Literally speaking, language will break us

Every day, in many ways, the same problem stares me in the face: Jamaican illiteracy. My concern with it isn’t just what it says about how poorly we have educated a huge portion of the population. It’s also what it implies for how well we can do things: call that efficiency, productivity, or some other term that tells you how we can be better than other people. Our inability to communicate well at a high level is a brake (not break) on our progress. When I see people sitting idly on street corners and think about how bad our unemployment levels and rates are, I also have to ask how will their situation change if the economy were to grow very fast and the demand for labour rise rapidly. More jobs are being created in the realm of information management than in the area of manual labour. These are not people who seem to be ready for training in new skills in the information sector; they can do merely simple tasks like ‘heavy lifting’ and ‘fetching and carrying’. If you cannot read and write, and process information and share it effectively, you are destined for a new scrap heap of long-term unemployment. (Our crime rates are one of the outcomes of people who CANNOT find work, even if they are WILLING to work.)

Funnily (as in oddly, not amusingly), technology has rendered more powerful many illiterate people because they can use keyboards to form letters and words they cannot form by hand and they can live in a world where the forms of expressions have become a bit elastic and less rigid. If I write IMHO, I do not need to know how to write ‘in my humble opinion’ and can cover my embarrassment of not know how to spell words like ‘humble’ and ‘opinion’.  They can communicate for and wide without encountering anyone who has to handle their communication. Such people can at least read, and have had writing made much less difficult. That’s a plus, but it cannot get through all situations.

I have been in enough situations where someone has asked me to fill out a form for them (often on a plane headed to the USA), or to read something (like tags on a key) so that they can proceed to do a simple task. When you have a bunch of keys but cannot distinguish the labels for which doors they open you are in deep trouble. But, these are common place problems. Expand that to people not being able to read and understand the labelling on almost every building. Scary!

Whatever official data may indicate, many Jamaicans cannot read and write English well. On the one hand, this is easy to understand: most Jamaicans don’t speak English; at best, it’s a second language. Patois, our national way of speaking, though based on English, is often not the same. In addition, it’s mainly oral and that’s where we start to have trouble, both orally and literally, if we try to write: our basic way of communicating isn’t well-codified. (I say well because in some other territories, where ‘creole languages’ like Patois is spoken, it is codified, as in the Seychelles, where it is taught in school and used in written form in formal communication.) So, we do not put a premium on spelling rules (even in Patois) or even writing.

There’s no point arguing about whether or not Patois is a language. The fact remains that it’s how most Jamaicans communicate. That’s well understood by business, who try to use it in basic marketing because it has much better chance of reaching a wider audience. The bottom line tun up!

But, let’s look at what we are facing, taking a simple example situation. A man is dealing with a bundle of things. A Jamaican may say “Is bungle him bungle it up.” (He bundled it up.) Now, a non-Jamaican would likely already be confused on hearing this, if he or she knew the two different words bungle (mess up) and bundle (collection of things). If an ordinary (non-literate) Jamaican had to write about the event, bungle would be written for bundle. Literate English speakers would read it and go down the wrong path, imagining a minor catastrophe instead of something uneventful. If a literate Jamaican saw the event and wrote about it, he/she would likely use the right word, bundle. (I say ‘likely’ because it’s well understood that people who are literate and well-educated may still mistake words, and English is full of words that either sound alike or nearly alike and sometimes trip people up. For example, the famous group of there, they’re, their.)

That was just an example to set the ball rolling. Amplify and multiply this situation across the country and you can get a real bundle of bungling as people try to describe what is going on and others try to understand what they are being told.

Though very much part of this whole problem, I am going to put to one side those many people who cannot read. They may be able to write, but have no real idea of the rules to apply so add confusion from the oral level to the written level that they cannot understand or fix. Just to give an example, I got a message about some work at my father’s house; it came with no punctuation. Problem one. It then used words wrongly, such as ‘fine’ for find. Thankfully, I know the context and can get past some of that. But, when I read ‘fix it is cheper so I tell him to fix cut out the bad part the part new…’ I stumbled and fell.

I leave out this group because, although they are important and help the country function, they need a special fix that may be too big a leap as it requires going all the way back to basic schooling, and seems less likely to happen than most other things. In this wonderous age of technology, I hope that an app can be developed that makes all of this inability to write correctly when you cannot read a problem of the distant past.

People like me make this language and communication problem worse. Why? I understand well and speak well, but I do not speak like most locals and use words in ways that are not familiar: I speak in standard English learned in England. My accent is flat. So, another simple example. I call someone and say “My name is Dennis Jones (pronounced ‘day-nis jon-es’).” I often get some reaction that suggests the name doesn’t register, and am asked to repeat. I do. Then the other person’s brain does its recomputation and comes back with you said ‘Den-ize Joe-nez?’ When I try to write the phonetic differences you get a sense of the differences between a Jamaican accent and a regular English accent. (So, I’m not even going into how my Patois renditions sound.) Again, extend this example into a day’s worth of communicating with people and you can see that patience will be running thin by day’s end, at least at my end. If I go on and start to talk about why I am calling, we get the problems multiplying and rippling far and wide. I try to make things easier by using simpler language, but that won’t matter if every syllable I use needs to be reformulated. My conversations in Jamaica, especially over the phone, can be amusing. 🙂

Now, I said that Patois was one part of the problem. The other is the simple fact that people did not learn or were not taught the right rules of English, and English is HARD. I am not going to give a course now, but warn that even the best-educated can get into fights about correct English and its usage. However, I will just trot out a few of the well-known trip wires from words that sound alike, but have completely different meanings (and I add a few where the Jamaican way of speaking makes for a similarity that may not exist elsewhere):

  • fear, fair, fare (both fair and fare have several meanings, too)
  • they’re, there, their
  • three, tree
  • hair, here
  • know, no
  • come, calm, comb
  • have, half, halve, of, off (I often see ‘I would of (have)‘, ‘prices half of (off)’.)
  • breath, breathe, breed

We have the problems that come from the use of punctuation, especially the apostrophe:

  • its, it’s (not its’)
  • theirs (not their’s), there’s, they’re his
  • his, he’s, hes (as opposed to ‘shes’)

I wont go on, because I think you see where I want to go.

These trip wires take as victims even our revered media houses, who daily offer more insights into poor teaching than seems acceptable.

For Jamaica, this problem is not at the margins of our lives, but deeply embedded into all of its fabric. Because we have so many forms of informal activity, we take for granted that rules are not going to bind. So, in this context, we find that signs and other evidence of formal existence may be literally hand-made and not subject to any kind of review of regulation:

‘Tree cuting‘ states the sign, proudly, with the words in black and 8 inches high on a white background. There’s no spell-checker in play. The rules about doubling consonants never known.

Sadly, the answer is not in what we teach, but how. It’s too sweeping to say that many of the teachers are not much better than those whom they seek to teach, but it’s clear that many teachers are not effective. Teaching, as a profession, cannot blame the students for the low levels of achievement; different ways have to be found to get the material better understood. If it’s one-size-fits-all, then less success is baked into the cake. Rote learning is still popular in Jamaica; it doesn’t work for many, especially once a student disengages. If we could get by without words and just exist with pictures and images, many more Jamaicans would flourish. But, the world isn’t set up that way.

Jamaica is very good at hailing its students who excel, while paying little attention to the masses who do poorly in our education system. Those poor performers become the core of our workforce, and so must matter to how well we do as an economy, driven by its lowest common denominator. I thought yesterday that more and more Jamaicans do not know what a steady job is, other than to be a roadside vendor or to hope that someone gives them casual work. That can’t be a strong basis on which to build a faster growing economy.