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I received an invitation to join a club of French speakers in Kingston. It came from a Norwegian lady married to an Argentine. It was timely, because, though we’re essentially an English-speaking island, plenty of interest exists in learning and speaking French. I heard that the group meets monthly and got a call telling me the time and place. Strange though it may seem, I live in a house where French is spoken every day: I try to use it when speaking to my daughter, so that she does not lose what little she has. We have a ‘helper’ who’s French-speaking; I used to speak French with her but now only speak in English because I want her to get better in that language. She’s very good with languages and already speaks five others. She’s enjoying learning the speak like a Jamaican. But, back to the French.

Souvent, les gens qui ont voyagé beaucoup se trouve quelques part.

The French club is one such example. Americans who studied French in the USA. Jamaicans who married Haitians. Canadians from Quebec. Jamaicans who learned French in England and worked in French-speaking west Africa. Italians who worked for international organizations. All can come together in Jamaica and enjoy La Francophonie.

I was truly the ‘new boy’. All the other members were women. I joked that it would be an interesting tale to say at home that I had a lunch with twelve women. This is Jamaica: that can be spun into many webs.

Mais, pendant la réunion, je pensais “C’est bizarre. On parle français en Jamaique.” I never thought that I would be in such a peculiar position. But, I followed the group rule and did not break out into English, except when the man came around with drinks. He was Jamaican, and at first I hadn’t realized that he did not speak French, so naturally when he passed me a glass of red wine, J’ai dit “Non, merci.” He looked at me blankly. “Is awright, man. Mi nuh drink,” I told him. He smiled and came back with another glass of red liquid–sorrel. “Tanks,” I said. That’s even more bizarre: to be speaking Jamaican Patois in a room of French speakers.

As far as I know, Jamaica and France don’t have much of an historical link. I read that the in 1694, Jamaica came under attack by the French, led by Admiral Du Casse; they far outnumbered their opponents, but were eventually turned back. They lost hundreds of men in the conflict, but were successful in damaging or destroying many sugar estates and plantations on Jamaica. They learned their lesson and left the island alone. “Imaginez, si les français a reussi.” Our nearest French-speaking neighbour, Haiti, could have had a closer cousin than the islands of Martinique or Guadeloupe.

One of the ladies at the meeting/lunch commented on how the various Caribbean islanders seem to know little about their neighbours. It’s not that easy, though, when direct connections don’t exist. It must have been much harder before the last century, when boats were the only means of travel between the islands. Now, with air services that offer some unappetizing options–Liat, I’m remembering the many “milk train” stops some of your flights make–it’s both difficult and expensive to get between the islands. Yet, as visitors to them find, there are many similarities in terms of basic feel, the way people live, the food eaten, even how people speak, even if the patois is English-, or French- or Spanish-based.

Jamaica is only notionally an English-speaking country. I’m a firm believer that Jamaica has underexploited one of its biggest assets. The fact that Patois is really the lingua franca of this island, should mean that many Jamaicans have a leg-up in learning a language other than English: most of our brains are already wired with two languages active, so a third should be a breeze. I rationalised that it was this that made learning French seem easy for me when I was introduced to it at the age of 11.

But, Jamaicans are funny-peculiar. They would rather engage in a debate about whether our Patois is really a language, rather than use the fact of having to teach standard-English as a second language to most children means that they are already on the multi-lingual track. We could be the Dutch of the Caribbean, and just happily bridge the distance with our neighbours by learning French and Spanish and Portuguese to get our economic and trading business off to a flying start. Instead, we will hear people huffing and puffing about the fact that people don’t speak prappa Hinglish. We get stuck. We will plaster up signs saying ‘public convenience’ rather than the common word ‘toilet’ because the former sounds proper. Heaven help the poor man who’s told to meet at his convenience and is standing waiting outside one of the local lavvies.lingua franca Understanding each other is the key.

Nuff peeple come to Jumayka fram farrin. Somadem no kno nuttin bout prappa Hinglish an quik a clack dem start fi chat di patwa so dem cyan buy dem likkle sinting inna market an inna shap. If you’ve been posted in Jamaica one of the challenges is to get yourself understood. I asked the man who was walking around with another glass of fizzy liquid (champagne with sorrel–kir sorrel?) if he knew any French. “Mi muss learn it, sah.” Lawd sah, do it quik! Wha you tek so long? Jamaican sooncomeism rears its head everywhere.

But, I had better chek mi self in my desire to see us raise the linguistic Tricolour. Do I really want Jamaican patwa to start to infect French? Jamaicans are usually quick to create the right phrase. Would we get a variation on Franglais? ‘Fratwa’? “Ooman, weh me lunettes dem?” “Demde Reggaeboyz cyan joue, man!” “Eh, Star, donne moi a Red Stripe, nuh!” Truth is, we probably don’t have enough contact with French for this ‘corruption’ to take place. But, with the inventiveness of Jamaicans, I don’t want Miss Lou to stir in her grave and remind is about how Patwa is not “corrup” if English is “derived”. ‘Fratwa’ could be derived too.

Joyeux Noël