” Since the verb is also used for the English verbs “to stand” and “to stay”, the Jamaican may attempt to express that thought as “How him stay?”
As a result of this, many intelligent Jamaicans were receiving very poor grades and at least appeared to be doing very badly in their academics. Now that the problem has been officially recognized by the authorities in the education system, we hope that the correct steps will be taken to solve this problem. In the mean time, teachers who had recognized the problem for what it was were adjusting their teaching methods accordingly and made constant representations to the Ministry of Education. They have finally begun to recognize the problem and have given it the name “Creole Interference”. The training program for our teachers at the colleges and university has been amended accordingly and I now see “Creole Interference” being included teacher seminars.
I’m sure that a similar problem exists in the U.S. education system, but have not yet seen anything yet that shows that it has been recognized there.