Last week, Jamaica’s PM stated two quite distinct things regarding the idea of Jamaicans needing to have more language skills. If you want to get into semantics, there is a distinction between a second official language and an official second language. But, let me not delve into that, but just think about the idea of being linguistically more skilled.

When I left Jamaica as a boy and went to England, I thought I was speaking English. A few days in primary school, after I landed in London made it clear to me that even if I spoke English, my accent and use of it made me less easy to be understood than those around me. I adjusted, as children do, and soon was speaking like most of my peers. My accent got flatter and I picked up the lilt of a Lon’on boy.

Fast forward a few years. I go to secondary school and am offered the chance to learn a foreign language; I chose French. Within months, I was managing this new tongue well. I stayed with it till my mid-teens, and was expected to study it in my last two years and take it on in university. I didn’t, much to the shock of my teachers. I’d found learning another language a piece of cake, especially as I enjoyed what I got to know of French life and culture. I did not take so readily to German, and Latin, which was a must from my first year at secondary school was, shall we say, interesting, but I had philosophical issues learning dead language.

Fast forward a few more years. I go to university and graduate with higher degrees and go to work…in North Wales. The Welsh have their own language and it’s spoken and read and written with greater strength in the north than the south, and my job in local government, which involved a good amount of public consultation, required me to be able to at least understand something in that language. Wales is officially bilingual, including having schools that use Welsh as a first language, and parts of the country where Welsh is spoken first and maybe the only language for many people. English and the English are definitely second class. So, I learned Welsh. Let’s say that it’s challenging language, with lots of moods and declensions–the Latin started to pay off in understanding that aspect. It comes with a dizzying array of consonants, for those who’re English based. For example, the famed Llanfair­pwllgwyngyll­gogery­chwyrn­drobwll­llan­tysilio­gogo­goch. I got by well enough to do my job, even over the telephone, and I became just another Jones–a very common Welsh surname.

Fast forward again. I am now working for the IMF and dealing with the former Soviet Union. Russian was the language for the USSR, so let’s go learn that. Two years having a tutor come to my office each morning, and do an hour’s lesson left me as a half-decent Russian speaker. Well, if Welsh was different, then Russian was ****** different 🙂 First, it has a completely different alphabet. It’s also noticeably different when written, as opposed to printed; see the letter T, which can be written like the letter Pi with a 3rd leg as a capital, but as an m is lower case. Neat! 🙂

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The joys of the Cyrillic alphabet 🙂

It’s great to listen to spoke Russian, even with a guy whose accent is a bit suspect. <iframe width=”560″ height=”315″ src=”; frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen>It’s even worth thinking about the fact that a significant minority of Jamaicans speak Russian, thanks to taking courses in the former USSR during the Manley years. Nothing like hearing a friend use a Russian phrase and then shocking him by continuing in the same tongue 🙂

Fast forward again. I get asked if I’d be interested to work in French-speaking country. I say I’ve not used French for about 30 years. No problem! Another tutor lined up. A few weeks later, off to Madagascar, and having to discuss economic issues in French, with people who also speak Malagasy, and have another set of seemingly unpronounceable names, like Razafindrandriatsimaniry. Aha! Welsh came in useful. 🙂 From that, I find myself living in a French-speaking country and working for four years. My wife improves her French. My newborn grows up understanding and speaking French. I think in French.

What’s my point?

It’s been a great personal asset to know several other languages. I think that the fact that I actually was bilingual, as a Jamaican boy, but did not realise it, made life much easier.

Now, for Jamaicans to get to master a foreign language–and it really doesn’t matter which–our base education has to be good. Why? Well, you must have a good mastery of your mother tongue. That doesn’t mean you have to be a grammar nerd. But, if you don’t understand the basic workings of your own language, it’s hard to step over to another tongue. For Jamaicans, that poses a special problem. Most of us speak and understand Patois. Some of us have very good basic standard spoken English; reading and writing it are more challenging. When you move to learn another language, those lack of skills in the base language are real problems.

Most languages don’t work from variants of a base, but the standard version. We need to learn how to say, say, the Spanish equivalent of ‘Whose book is this?’. Well, if you only know how to say ‘Ah hoo fa book dis?’ you can see that you may get stuck. It can be done, but it’s more like using stepping-stones (a bit bumpy and unsteady and uneven) than walking up stairs (regular paced as you shift levels).

I noted today that many people who are non-English speaking living and working in Jamaica have a hard time understanding Jamaicans’ speech. Obviously, when most speak Patois, and that’s not what foreigners are taught when they learn English. Another side of this is that many people outside Jamaica expect Jamaicans to speak Patois. My modified English, which is English-English is (I think) really clear and easy to understand, and I know how to slow down and to pronounce or enunciate better. I’m in a rare group.

When I did some work with some Jamaican kids on various occasions, I noted how they struggled to understand me. We did not speak the same language. They could not meet my English, and my Patois is stilted. But, I can understand Patois, almost completely, so I could make the adjustment. Most foreigners can’t.

So, what will we do to meet the dream of the PM? First, we need to decide what we want to work from–standard English or Patois. Once we decide that, we have to address the next problem. We need to not just teach standard English, but people need to master it. Then, they can have a reasonable chance to succeed with a foreign language.

Even many of our so-called well-educated Jamaicans show their weakness in standard English; just watch the TV news, or read some of the articles in our noted newspapers. We know from daily displays that most Jamaicans nu ha nuh time fi Hinglish.  We won’t even get into how some parts of society look down on standard English.

So, dear PM, I suggest you get clear in your head what is your dream and let’s hear how you want to make it real. If we will become like parts of Miami and Spanish is spoken more than English, that’d be interesting. If we are to be like Quebec and have bilingual signs and documents and language requirements, then that’s another world. If we are just hoping that–like with being just better at any subject–Jamaicans are going to become highly proficient at languages, that’s another world.