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.

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