Michel DeGraff: Our Word is Our Bond

A VoicesfromHaiti InnerView with Michel DeGraff, MIT Linguistics Professor

Children Enjoying Learning (Photo: M. DeGraf

Imagine a classroom in Haiti where students are forbidden to speak their mother tongue, Kreyòl. Instruction in most subject areas is in a foreign language: French. Students who lapse into Kreyòl are punished by teachers who themselves struggle with the foreign language. Most of the state-mandated exams are administered in high-level French. For some two hundred years, the practice has persisted even though modern linguists have demonstrated that Kreyòl—like any other bona fide language—can efficiently express any kind of complex meaning and is, therefore, a perfectly adequate instrument for instruction.

At home, in their communities, in the tarp cities, in the marketplace, with their parents and siblings, most students and teachers speak only Kreyòl. The songs they sing all day are in Kreyòl. The tales they tell at dusk are in Kreyòl. They think and dream in Kreyòl … until school starts the next day.

At school, the students’ joy and creativity are extinguished by the use of French as language of instruction. Unless the teachers heed the words of MIT linguist Michel DeGraff, this archaic and unsuccessful practice will continue to block the country’s development.

Although Kreyòl is not spoken as widely internationally as some other languages, it is intrinsically valuable as our national language, an indispensable component of our extraordinarily rich history and culture, and an essential, though under-used, ingredient for successful education for all in Haiti. Article 5 of the 1987 Haitian Constitution describes the Kreyòl language as “Sèl lang ki simante tout ayisyen ansanm . . .” In other words, Creole is the only language that “cements” the Haitian people together. Our Word is literally our Bond.

Second-language teachers know well that one of the key factors that promote student achievement is literacy in the native language. A fifteen year-old Icelandic student who is fully literate in Icelandic—though his language is not spoken by more than 400,000 speakers—will be more successful than one who cannot read or write well in his primary language. The second-language classroom is the place to teach foreign languages, and other classes are best taught in the student’s native language—a fact that was recognized by UNESCO in the 1950s.

The right to use one’s native language is also part of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. This fundamental linguistic right is constantly violated in Haiti, especially in schools, on State examinations, in the administration and in the courts. Through their use of French and other exclusionary practices, these institutions over the past two centuries have consolidated the immense gap between the thousands of haves and the millions of have-nots in Haiti.

MIT Linguistics Professor Michel DeGraff wants to help level the playing field for all Haitian children by promoting their native language as language of instruction at all levels. Haitian Kreyòl, Michel tells us, is a genuine language with its own complex grammar—just as French and English and Amharic and Japanese and Yoruba, et cetera.

Michel’s passion for Kreyòl is his life work. At the center of his work is the belief—backed by decades of research and best practices in linguistics and education—that promoting literacy, numeracy and other foundational academic skills in Haitian students’ mother tongue, in conjunction with teacher training in Kreyòl, will help make quality education more readily available to the masses. This, of course, includes the teaching of English, Spanish, and French, which are all foreign languages for almost everyone in Haiti.

“We’ve used the same formula for two hundred years,” Michel says of providing instruction primarily in French. “It simply does not work, except as a way to keep the masses uneducated and the country underdeveloped, making Haiti’s resources and opportunities accessible exclusively to those who are already at the top of the social and economic hierarchies.”

Whether or not you stand with or against his argument, Prof. Michel DeGraff’s voice is essential in the conversation about rebuilding Haiti.


Photo: M. Degraff

Professor Michel DeGraff has this to say on the language issue:

The language issue is one of the major barriers blocking Haiti. Until we solve this issue, Haiti cannot move forward as a nation on its much awaited development path. Dismantling this language barrier is a tall order given the traditional mindset of many of our leaders, teachers, and parents since Haiti’s birth. Change is needed: we cannot progress as a country without educating the masses. And we will not be able to educate the masses until we make systematic use of the only mother tongue we all Haitians have; Kreyòl happens to be the one language spoken by all Haitians in Haiti. It is part of the official curriculum that Kreyòl is used as a primary language of instruction in primary schools (that is, from first to sixth grades). French is supposed to be introduced as a second language. However, we know that is not the case.

I saw something in Haiti that I found unbelievably sad while I was there in June, 2011. I spoke with kids who had just returned from taking the Certificat—the state-wide exam that kids must pass at the end of the 6th grade in order to enter secondary school. The exam was given in French, except for the component on Kreyòl. There was a great discrepancy between what the kids actually knew, what they understood, and the answers they were able to give in French. Consequently, they did not score as well on the exam as they could have.

When I asked the Ministry of Education why those kids couldn’t take the Certificat in Kreyòl, the response was that the Ministry had written the exam in both French and Kreyòl so that all candidates would have an equally fair chance at passing. Unfortunately, it’s not the case that all candidates were given an equal chance. Indeed all the 6th graders I spoke to in La Gonave and in Port-au-Prince told me the same story: the only test they saw in Kreyòl was the test on Kreyòl. When I reported this fact to the Ministry of Education, they told me that every departmental director was given the French and Kreyòl versions of the exam, but that the Ministry did not verify that the Kreyòl version had reached all the examination centers in the country.

Foto: Michel DeGraff

Kreyòl is the only language most kids in Haiti hear at home, in the community, at church, all around them every day. These are not the well-to-do sons and daughters of the exceedingly small group of middle- and upper-class Haitians who are bilingual in Kreyòl and French. I’m talking about the typical Haitian child. The vast majority of Haitians living in Haiti does not speak French. Given the country’s demographics and the quality of the schools and the fact that most teachers do not speak French, it is virtually impossible for the majority of Haitian 6th graders to be fluent in French. How do we expect students to show academic growth when exams are given in a foreign language? The bitter irony is that the official curriculum prescribes the use of Kreyòl as the main language of instruction throughout primary school with French taught as a foreign language. Yet the official exams are given in a foreign language in which most students are still not fluent. This use of language is one of the crucial factors that prevent most students from entering secondary school and university. This is the exact opposite to “education for all”—a program that international agencies are providing lots of funding for, so far without results, unsurprisingly. Yet, although most Haitians are poor, Haiti is one of the countries in the world with the highest percentage of private schools—what a waste of hope and money!

VFH: How do you respond to those who argue that instruction in Kreyòl hinders rather than helps the masses? Haiti is one of very few places where this specific language is spoken and understood. Doesn’t that limit possibilities for development and expansion as a society by confining us to a small corner of the world?

Michel DeGraff: Well, I grew up, not among the masses, but in a middle-class family; I was among the best students in one of the best schools of the country. Yet, even then, instruction in French was at times a hindrance, psychologically and otherwise, although French was spoken at my home and by many at school.

Let me give you one example of language-related psychological violence even in the middle class: As a child, I used to believe that I spoke “one and a half languages”—Kreyòl counting for half of French! Like many of my middle-class peers, I was obliged by parents and teachers to speak French at home and at school. At school, this constraint often meant that many of us would rather not speak at all, for fear of making “mistakes” due to the influence of our native Kreyòl on our insecure French. Indeed Kreyòl was the one language we all were most fluent in. Given what I know now as a linguist, I’ve realized that it was par for the course that our fully native Kreyòl would influence the language that most of us were only half-fluent in, if at all. But imagine the kids’ fear at being laughed at because of a Kreyòl-influenced mistake in French. The solution: “Be silent in French!”—as I am often reminded by my friend the great Haitian linguist Yves Dejean. Of course, once out of earshot of teachers and parents, we were all voluble in Kreyòl. We would not dream of using French for jokes, on a soccer field, during Carnival or in any other circumstances where we could be our real selves without having to impress anyone or get good grades.”

I think that what I just described is an issue familiar to most in Haiti. There are so many jokes about “Franse mawon” (Brown French) and “bouch si” (sour mouth). These phrases are used to ridicule and keep “in their place” those many Haitians who speak French with Creolisms in grammar or in pronunciation. In spite of this linguistic terror from French and the resulting inferiority complex, we hear, again and again, this argument that Haitians must speak French because French, not Kreyòl, is an international language. I’ve dubbed this argument “French as window on the world.” This argument is cruelly deceptive: even as French is being promoted as “window on the world,” it is French that is being used as a linguistic barrier against most Haitians, keeping those who speak Kreyòl only excluded from avenues of social and economic opportunities within their own country.

Furthermore, the “French as window on the world” argument ignores the fact that certain essential cognitive and psychological building blocks need to be first put in place if our students are to succeed. When you consider putting up a building in Haiti, for example—especially now after the earthquake—you have to take into account the existing soil then build your foundation according to code. You do not want your building to collapse. The fundamental structure must match the available terrain and needs to comply with sound engineering principles before you even start thinking about what sorts of windows you’ll put up.

The same goes for education. You have to carefully consider the child’s terrain, what the child brings from home and the community—linguistically and otherwise. Students in Haiti and anywhere else need a solid academic foundation. You have to use the student’s background as an asset, not as an obstacle. You have to meet the children at their point of readiness. Imagine parents, teachers or State authorities in Japan forcing their citizens to use, say, English in schools, exams, courts, etc., because Japanese is not as prevalent elsewhere.

Yes, we have to give children a window on the world, and we also want to give them a window on the beautiful world of Haiti so they can no longer be isolated by linguistic barriers inside their own country, even if these children are born to the rural Haitians that are called “moun an deyò” (i.e., “the people on the outside of cities”). The “moun an deyò” should not be kept outside of fair educational opportunities. Even though they live outside cities, they live inside a world full of natural and cultural treasures: rivers, cascades, beaches, trees, proverbs, parables, puns, tales, fables, drumming, dancing, etc. These treasures are worth beholding, worth cherishing and worth writing about in our national language.

Yes, we want all citizens to have as much access as possible to the world outside of Haiti, but they should look out to the world—inside and outside their country—with confidence built from the linguistic and other resources available inside their own communities.

This said, once we can give our children a solid academic foundation, we can teach them French as a second language—without any illusion that the majority will master French as well as Kreyòl. Yet this knowledge of French will give them access to some of the treasures of Haitian culture. And the students looking for more advanced degrees and those looking for international careers will want to learn other foreign languages as well. In our own corner of the Caribbean, windows to the world outside are best built with languages like Spanish, English, French … and Kreyòl as well, considering how widely speech varieties similar to Kreyòl are spoken in the Americas and beyond, and as far as in the Indian Ocean in countries like Seychelles, Mauritius, and Réunion.

Information and communication technology [ICT] is also a powerful tool for opening up Haitian students to the world. Some of the luckiest students I work with in Haiti (at the Lekòl Kominotè Matènwa in La Gonave) are already using e-mail, FaceBook, Twitter, Google Translate, Skype, and other Internet tools in order to communicate with the wider world. Google Translate is a powerful tool that allows students to read in Kreyòl documents translated from a variety of languages. This tool, alongside other Internet tools, opens up expansive “windows on the world” even for those who speak only Kreyòl. Some of the brightest students in Matènwa are even teaching these tools to their teachers and parents! My hunch is that these kids have acquired those skills partly because they were fortunate enough to become confident learners through the unconstrained use of their native Kreyòl as language of instruction.

I am currently working with the 4th graders and their teacher at Lekòl Kominotè Matènwa on a pilot program that uses computer games in Kreyòl to hone their math skills. It’s a project funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation. What the kids in this project have been able to achieve through the use of these games would have been impossible with French—for most students and teachers in La Gonave, like in the rest of Haiti, French is a remote foreign language. Success in math requires that students be able to elaborate and communicate their reasoning in a language that they’re fluent in. For most kids in Haiti, Kreyòl is that language. In that domain as well, the use of French would constitute a barrier to the students’ academic progress. Of course, it also helps to have schools equipped with computers, solar panels and Internet connectivity—all of which are still too rare in rural Haiti.

The windows to the world afforded by international languages and by ICT are in principle helpful. But these windows on the world become linguistic and psychological blinders when the mother tongue is by-passed and when students’ self-respect and confidence are undermined by the imposition of a foreign language alongside prejudices that consider that foreign language superior to the mother tongue.

Michel DeGraff ak yon etidyan an ayiti (Photo: Christine W. Low)

Would you live in the penthouse of a skyscraper with the most fantastic windows but with the flimsiest foundation and nothing inside to call your own? How helpful is the view from the top of a building that is destined to crash? It is more important to have strong bases to start with—then, and only then, will your windows give you a view that you can enjoy and benefit from.

The same goes for educating the masses in Haiti. Otherwise we face the problem of Haiti’s “lekòl tèt anba nan yon peyi tèt anba” (i.e., upside-down school in an upside-down country) which is described by Professor Yves Dejean’s book with that title, a book on the irrationality of using French as language of instruction in Haiti. Literacy in Kreyòl and classes in Kreyòl in all core subjects at all levels from kindergarten to university are essential if we are to thrive as a nation. The use of our native language in schools gives us the necessary cognitive and academic foundations from which we can more efficiently reach higher levels of knowledge.

These post-earthquake times afford us the opportunity to revamp how we teach and learn in Haiti. We have to look at what we have done so far, and acknowledge that it does not work. As a nation, we can go much further if we start with a solid educational basis, one that uses our national language—our linguistic “cement”—as an asset.