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March 8, 2009

English as a Foreign Language

My children began their schooling in the United States. One afternoon, shortly after they moved here, I overheard them speaking about one of their friends and they mentioned that he or she spoke “Kittitian”. I had never heard the term before, but since then, I have found myself more attuned to the use of dialect around me. It is everywhere; on the radio, in the classrooms, in our official newspapers, billboards, and most surprisingly in the business world – conversations and correspondence. If I find myself among a group of students walking from school at lunchtime, I have to work hard to understand what they are saying.

I understand that at certain levels in school, teachers are not allowed to penalise their students for grammatical errors in their writing. Our dialect seems to be evolving from a few colloquial phrases into a full-fledged pidgin language which entirely excludes certain pronouns such as “I”, “we”, “his” and “her”. Even more interesting is the fact that many young people seem unwilling or unable to speak Standard English at all. There is a stigma attached to speaking proper grammar, it sets you apart and suggests that you may want to set yourself above the middle of the pack.

Standard English is the dominant international language in communications, science, business, aviation, entertainment, radio and diplomacy. Is it reasonable for us to cultivate our own language to the exclusion of all others? Sure, why not, it is an expression of our culture. Not all countries in the world speak the “Queens English”. In fact, only about 20% of the world’s population speaks English according to the National Foreign Language Center in Washington DC, so why should we be concerned? On the other hand, most other languages are widely recognized, taught and spoken. They have a structure, rules and a known written form. In addition, if you go to a country that speaks one of the lesser known languages, for example, Portuguese, you may find that many of the people there also speak one, often two or three other languages fluently as well.

A country speaking a dialect all of its own can only thrive under certain circumstances. If the country is large and millions of other people speak and understand your dialect, you can probably survive this situation. The Scots, for example, have been trying to have their English dialect recognized as a separate language entirely. But there would be at least five million people who are fluent in the Scottish dialect. Given our relatively small population, I do not think that we are in a position to inflict a new language on the world.

The use of a dialect in our setting would also work well if we can switch to use Standard English when it was appropriate and if we understand when it is appropriate. My father often tells a story of visiting an establishment here, maybe 25 years ago. The owner’s daughter switched between dialect, when speaking to other employees and perfect standard English (albeit with an American accent) when speaking to us, her customers.

Now, I fear, we are losing that ability. The use of dialect is creeping like a plague into our classrooms, offices, and boardrooms. Signs around the country erected by official organizations contain dialect and newspaper reports are being written in dialect. Our children are not being sufficiently exposed to standard English. I help some children with their reading and one of the great difficulties that they face has nothing to do with reading per se. They can sound out the letters of a word, but still cannot understand the word because it is foreign to their ears and on their tongue. I am not talking about words like ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’, but words like ‘the’ and ‘awoke’.

St. Kitts is a small country and we are struggling to make our place in the global community. In addition, our economy cannot support our growing population so many must leave and make their mark abroad. For these two reasons, our ability to communicate effectively with the outside world is of paramount importance. First impressions are the most lasting, and when we sit at the negotiating table, at the interview table, at a school table abroad, we are all ambassadors for St. Kitts and our worth will be first judged by our appearance and then by the first words out of our mouths.

I hate to point out a problem without suggesting a solution. This is a complicated issue. Who can decide the best time to use dialect? Personally, I feel that the use of dialect on official communications such as billboards, television and newspapers is inappropriate. Others may disagree. However, at a minimum, I think that we can ensure that standard English survives by making it the language of instruction at school, and the language of choice in our business world.

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