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Dialect-free classrooms – a justified enema?


Tue, Oct 2, 2012

by Gail Diamond
[email protected]

The Searchlight Midweek editorial ‘Dialect free classrooms’ on September 25, 2012 kick-started the debate on the low performance scores in English Language at the CSEC exam. It supported the Ministry of Education’s call for dialect-free classrooms in response to declining English language skills and grades. This prescription, it is hoped, will allow our students to thrive at standard English, by purging our pervasive Vincentian dialect from their primary learning environment.{{more}} Is this tantamount to an enema?

A move to implement dialect-free classrooms presupposes that our children are already bi-lingual. The implication is that children will be able to alternate between the dialect and standard English, and home and school settings. The reality is that many, if not most of our children are monolingual. How will these students cope in a language that is not native to them? Is there a risk to overriding the first language of communication, one that might result in cognitive blocks that impede rather than facilitate learning? Might students become intimidated or frustrated and withdraw from participating because of increased difficulty in communicating? It has been widely researched and accepted that children respond best when learning is carried out in their native language.

Social stigma

The banishment of dialect from our classrooms requires a tradeoff: the relegation/denigration of our rich cultural expression. Are we using the pretext of reinforcing standard English to make a determination of the ‘rightful place’ for our creole English? Our dialect may not have a ‘rightful place’ internationally, but are we also saying that it should not have a seat at its own table? The irony is that our collective Caribbean dialects are no longer the enigma they were once, because of the exportation of our artistry (songs, poetry, tourism etc). There is growing international familiarity with our vernacular. Apart from this, for some time now, we have been holding our young people responsible for the dilution, if not extinction, of some of our cultural mores. What message are we relaying to them by the deliberate benching of our dialect?

Tech English introduces a third language with which our students must contend. Yet, having mass-distributed netbooks to students, should we now mandate tech-language free zones? In time, we may not have to cringe on reading this newfangled language. It may not be a stretch to predict that, given its current trajectory, tech-speak would eventually formalise into an official language, with acceptance in the corporate business and other spheres. So that while this third-language concern might go away, we would be still left debating whether our Vincy dialect deserves legitimate status as a language and how it should get there. For now, what is disconcerting is that a student who is able to translate ‘where R U?’ to ‘where are you?’ might not able to translate ‘par yuh dey?’ to ‘where are you?’ Can we really overcome this weakness by establishing dialect-free classrooms? Perhaps instead, the opposite is called for: a direct confrontation of the structural and social differences in the two languages, so students can better translate, and move towards the preferred bilingual state.

As it pertains locally, and for our benefit, we may need to clarify the terms: first language, second language, official language, native language, and foreign language. For where does standard English fit?