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.

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