Submitted by Beverley Bryan on January 11, 2012
What should be the language goals for Jamaican classrooms?
In yesterday's post we looked at a Jamaican classroom, where Jamaican Creole was operating with English. I noted the co-existence of both but I questioned whether this was good teaching practice. What are we doing with both languages?
Much work has been done on this in Jamaica already, as the reference list shows. There is a Language Education policy (LEP), which was first conceived 10 years ago. Because of its support of an active role for the home language of many children, as a bridge to English, it was never ratified by the Cabinet. Nevertheless, some of the ideas in the policy have seeped into more recent initiatives. At that time, the Ministry had just begun to tackle the problem of chronic underachievement in literacy.
The LEP made the case for the twin goals of competence in English by Grade 4 but also for the recognition that bilingualism is a positive attribute (confidence in the mother tongue). Does the country agree on those goals? I think we have moved incrementally on both. We have more than doubled the percentage of children achieving mastery on the Grade 4 Literacy test- its first goal. With respect to attitudes to bilingualism, the survey of the Jamaica Language Unit is suggesting more positive attitudes- and even though I might have some problems with the methodology used in the survey, any other measure we might use would show a greater willingness to say that we are bilingual.
What prevents us from achieving these goals?
The first goal of Grade 4 Literacy mastery has been a hot topic of much discussion, as stakeholders became concerned about its increasing high stakes significance. Many reasons have been given for not fully achieving this goal. I will just make a few linguistically-based suggestions as to why we have not done as well as we should- based simply on the classroom extract from yesterday.
First, the languages are closely related. At the structural level, syntax might be different but the similarity is sufficient for speakers to communicate with each other through the different codes. Learning another language requires input. If there is no differentiation, then the opportunities for noting and marking salient English input and for reinforcement are lost. Thus, with co-existence and communication, there is no motivation to learn another language.
The second point, again from the extract, is thus the role of the teacher and her level of language awareness of the linguistic reality she is working with: her knowledge of the 2 languages as separate distinct codes; her understanding of “language by ear” as different from “language by eye”; her understanding of second language acquisition generally and literacy acquisition in a second language where the 2 languages are closely related. There is the lack of the kind of language educator that could satisfy the first goal and thus promote the second. It is a lot to ask is it not? This is a long term project for specific teaching standards in language education.
School of Education,UWI