Regulating Language5 March 2019
One of the first problems that you must solve when setting up an education system—though it’s probably not something that an Australian would ever think about—is what language it will use. Ideally, it should be one spoken widely by students, which is why English is a good fit for classrooms in Australia, Japanese is a good fit for classrooms in Japan, and so on.
It might seem redundant to state this, but for some nations, this is one of the most fundamental issues to pervade the education sector. Obviously, there are countries that are home to enough different languages that it’s not always easy to decide which one should be the primary medium for instruction.
There are, however, more pernicious cases, where languages spoken by a fraction of the population are exclusively used in government education, which can perpetuate inequality for its students.
The Caribbean nation of Haiti is an exemplary case of this. The linguistic legacy of Haiti can be traced back to its roots as a French sugarcane colony. As was the case with most colonies during the Atlantic slave trade’s height, farming was rarely done by European colonists, but by those forcibly taken from western Africa. To oversimplify, the slaves revolted, inspired partly by the French Revolution, leaving Haiti as the first non-African country in the world governed by people of African descent.
While France no longer directly controlled Haiti, its language remained entrenched in Haiti’s aristocracy. However, as descendants of former slaves, this was not the case for most Haitians, whose diverse linguistic backgrounds had coalesced to create an entirely new language: Kreyòl ayisyen—Haitian Creole.
Kreyòl developed between the late 17th and early 18th centuries, combining much of the vocabulary of French with the grammar of Gbe languages such as Fon, Ewe and Anlo, which are today spoken in west Africa. Haiti’s enslaved people, who rarely shared a language, attempted to use French to speak with one another. Eventually, after a few generations of combining and changing, Haitian Creole was born. A new language, different to all of the languages it was created from, and from 1804, spoken by the people of the world’s first nation to abolish slavery.
With this, Haiti is in a difficult situation: with one language spoken by only the most fortunate Haitians, and the other used by nearly all Haitians, but with such a strong stigma attached that French is still the preferred language in Haitian schools today. It was not until 1987 that Kreyòl was recognised as a national language.
This has proven an impassable obstacle for countless Haitian children abandoned by their education system, which uses French almost exclusively. This is like expecting a French speaker to understand being taught in Latin, which was ironically enough tried in France (and much of Europe). It didn’t prove particularly successful.
It’s easy to look at Haiti’s situation and assume it’s a product of a conservative government, but this cannot explain everything. Post-colonial countries are constantly reckoning with the legacies of their colonisers, and selecting a teaching medium is just one manifestation of many issues that set them back. The stigma against Kreyòl is so strong that many who don’t speak French still support its use in Haitian education, and Haiti’s elites only fuel this discrimination.
Education is in many ways a tool to counter inequality. For Haiti to tackle the stigma towards Kreyòl and allow it to gain the cultural capital it needs to be seen as a legitimate form of communication would simultaneously take further steps to improve the lives of all Haitians. To paraphrase New York Times columnists Michel DeGraff and Molly Ruggles, Kreyòl is the key to democratising knowledge in Haiti—it is a country that has come very far in very little time, but to progress further its people must be able to become active participants in the structures that have let them down for so long.