Language Issue: My Perspective (Serge Bellegarde)

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Language Issue: My Perspective (Serge Bellegarde)

Post by » Wed Mar 09, 2005 10:36 pm

[quote]The Language Issue: My Perspective

by Serge Bellegarde
February 1999The debate on the Kreyòl language issue has been quite interesting, informative as well as healthy and I wish to belatedly offer some views from another perspective.

Some of the points raised are well taken and I would like to present the problem from another angle. First of all, I must say that I feel quite uneasy to see that the problem is presented as a fight between French and Kreyòl in Haiti. It does not have to be. Different groups in Haiti have always manipulated the issue for any given reason , that is obvious; however, I do not believe that we should allow the discussion to be framed in terms of a ferocious rivalry between Kreyòl and French. It seems to me that the crux of the issue is the establishment of an educational syste
m which can serve the interests of a bilingual population. This is a debate that we cannot engage here. I concur with the ideas expressed by Carrol Coates in his commentary on the use of the Haitian language.

We should remember what happened when Minister Bernard made an effort to reform the Haitian educational system by trying to promote Kreyòl. He got hit both from the French-speaking bourgeoisie and from the Kreyòl-speaking majority because the approach had not been well laid out.

There was a time when we would routinely hear Kreyòl referred to as a "patois", a "broken French" etc. When you come across a "patois" which has its own grammar, its own syntax, its own spelling system , its own literature, glossaries, dictionaries, then you are dealing with a language in its own rights. I have always gone to great length to explain this to some people who may still think of Kreyòl as just a patois and they are always amazed of the wealth of existing information on the language.

So then, Krey
òl being a duly recognizable language throughout the world, I might add, I find it a futile exercise to place the debate in Haiti in terms of a fight in which the parties are not on an equal footing. Indeed, French is a fully developed language whereas Kreyòl has not quite reached that stage yet. Yes, there can be a fight, but like in any other language, be it French, Spanish, German etc, it should be with a view to enrich it, develop it, and increase its presence. This is exactly what the "Conseil national de la langue française" ( I believe this is the correct name) does for the French language. There is no need, to paraphrase a commentator, to say that Haiti is the only French speaking country in the area, so we should gravitate toward English. Or that English speaking citizens from the West Indies have fewer problems in the US because they already speak English. This argument is not a valid one. Brazil is the only Portuguese-speaking country in the Western Hemisphere and it is an economic powerhouse despi
te her status.

You see, I am particularly sensitive about the issue of language properties, because my approach is that of someone who has been involved in translation for quite a while now. Having taught myself to write Kreyòl properly ( I am proud to say), I can assert that translating into French or into Kreyòl involves the same exercise, that is: a thorough knowledge of the grammar, syntax, vocabulary, turns of phrase, style, spelling, creativity, accuracy, idiomatic expressions, etc. These factors come into play when dealing with any language in the world. While I do not consider myself an expert in the Kreyòl language or a purist, there is a frustrating and maddening element in the treatment of the language by us Haitians.

If you have ever paid attention to the written lyrics of some Haitian music on CDs, some Kreyòl translations of religious hymns, some notices written in Kreyòl and so on, the spelling is atrocious. The authors obviously ignore the most elementary rules or Kreyòl grammar.
One of the most worrisome aspects, I believe, is the unavoidable intrusion of English in spoken Kreyòl. Granted, living in such an environment, it is not easy to avoid this problem, but some Haitians exagerate, really go overboard in mixing up the languages while at the same time fighting for the promotion of the Kreyòl language. We need to protect ourselves from what I call "mental laziness" which keep us from finding the right word when it already exists; we need to learn to write the language properly, because the reference dictionaries are readily available both in prints and on the Internet. That is part of "language development". We need to take this more seriously, not in a context of a fight against French, but as a way of contributing to the development of Kreyòl. Every little bit counts. After all, French developed from vulgar latin to become the language of diplomacy.

Recently, in the Caribbean Island of Dominica, a meeting was held on the Kreyòl language. I do not have information on the r
esults, but perhaps the time has come for the Haitian Kreyòl experts to sit down and discuss the possibility of setting up some kind of Joint bilingual National Council, the functions of which would be to break down the social, linguistic and psychological barriers between the Kreyòl and the French languages, while of course putting emphasis on Kreyòl by virtue of its historical disadvantages. Such a Council would promote greater understanding, and in a joint effort with the Ministry of Education, propose adequate language teaching methods, conduct scientific and linguistic research on new words to be incorporated in the Kreyòl vocabulary, seek equivalency of words in Kreyòl and French, publish once or twice a year a list of new words in Kreyòl and their translation in French, maintain regular contacts with foreign counterparts in the same exercise with a view of promoting "Kreyolity". In short, this Council could insure the evolution and the adaptation of Kreyòl while promoting a constructive coexistence of
the languages in Haiti in a changing world.

In sum, I believe it does not help at all to pit Kreyòl against French because of what political or social groups may have done in the past or continue to do in the present, and undoubtedly will continue to do in the future. There is a need to organize and plan ahead, in other words, to develop a vision. What I am proposing may sound idealistic, but if the language, any language, is to survive and evolve, these steps could be essential. Witness what the French are doing now to upgrade their language in the field of science. So why not us![/quote]

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