Letters & Opinion

Take Kweyol To School?

How to recover our stolen tongues and reshape Caribbean dialogue?

“THIS day we take another critical step in the deconstruction of the colonial Caribbean.”

Image of Earl Bousquet
Chronicles Of A Chronic Caribbean Chronicler By Earl Bousquet

Like most, I too was attracted by those opening words of Vice-Chancellor of The University of the West Indies, Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, on October 27, at a virtual signing ceremony for a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between The University of the West Indies (UWI) and the Association of Caribbean States (ACS).

The MoU, signed in English, Spanish and French, ‘provides a framework for both institutions to cooperate on resource mobilization, integration and furthering the sustainable development of the Caribbean region.’

It will also allow for ‘exchange of information, collaboration in organizing conferences and seminars, research, innovation and training, especially in disaster risk reduction, trade, transport, sustainable tourism and the protection of the Caribbean Sea.’

VC Beckles said The UWI ‘is resolute in its agenda to decolonize the structures inherited from history’ and ‘only the integration of our Caribbean world can fully unleash the potential of our people.’

To mutually advance ‘the process of regional cooperation and consciousness,’ he said, the MoU ‘will give greater sustainability to our integration activities… beyond an English-based framework and within the context of the greater Caribbean region.’

It all began with The UWI’s bold move, last year, to forge partnerships with Cuba’s University of Havana and Universidad de los Andes (UNIANDES) in Colombia, plus the University of St. Maarten’s incorporation into The UWI system earlier this month.

This signing made The UWI ‘a Social Partner of the ACS’ and ACS Secretary General Dr. June Soomer said ‘as the 13th Social Actor within the ACS’, the university will be engaging with an organization established in 1994, ‘at the height of the decolonization process.’

But the paragraph that attracted me most was this one:

“He (Professor Beckles) made special reference to the University’s strategic priority to be multilingual by 2023, as part of the “preparation of an entire generation of students and young people to take command and control of their Caribbean space.”

I would like to think that Kweyol, the French-based indigenous language spoken by the majority of Caribbean citizens, will be considered in the new multilingual scenario being prepared for The UWI.

Kweyol is spoken by over eight million Caribbean people in several CARICOM states and Caribbean territories, including: Dominica, Haiti and Saint Lucia, Grenada and Trinidad & Tobago; and throughout the French-speaking territories: Guadeloupe, French Guiana (Cayenne) and Martinique and the shared (French-Dutch) island of St. Martin.

It is also very much alive in the Caribbean Diaspora.

Kweyol is also a written language that’s long been taught at university level in France, a course initiated several decades ago that has benefitted many Saint Lucians.

Saint Lucia’s Folk Research Center (FRC) played a pivotal role in development of the outlines for alphabetization of Kweyol in Saint Lucia in the early-to-mid 1970s and the encouragement of many members to undertake the Kweyol course in neighboring Martinique.

Kweyol was bastardized in bilingual Saint Lucia for centuries, but was rescued after 1997 when the Kenny Anthony-led Labour administration gave it official equal status with English, then Governor General Dame Pearlette Louisy delivering every one of her subsequent 20 Throne Speeches partly in Kweyol, which had also been outlawed in parliament and ‘official and business circles’.

Today, Kweyol is on equal social footing with English, but with much more expressed cultural appreciation reflected in annual observances of a Jounen Kweyol (Kweyol Day) here — and all of October as Kweyol Heritage Month.

However, the language is being less spoken and understood now among city, urban and suburban folk, especially by the youthful majority, than four decades ago.

Whereas the island’s population was considered 40% illiterate in the late 1960s, this may no longer be the case today; and it might very well be that the country is by now more than 40% Kweyol-illiterate.

There is not as much emphasis in Saint Lucia today as was yesteryear on the ultimate objective of Taking Kweyol To School.

The FRC led efforts back then to teach the language in communities to interested persons; and alphabetization lessons were also taught to inmates at Her Majesty’s Prison in Castries (now demolished).

The language has been uplifted to its original place as that of the majority, but in what Saint Lucian historian, author and Kweyol language expert Morgan Dalphinis refers to as ‘benign neglect’, successive stakeholders at institutional levels dropped the ball like a hot potato when it came to teaching Kweyol in schools.

Against that background, with France already long in making good use of the Kweyol courses at different university levels and The UWI seeking to become proficient in Caribbean languages, it will only be logical for the region’s top university to pick-up that dropped ball and take the language not just to school, but also to its hallowed halls of academic advancement.

But that’s not all.

With increasing emphasis by First People that indigenous names shaped by Caribbean history and civilizations before the Europeans – including names of countries – be rescued and growing demands that indigenous languages be preserved and protected, The UWI can also assist in the necessary research and documentation that would give them the hope that our First Languages too, will also be officially recognized and taught in schools – and at university levels.

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