Monday, May 30, 2011

Granting Constitutional Language Rights

The following is the second in a series that continues the on-going debate about using patois as a basis for teaching English.

Language Rights to Whom?

Hubert Devonish
THE WORLD has over 5,000 languages. Does it mean that if someone enters a Government office and finds no one able to render service in Urdu or Wapishiana, that the state would have violated the rights to freedom from discrimination on grounds of language? Language rights have to be limited by considerations of practicality. In many situations around the world, this is done by what we could call the 10 per cent principle. If a language is spoken by at least 10 per cent of the population of a country, a region or community, this is often considered a sufficient condition to require that special language provisions be made for its speakers.

The practicality issue could be covered by a proviso in the Charter that 'Public authorities and essential entities shall be held not to have abrogated, abridged or infringed the right to freedom from discrimination on the ground of language as in the proposed 3-(2) (j) or 'the right to fair and humane treatment', 13-(2)(i) as this relates to language use, if they have taken adequate steps to provide an equal level and quality of service to the individual in all 'languages in general use.'

The phrase 'languages in general use' could be defined as 'languages which are known to and used in everyday life by at least 10 per cent of the population.' In Jamaica, the only language other than English that falls into this category is Jamaican/Jamaican Creole/Patwa. Its language structure establishes it as a language distinct from English. This has been recognised by the New York State Board of Education as it organises itself more effectively to teach English and in English to the tens of thousands of immigrant Jamaican children who attend public schools in that state. If this distinctness is recognised and there is a commitment to avoiding discrimination on grounds of language, public bodies in Jamaica would have provide their services in just two languages, English and Jamaican.

Another practicality issue involves the ability of all public bodies covered by the Charter to, at one fell swoop, implement non-discriminatory practices. Given the lack of resources to do this, the implementation of the provision of the Charter relating to language discrimination could be introduced on a phased basis over a period of eight years. Every year an additional number of public bodies could be required to comply. Parliament could make the inclusion of 'freedom from discrimination on grounds of language' in the proposed Charter of Rights subject to certain conditions.

Under What Conditions?

One condition could be that access to this right becomes activated on a phased basis over eight years based on a timetable. Another could be that Parliament be satisfied that (a) there is a standard writing system in place for Jamaican (b) that a handbook of standard administrative terminology and a Jamaican language use guide to public servants has been produced and (c) that the administrative arrangements are in place to ensure the implementation and monitoring of language rights in Jamaica. A third condition could be that Parliament would approve a timetable for compliance presented to it by a designated public offender such as the Public Defender.

Why, one might ask, do we need a timetable for compliance? The answer is that it would be difficult to immediately put in place all the resources needed to train public officers who deal with the public. Producing wordlists with Jamaican equivalents of English technical and administrative terminology cannot be done for the dozens of public bodies all at the same time. The phasing might start with the Jamaica equivalents of English technical and administrative terminology cannot be done for the dozens of public bodies at the same time. The phasing might start with the Jamaica Information Service in the first year, the Registrar General's Department in the second, the Inland Revenue Department in the third, Ministry of Health in the fourth, the Ministry of Labour and Social Security in the third, Ministry of Health in the fourth, the Ministry of Labour and Social Security in the fifth. The widening experience and knowledge of how to proceed would allow for an acceleration of the process in the final three years, with several entities becoming integrated into the new non-discriminatory programme of public communication in each of the last three years.

But why do we then not just wait until all arrangements are in place before inserting language rights into the Charter? This could be answered by another question, 'Do we wish to wait until it is administratively convenient in order to take steps to end the denial of a particular set of rights?' Including these rights right from the start would concentrate the collective minds of the state most wonderfully, producing both a timetable which had to be met and perhaps greater than normal sense of urgency.

What Role for the Public Defender?

It would help if there were some public official who would have an oversight role in ensuring that the right to equal levels of service in Jamaica is respected. However, there is no need to create new, and ultimately expensive, public official positions to implement language rights. The Office of the Public Defender already exists, with a legally enshrined role as the guardian of individual rights. The widening of rights protected in the constitution to include language would logically also widen the scope of this office. 

It is to the Public Defender, therefore, that the responsibility for being the watchdog for language rights could be devolved. This officer would have the responsibility firstly to establish exactly the quality and standard of service in Jamaican that could be considered equivalent to that offered in English. The second task would be to consult with each public authority and essential entity covered by the Charter to establish a timetable for the phasing in of services provided to the public in Jamaican. The third task would be to develop and implement an annual monitoring process for the services provided in Jamaica by public authorities and essential entities. The fourth would be to investigate any suspected violation of the right to freedom from discrimination on grounds of language on the part of those public bodies covered by the Charter.

The Public Defender would have the power to make recommendations to any authority or entity found in violation and, where necessary, seek remedy in a court of law. However, the actual work of facilitating and promoting the efficient and effective use of Jamaican by public bodies in their dealings with the public would be carried out, on behalf of the Public Defender, by a Language Planning Agency.

And the Jamaican Language Unit?

The Jamaican Language Unit (JLU) is set up within the Dept of Language, Linguistics and Philosophy of UWI, Mona. It bases its work on (i) the academic and research material on Jamaican already in existence and (ii) the range of existing expertise in the area of linguistics, much of it available through the University of the West Indies and accessible at little or no additional cost to the taxpayer.

The role of the JLU and language planning agencies as diverse as the Academic Française in France, the Hebrew Language Academy in Israel, etc., is to produce technical vocabulary for the new functions which a language may have to perform from time to time. In a situation where the agencies of government and state are constrained to provide services in the Jamaican language as well as English, the JLU would develop lists of technical words and phrases for Jamaican. These would express non-traditional administrative and technical concepts with accuracy and elegance.

The JLU would be able to recommend that public servants, when speaking to monolingual speakers of Jamaican, use approved Jamaican equivalents for certain well established administrative terms in English. A Jamaican phrase such as "wan kapi we sain an stamp", literally 'a copy that is signed and stamped' might be proposed as the appropriate translation equivalent for 'a signed and stamped' might be proposed as the appropriate translation equivalent for 'a signed certified copy'. Similarly, di die i ron out, literally 'the day it runs out', could be proposed for the phrase 'expiry date', and di die i gi out’, literally 'the day was it given out' for 'date of issue.'

The JLU, in preparation for this, is formally and popularising the Cassidy system as an official standard writing system for Jamaican. It is also already developing specialised Jamaican terminology needed for official public communications. It is, in addition, able to help train public servants who need to use Jamaican in their dealings with the public, to read the writing system and use the technical terminology developed by the agency. It has the capacity, as well, to provide the technical advice which an overseeing officer such as the Public Defender would need in carrying out his advisory, supervisory and monitoring roles in the area of language rights.

Hubert Devonish
Professor of Linguistics & Coordinator
The Jamaican Language Unit
The University of the West Indies
Mona Campus.

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