My name is… Je m’appele… : Jamaica and its place in the world

I have no grand designs for my youngest daughter, but I’ve told her she wont fail in life because of me. We are now in France, spending a week with a family we met some 8 years ago, when we lived in Guinea (French-speaking west Africa). The overall idea is for her to be immersed in another language and culture for a short while, to help her with her French. She spent three years of her life living in such an environment, but as a baby through age 3. Our hosts used to visit us almost every Sunday to play tennis in the morning, then have brunch; their eldest daughter used to babysit during the tennis. My daughter remembers none of this. So, she’s supposed to speak French as much as possible for the next seven days. Our hosts love it that they all get the chance to practice their English with us. We are being very flexible and tolerant of mistakes; it’s a learning opportunity for everyone.

Yesterday, we arrived by high-speed train from Paris, a simple thing normally but a relief when the rail workers are on strike. We were greeted with typical French hugs and kisses when we got off the train. (Jamaicans will be curling up in fetal positions qt the thought of two men kissing on the cheek, but it’s a common greeting worldwide, especially amongst French-speaking people even in west Africa, where the norm is two kisses each cheek.) Within minutes of our arrival, my daughter was headed to a swimming pool.

It’s heated, which is great because summer is still on its way here: 65-70 degrees fahrenheit is on the cards, a far cry from the 90+ we left in Kingston. A short while later, the two young women of the house (now 19 and 23) came home and greeted my daughter with more hugs and kisses. It was mid-afternoon.

We talked for a while, then the young ladies took my daughter out to look at the town centre, while the father and I headed off to a golf course. He’s retired early, too, and recently started to play. He has plans for my week that sound ideal 😉 The mother was left to relax for a while. When we all got back, it was time for the young ladies to have their own time. My daughter and I then talked with the parents, while getting ready to watch the first World Cup match of the day. France is seven hours ahead of Jamaica and I am not yet adjusted to watching games later in the day.

The parents and I talked freely in French, my daughter listened mostly. I suggested that she try to just pick up words and see how she went. We then decided it would be good to have everyone speak English so that my daughter could see and hear that the difficulties were shared. It was funny. We went through a period when I tried to make clear the differences between English words with the same sounds, but some had the same spelling but different meanings (sew, for instance), while some were spelt differently (so, for instance). It got interesting when I tried to pronounce clearly some words beginning with w (double v sound in French): word, world, weird, wash wish, whirl, etc. We played with some English chestnuts, like they’re, their, and there. Our hosts were getting a headache and it was dinner time.

Food is usually good to get people more relaxed. We continued our word play.

I’d brought some hot pepper sauce as a token gift. Everyone tried it, but only the father didn’t need an extinguisher. Our hosts told us what was in the meal (vegetable lasagna), and they learned that English people say pepper for both the vegetable (or fruit, green red, or yellow) and the spice. French has two words. Aubergine was the same in both languages. Onion (oignon) sounded similar. Garlic (ail, pronounced aye, in French) was not at all alike. So, we went on all evening. My daughter was getting bolder and began to name things in French, mostly cognates such as chocolate, or words she knew well like glace (ice cream). Everything we touched, we named in both languages.

The match between Brazil and Mexico started and we put language lessons aside in place of easily understood yells and groans. The French TV ads were interesting, not least because they focused on things different to the publicity in Jamaica. No LIME browse and talk or Grace products.

I was about 12 when I first went to France; my daughter is 10. I went on a school trip with a class and teachers, and we spent our time with French counterparts. We slept in our own lodgings, though had French catering, such as hot chocolate, bread and jam for breakfast. We toured with the French children and spent free time with them. We had a good command of French from our first year at secondary school.  Most of the French children spoke English well. We learned how they lived: going to bars was allowed, but no alcohol; riding two-stroke motorcycles (mobilettes) was the norm; uniforms were never worn by most French children. Being in a small family may seem intimidating to a child when everyone is older and not familiar. My daughter was very at ease with the family dog, even if she really didn’t understand English commands. The little one will progress, little by little.

My hosts had cancelled their visit to Jamaica planned for early this year; they wanted to have that and looked forward to improving their English. I warned them that Jamaican English may be easier for them to understand and speak, but was not like most other English. I gave a few examples, such as ‘wata’. They laughed as that was close to how many French people pronounced the word water.

I’m no linguist, but have a hard time not being able to communicate verbally when I travel, so I relish trying to learn a new language. Most people are not like me, and quail up if they have to try to speak. I told my daughter to free her voice box. Let the mistakes flow and fill in with whatever you know. Make sentences with gestures. Draw pictures. Whatever it takes, do it. I often talked to myself in a mirror, on the advice of a Russian teacher. Need often helps speed learning. My daughter wants to find some boutiques (a good French word) and look for arts and crafts (artisanat) items. She has some money and will find ways to spend it 🙂

Most Jamaicans have lived under the shelter of English and not embraced their foreign language neighbours, either French or Spanish. Jamaicans travel to non-English speaking countries to support our athletes, but not with much linguistic backing. I’m a firm believer that our lack of progress since Independence was made harder to break because of our reluctance to understand that we had some language gifts, being notionally bilingual. In my world, I would have had more young people going to non-English speaking countries to study, and made use of their language skills, like my Jamaican friend who studied medicine in Russia and is fluent in Russian. Small countries like ours need leverage in our people’s skills. Just doing what others do wont get us far. We need an edge. Language skills is one such. Look at small European countries and how they use their surrounding foreigner neighbours to make learning their languages seem so sensible. When you flip over several borders in a day it’s useful.

The children in most of Europe (and worldwide) learn English as the language of business. We have it already but cannot compete with it alone. In that sense, being Anglophone is a curse. Listen to many top athletes and how they function in English, if it’s not their mother tongue. Listen, too, to how they can often function in a third language. How do our stars stack up, for instance? How is Tuffy Anderson doing in El Salvador? I hope his Spanish is functional now. If Real Madrid want him next will he fall over his tongue?

We make light of our deficiencies, but the world doesn’t. We don’t see many of the lights that shine straight into our eyes.

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)

One thought on “My name is… Je m’appele… : Jamaica and its place in the world”

  1. We sent our children to French Immersion for elementary & highschool. The eldest was then immersed in French for 9months. Sadly middle child with her dyslexia, had to be switched to English school after grade five. The youngest, he believes his French is horrible so refuses to use it, even though while in University he lives in a bi-lingual town. Speaking more than one language offers so many opportunities for the young and I wish it was mandatory for all (with exceptions).


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