An Australian expatriate recently told me that the biggest problem at his plant was workers “thinking in patois.” In his experience those who could not speak understandable English usually could not think logically. While those who spoke English well were generally efficient employees.


This had nothing to do with race, he said, for we all have the same genetic make up. But thousands of years of literature and culture were imbedded in the English language. How could it not be a superior mode of communication to a strictly spoken dialect?


Not long after this a Canadian manager for a call center company in Jamaica mentioned that her firm had laid off most of the staff it originally hired because the company’s mainly American customers simply could not understand them. In fact the company had lost many contracts because it could not find enough persons able to speak comprehensible English.


Now language not only shapes the way we think, it determines what we can think about. And while patois is a wonderfully emotive language, you cannot discuss complex concepts in the limited vocabulary of a merely spoken tongue. Sophisticated scientific, commercial and cultural ideas require written words and symbols. It is impossible for example to talk about the theory of relativity in dialect.


Extreme Jamaican nationalists argue that to not admit the full equality of patois and English is virtually a declaration of Jamaican inferiority. But this both denies factual reality and betrays an ignorance of history. For English is no pure language of a thoroughbred race, but the bastard creation of a mongrel British people. As Walt Whitman said “Viewed freely, the English language is the accretion and growth of every dialect, race, and range of time, and is both the free and compacted composition of all.”


Roman conquerors taught Britain to write. And constant invasion meant that Britons variously spoke Gaelic, Latin, Anglo Saxon, Norse, Old English, French, and Middle English before modern English came to be. In one of history’s typical ironies this continuous colonialism created the largest vocabulary ever known.


When once downtrodden Britain acquired the largest Empire of all time, English began to dominate the world in an unprecedented manner. It is now the native language of over 350 million people, a second language for over 300 million, and a foreign language for another 100 million. Two thirds of all scientific papers are written in English, as is over 70% of all mail. Half of all business deals are conducted in English and it is the international language of aviation, computing, diplomacy, and tourism. More people speak Mandarin, but English is by far the most widespread language ever known and is the official or co-official language of 45 countries. This compares to 27 for French, 20 for Spanish and 17 for Arabic.


Having the de facto international language as its native tongue is an inestimable natural advantage for Jamaica. Yet some foolishly seem to think that speaking Jamaican means talking in a manner completely incomprehensible to outsiders, in effect cutting themselves off from the rest of the world and holding up ignorance as a badge of honour.


This is not to say we should stop speaking patois altogether. Personally I would find this impossible, because whenever I get really excited I can’t help lapsing into patois. In times of extreme joy or anger formal English just isn’t emotionally satisfying enough for me. Our national dialect and accent is inextricably linked with our sense of Jamaicanness and is not going to vanish any time soon.


But we need to be able to communicate as effectively with outsiders as with our own. Is it not embarrassing to hear some of our athletic and music stars struggling unintelligibly in a mangled pseudo American twang when interviewed abroad? Part of the reason for Bob Marley’s and Shaggy’s international success is that while their accents are definitely Jamaican, the westerners who buy the most records worldwide can understand their lyrics. People only relate to what they can comprehend.


The inability of many Jamaicans to express themselves understandably in English may not be our biggest problem. But it is surely the one with the most obvious answer. Efficient problem solving means implementing obvious solutions immediately and then moving on to more complicated issues. And if I were prime minister my first act would be to make daily elocution classes mandatory in every school in the island.


The ability – or inability – to speak English properly seems strongly correlated in this country with practical aptitude and comprehension skills. We’re not talking here about pedantic pronunciation - Lord knows I am no polished linguist myself. But many Jamaicans are frankly unable to express themselves intelligibly in English and so in effect cannot communicate with anyone outside of their immediate social milleau.


By not forcing our youngsters to learn to speak properly our educational system is in effect condemning many of them to a half a life. Education is certainly not the same thing as intelligence, but only education allows the full expression of intelligence. Linguistic underdevelopment not only limits employment opportunities but impoverishes every aspect of an individual’s existence. It is also a major source of violence, as men unable to coherently express pent up emotions often lash out in frustration and anger.


And according to a police acquaintance, linguistic inadequacy is a big factor in the JCF’s commonly high-handed attitude towards the public. He says many of his colleagues cannot speak clear English and so try to assert their authority with an often uncalled for arrogant belligerence. He feels a verbally confident police would treat the public in a more reasonable manner, and would like to see the force conduct in house language training.


In my opinion language is also a much more divisive factor in Jamaican society than race and class. It is relatively easy to look pass a man’s colour or background, put it is difficult to view as an equal someone you are not able to understand or who is not able to understand you in his supposed official tongue.


I am by no means advocating a return to colonial days when educated Jamaicans were expected to talk like transplanted Englishmen. But men like Michael Manley and Michael Holding have shown that it is quite possible to speak with impeccable clarity in an unmistakable Jamaican accent, and our youngsters should taught to do this. We would be a foolish country indeed to throw away our greatest historical gift.

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