Monday, April 18, 2011

The Price of Language Discrimination in Jamaica

What is Language Discrimination?
In the Bible, in the book of Judges (Chapter 12, verses 5-6), we have the account of the victorious Gileadites who, as the Ephraimites fled in the night, caught them. When the Ephraimites tried to hide their identity, the men of Gilead, ‘ … then said they unto him, Say now Shib'boleth: and he said Sib'boleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the E'phra-imites forty and two thousand’. The Ephra-imites spoke a language variety in which did not have the ‘sh’ sound and so, when asked to pronounce ‘Shibboleth’, their ‘Sibboleth’ pronunciation gave them away. Forty two thousand, according to the biblical account, suffered death as a result of this difference in language. This was language discrimination in its most extreme form.

In modern Jamaica, what is the price of not being able to speak the language of those who control our society? There is a price to pay if you live in Jamaica, speak Jamaican (Patwa) and do not speak or understand very well the language of official business, English. You can avoid conducting any official business, to your own detriment. Otherwise, you can, at some inconvenience to yourself, have someone who speaks English conduct business on your behalf. Failing this, you can endure the scorn, insult and injury heaped on those who dare to use, for official business, the Jamaican language, deemed by social consensus, unfit for this purpose. Whichever choice is made, such a citizen is at a disadvantage. They are at a severe disadvantage when compared to those citizens who do speak English. This unequal treatment constitutes linguistic discrimination.

A Language Discrimination Experiment
As part of ongoing research on language discrimination in Jamaica, Kadian Walters, a PhD student in Linguistics at UWI, carried out a series of experiments involving Customer Service Representatives in Jamaica. The research design involved a series of telephone interactions using two languages (Jamaican/Jamaican Creole/Patwa and English) to communicate with Service Representatives of Public Agencies across Jamaica. A total of Sixteen (16) public agencies were involved in the study.

Two callers, a female and a male, used English on one occasion and JC on another, while interacting with pre-selected Service Representatives via the telephone. They requested information about the particular service offered by the agency among other agency specific information.

  • What are your opening hours / wa taim unu uopm?
  • May I have the directions please / yu kyan gi mi di direkshan pliiz?
  • A specific question is asked about that particular agency and its services
At the end of each interaction, callers had to document their own subjective reactions.

The Results
With over 100 calls made, the results brought both good and bad news. The good news was that both callers reported that, in the majority of cases, they received favourable treatment regardless of their use of Jamaican or English. However, about 20% of these calls were rated negatively by the two callers. Of these, 76% were when the calls were made using the Jamaican language. Language discrimination is alive and well in Jamaica.

The Emotional Price of Discrimination
So how did the callers feel about the treatment they received when calling in Jamaican? Let us take a look at the callers’ comments. The female caller stated, in relation to how she was sometimes treated when she spoke Jamaican:

“In the majority of cases when calling as a Jamaican language speaker I was very timid and unconfident because of my uncertainty and expectations of how the Service Representatives would respond to me based on my choice of language…’

“Some Service Representatives … were very mean and ridiculed me openly. I remember one woman shouting at me when I asked for directions and she went as far as putting me on speaker so that other workers could hear “the dunce talk”.

‘This ridicule that I faced sometimes tempted me to resort to the only power that they would respect - my use of English’.

The male caller, when phoning in Jamaican, had this to say about his experience:
“In Jamaican the exact same representative (as the one who had, on another occasion provided polite service when spoken to in English) began getting rude and interrogative; its as if their function switched from being a representative to a person charged with discrediting, interrogating and dismissing a caller.”
If this was the depth of hurt experienced by persons who were only pretending not to be able to speak English, imagine the feelings of someone for whom this was, in fact, a daily reality. Each day these people have to do official business, in our hospitals, banks, government offices, airports, at the emotional level, they die a thousand deaths. This they experience from the tongues of others who feel that those who speak no English in Jamaica have forfeited their right to citizenship, and their right to be treated politely, fairly and equally by public officers, bodies and institutions.

Hubert Devonish

Professor of Linguistics & Coordinator

The Jamaican Language Unit

The University of the West Indies

Mona Campus.

Click here to see the edited Monday, April 18, 2011, Jamaican Observer version.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

What about freedom from language discrimination?

In the Gleaner of 30th March, 2011, under the caption ‘Charter of Rights – “A Recipe for Discrimination”’, we read, ‘…, last Friday Opposition Senator A.J. Nicholson reminded the Senate of a commitment given by the Parliament to the university, to pursue the work which could ascertain the feasibility of providing protection from discrimination on the ground of language.’ No opportunity, in the end, was provided for a report to be given. The Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms (Constitutional Amendment) Act 2011, was passed by the Senate of Jamaica on 1st April, 2011. This Charter is about to become law without any specific provision for freedom from discrimination on the ground of language. This is against the background of a society which in which two languages are used, English and Jamaican (Creole, Patwa, etc.). The former is the official language, but one in which all, except the educated minority, have limited competence in. The latter is the native language of the vast majority of the population and is used with facility by all sectors of the population. The official language, English, is the only language the institutions of government and state are required to use in the provision of services to the Jamaican public. We have a clear case of discrimination on the ground of language so why was the freedom from language discrimination not included in the Charter?

The Joint Parliamentary Committee in 2001, when confronted with arguments such as these, made the following decision: ‘…. the establishment of an agency of the type mentioned by Professor Devonish [now set us as the Jamaican Language Unit at UWI] would be a pre-requisite to any constitutional guarantee of protection from discrimination on the ground of language and that that agency should be set up. Such an institution would assist in educating and enlightening people on the issue of discrimination on the ground of language so that, eventually, a guarantee of protection from such discrimination would find its place in the Constitution. The Committee is, therefore, strongly of the view that Parliament should encourage the Department of Language, Linguistics and Philosophy of the University of the West Indies to pursue the work mentioned by Professor Devonish and to report appropriately as it progresses (Report of Joint Select Committee 2002, p. 29). Should Parliament have enacted the Charter without receiving a report from Hubert Devonish, on behalf of the Jamaican Language Unit which was set up at the request of Parliament? And what, had it delayed to receive a report, would this report have contained?

Report on the Work of the Jamaican Language Unit/Unit for Caribbean Language Research (UWI, Mona)


The Jamaican Language Unit (JLU) was established in 2002 as a Unit within the Dept. of Language, Linguistics and Philosophy, in response to a request from the Joint Select Committee of Parliament on the Charter of Rights (Constitutional Amendment) Bill. The Unit was to be set up to create conditions which would allow Parliament to include 'freedom from discrimination on the ground of language' as one of the rights protected by the Charter. To support such a right, it was recommended that a language planning agency be set up to deal with issues such as:

  • a standard writing system for Jamaican,
  • changing public attitudes to the Jamaican Language to make them more favourable to the use of the Jamaican Language in formal public communication.

The tasks listed above were, once achieved, would create the conditions which would allow the Jamaican Language to be used as a medium for conducting communications with members of the public who had limited proficiency in English but who were native speakers of the Jamaican Language. The way would then be open to include the 'freedom from discrimination on the ground of language' with the Charter of Rights'.

The Writing System for the Jamaican Language

A standard writing system, that developed by Cassidy (1961) was already in existence at the time the JLU was set up. The JLU set about modifying it slightly to resolve some minor problems with it. This has become known as the Cassidy-JLU writing system. The JLU has proceeded to educate the public on how to use it. The main vehicle for this public education drive was the development of a handbook on how to write the Jamaican Language, 'Writing Jamaican the Jamaican Way' which was launched in June, 2009. Several hundred copies of this work are now in circulation.

Between 2002 and the present, some 500 hundred graduates of UWI, who did the course, L38J - Structure and Usage of Jamaican Creole, have been produced who are literate in the Cassidy-JLU writing system as a result of formal instruction provided in this course.

In 2004, a Seminar on Writing the Jamaican Language was held at UWI at which 150 teachers from primary schools across Jamaica were introduced to the writing system.

Between 2004-2008, the Bilingual Education Project (BEP) was introduced, with the blessing and support of the Ministry of Education, into 4 schools in the Corporate Area. This involved the formal instruction of children in both Jamaican and English, orally and in writing, as well as the teaching and exercise of literacy in both languages. Teachers were trained to deliver formally in both languages, Language Arts, Science, Mathematics and Social Studies textbooks translated into Jamaican, and the programme successfully implemented over four years.

Public Attitudes to Language

The Language Attitude Survey of Jamaica (2005) was carried out involving 1,000 informants across Jamaica, controlled for age, gender, and region of origin. The sample included a spread of people from across the social, educational and economic groupings within the country. The following were the findings:

  • The majority (79.5%) off Jamaicans recognise Jamaican (Patwa) as a Language.
  • The majority (68.5%) of Jamaicans think that Jamaican (Patwa) should be made an official language alongside English.
  • The majority (71.1% ) consider that schools in which English and Jamaican are used side by side as mediums of instruction and of literacy.
  • The majority of Jamaicans thought that the Prime Minister or Minister of finance would communicate better with the public if their speeches in Parliament

Language Competence

The Language Competence Survey of Jamaica (2006) carried out by the JLU as a follow up to the Language Attitude Survey of 2005, shows that 36.5% of the population surveyed showed no demonstrable ability to produce English.

The Bilingual Education Project (2004-2008)

This was a Ministry of Education approved project to implement, from Grades 1-4, an education project which was intended to use both Jamaican and English fully, as mediums of instruction, mediums for literacy and as subjects to be taught via Language Arts. This involves, a) redesigning instruction to support bilingualism with Jamaican and SJE enjoying equal status in grades I – 4, b) providing learning – teaching materials in both languages, c) training teachers in the specialist area of Jamaican language instruction. The students engaged in the project completed that project when they left Grade 4 in 2008. They did GSAT in 2010 and are now in Grade 7 in High Schools. They are fully literate in Jamaican and English, in the case of the former exercising their literacy in the Cassidy-JLU writing system, the same one being popularised by the JLU.

The Diploma in Public Service Interpreting (DPSI) in Legal Contexts

Jamaicans in Jamaica and overseas often suffer by being treated by the legal system as speakers of English. There have been many cases of injustice as a result of this. The way forward is simultaneously raise the awareness of Jamaicans that they are entitled to the services of an interpreter if they do not have a sufficiently high level of competence in English and to ensure that they have properly trained and qualified interpreters to assist them.

The Institute of Linguists (IOL) is an international examining body certifying interpreters in a range of contexts, including those involving the Law. In 2010, in collaboration with the Jamaican Language Unit, the IOL has examined a group of Jamaicans engaged in a programme to train them as interpreters in legal contexts, involving interpretation from English to Jamaican and Jamaican to English. The first set of examinations were held in June, 2010 and it is expected that the first batch of internationally certified interpreters in legal contexts will complete their certification in November, 2011.

The Charter on Language Policy and Language Rights in the Creole-speaking Caribbean

The International Conference on Language Policy and Language Rights in the Creole-speaking Caribbean was held in Kingston on 13th - 14th January, 2011. This conference, attended by the Governors-General of Belize and St. Lucia, by the Minister of Education of Antigua, and by representatives from at 10 Caribbean countries, including those under Dutch and French administration, agreed on a Charter of Language Policy and Language Rights in the Creole-speaking Caribbean. This spells out the rights which speakers of languages in the Caribbean, in particular Creole and indigenous languages, can and should expect in relation to their respective states. There is great stress on the requirement that the state not discriminate against its citizens on the ground of language and of the right of every citizen who is a speaker of a territorial language, to receive service from the agencies of the state in the language in which the citizen is most comfortable.


The above is a summary of the report which would have been made to Parliament. The actions briefly summarised here make a compelling case for the inclusion of the freedom from discrimination on the ground of language within the Charter of Rights to the Jamaican population. Much work has been done and inevitably the work is still progressing as it will for a very long time. However, we at the Jamaican Language Unit (JLU) feel that sufficient ground has been covered to allay the fears of Parliament that the freedom from discrimination on the ground of language would create unacceptable levels of burden on the state. We strongly urge, since the Charter has already been passed, that there be an amendment to the Charter that would grant freedom from discrimination on the ground of language.

Hubert Devonish

Professor of Linguistics & Coordinator

The Jamaican Language Unit

The University of the West Indies

Mona Campus.

Click here to see part 1 of the edited Tuesday April 12, 2011 version.
Click here to see part 2 of the edited Wednesday April 13, 2011 continuation.