The Role of Creole in Education: arguments in favor of bilingual programs

Patrick-André Mather

Introduction: Creole Studies, language acquisition, and geopolitics

There are issues in Creole studies that intersect with first and second-language acquisition, historical and genetic linguistics, language policy, language pedagogy, and post-colonial politics. One such issue is the language of instruction in countries and communities where Creole languages (also spelled Kreyòl) coexist with their respective lexifier languages, such as Jamaica, Barbados, Mauritius, Reunion, and Martinique, to name only a few examples. One country that has received much attention lately is Haiti, partly because of the earthquake that claimed so many lives and led to international attention to the plight of this island nation. Since its independence from France in 1804, the first language of most Haitians has been Haitian Creole (henceforth “Haitian”), whereas the official language and language of instruction in all schools, colleges and universities remained French until the 1980s. This paradoxical situation is rooted in long standing prejudices against Creole languages, which until recently were not considered bona fide languages, since they were spoken primarily by illiterate descendents of slaves, and were reserved for the private domain. Typically, following Ferguson’s (1972) terminology, many Creole societies were characterized by diglossia, with the lexifier language being the “high” variety. Fortunately, thanks in part to the efforts of linguists and anthropologists since the 1960s, Creole languages have gained some legitimacy in several nations, and have been gradually introduced in education, despite resistance from some parents and educators. This is the case in Haiti since the reforms of the 1980s, which have only been partially implemented due to various factors (see Spears & Joseph 2010, and contributions therein). The debate on the language of instruction in Creole societies, and in Haiti in particular, touches several issues, including (1) Creole studies and theories on P/C genesis; (2) First and second language pedagogy and (3) Culture and geopolitics. Below, each of these issues is discussed in turn.

1. Creole studies and theories on Creole genesis

The debate on the origin and genesis of Creole languages is too vast and complex to be summarized here, although theoretical stances on the respective role of substrates, superstrates and universals of language acquisition may have some bearing on the usefulness of using the European lexifier as a language of instruction in Creole societies. Some creolists (e.g. Lefebvre) consider Haitian, a radical Creole, as an essentially West African language (in terms of its morphosyntax and lexical semantics) which has been relexified with French phonetic strings. According to this analysis, there is no direct relationship between French and Haitian, and therefore the use of French in schools and universities appears unmotivated. On the other hand, most creolists advocate a more mixed or complementary approach to Creole genesis (e.g., Mufwene 2008, Mather 2006, 2007), arguing that Creole languages have inherited features from both substrates and superstrates, as well as innovations due to processes of first and second language acquisition. In addition, in many Creole societies, creoles co-exist with their respective lexifier languages (for example in Jamaica or Reunion), with intermediate varieties (or ‘mesolects’) being used as distinct registers by speakers, often in a situation of diglossia (see Ferguson 1959/1972). In this context, there is greater motivation to use both Creole and the lexifier as languages of instruction in the school, since children are exposed to both in their daily lives. Finally, some creolists (so-called superstratists, like Chaudenson) argue that creoles are best viewed as dialects of their respective lexifier languages, in which case it makes sense to use the standard dialect in the school, alongside the basilect.

Ever since Schuchardt began a scientific study of Creoles in the 19th century, creoles have eluded the traditional classification of languages, which is based on the comparative study of languages to establish regular correspondences in the areas of the lexicon and morphology. Though there are many lexical correspondences between creoles and their respective lexifiers, Creole morphology is typically very distinct from that of European languages, with a notable absence (or quasi-absence) of inflectional morphology, and derivational morphology based on the grammaticalization of lexical items or other processes. In other words, creoles, and especially radical creoles like Haitian, Sranan or Mauritian, are typologically different from English or French, which represent a major challenge for children who receive instruction in the lexifier language only. Lexical similarities are, arguably, rather superficial, since the morphosyntax and semantics are completely different in Creoles and lexifiers.

2. First and second language pedagogy

Over the past 50 years or so, empirical studies on first language pedagogy have shown that children clearly benefit from instruction in their native language, especially in the first years of literacy (Thomas & Collier 1997). As Bartens et al (2010: 14) point out, “literacy is more easily learned in a familiar variety of language (…) and these skills can then be transferred to another language” (see also Collier 1992, Cummins 2009). When they are forced to study in a second language from grade 1, speakers of minority languages are often alienated and display higher rates of failure and slower development than children whose first language is used in schools (Dijkhoff & Pereira 2010). This is a very compelling argument in favor of using Creole languages as the principal medium of (basic) instruction in countries such as Haiti, Surinam, and Mauritius for example, where virtually all children speak Creole — and often only Creole — when they enter primary school.

According to Siegel (1999: 515), there are three kinds of programs that make use of pidgin and creoles in education: instrumental, accommodation and awareness-raising programs. Instrumental programs are those which use Creoles as languages of instruction for some or all subjects, at least in primary school, and thus make the widest use of Creoles. Among communities using Creole as the principal medium of instruction, Siegel (1999) mentions Tok Pisin (Papua New Guinea), Haitian Creole (Haiti), Papiamento (Curaçao, Bonaire), and Seselwa (Seychelles). As mentioned in Migge et al. (2010: 18), awareness programs aim at creating a positive awareness of the children’s home language, without necessarily adopting it as a medium of instruction. Such programs have been implemented in all four French overseas departments (Martinique, Guadeloupe, French Guiana and Réunion), as well as in Hawaii (Hawai’i Creole), and Australia (Krio). Finally, accommodation programs (Siegel 1999: 515) tolerate the use of Creoles in the classroom, but their aim is to facilitate the acquisition of the European language, not to use Creole as a medium of instruction. Such programs exist in Suriname and several Caribbean nations (Migge et al. 2010: 20).

In Haiti, the 1979 Bernard educational reform introduced Haitian as the medium of instruction during the first 4 years of schooling, a clearly instrumental program (according to Siegel’s 1999 taxonomy), even though there has been some resistance on the part of both teachers and parents (Dejean 2010). On the other hand, using the L1 in primary instruction does not preclude the introduction of a second, or even a third language in the school, once children have acquired basic reading and writing skills in their L1. For example, in Canada (Quebec), native languages like Inuktitut are used during the first 2 or 3 years of instruction, after which other languages are introduced, such as French and English. The same is true in Curaçao, where Papiamentu is the native language of over 80% of the population, and where children are instructed in that language during the first years of schooling, and English, Spanish and Dutch are successfully introduced first as subjects, and later as languages of instruction in secondary schools (Dijkhoff & Pereira 2010). These examples show that children are perfectly capable of acquiring native-like proficiency in more than one language.

A recent volume by Bartens et al (2010) provides detailed case studies on various types of programs that have been implemented in Creole-speaking societies. For example, two contributions (Bolus, 2010 and Migge & Léglise, 2010) mention recent efforts by France to introduce Creole as a language of instruction in two overseas departments (Guadeloupe and French Guiana). In both cases, efforts have been prompted in part by the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, and to give some recognition to regional languages in France. However, in both cases, the impact remains limited because only a minority of students are registered in schools offering Creole, and also because some parents fear that studying Creole could somehow hinder the acquisition of French (Bolus 2009: 83). Based on recent studies on bilingual programs in Creole communities, this fear is demonstrably unfounded. For example, Carpenter & Devonish (2010: 181) show that using Jamaican Creole as a language of instruction in the governmental Bilingual Education Project does “no harm to pupils’ competence in English”, based on comparative test scores between bilingual Creole/English and monolingual English classes.

In a recent contribution, Dejean (2010: 209) argues for the use of Creole as the main language of instruction in Haiti, citing the UN Convention on Children’s Rights to make the case that Haitian children have the right to receive instruction in their native language. He also argues that educational reforms have tried since the 1980s to create a generation of balanced Haitian-French bilinguals, and that these efforts have largely failed. So far, most observers would agree: Haitian children have the right to receive instruction in their native language, and the education system in Haiti needs greater reforms and funds to insure that this happens. However, Dejean (2010) implies that the goal of widespread bilingualism is unachievable, and that French should be phased out of the education system. For example, Dejean (2010) states that « the creation of mass bilingualism through formal education in a foreign language is undocumented in history”. This statement does not appear to be supported by the facts. First, technically, French is not a “foreign” language in Haiti: it has been spoken there for over three hundred years, and many (upper-middle and upper class) Haitians are native speakers of French. As St-Germain (1997) points out, estimates of the number of French speakers in Haiti vary between 2% and 20% of the population, with most observers agreeing on approximately 10% of speakers. Thus, French is spoken and understood by more than « a tiny elite » (Spears 2010: 8). There is also a sizeable French-language Haitian literary tradition (Nzengou-Tayo 2010: 153 ff). Second, there are many cases of « mass » bilingualism through formal instruction in the world, for instance in German-speaking Switzerland, where children speak only Swiss German at home and in everyday life, and yet everyone speaks Standard German perfectly after a few years of schooling. A closer and more relevant example is the case of Curacao, where 90% of the population speaks Creole (Papiamentu) as a first language, yet most adults are literate in three or more languages, namely Papiamentu, Dutch, Spanish and English (Dijkhoff & Pereira 2010: 237-239). If Curacaoans are able to achieve fluency in several languages though formal education, no doubt Haitians are as well, provided their educational system affords them the same opportunities. The same is true of Mauritius, where only a small minority speaks French as an L1, yet most adults are fluent in French and English, in addition to Creole. Third, the assumption that French is somehow the culprit (or scapegoat) for the failures of the Haitian education system is contradicted by Dejean (2010) himself, who explains that the poor educational record is due primarily to “the instability in the government and ministries, the total absence in most schools of support institutions and materials, not to mention inadequate staffing.” The same point is made by Locher (2010: 193), who explains that although Creole-medium instruction is widely accepted in Haiti, the educational system as a whole is deficient is “due to shortcomings of the Haitian state, not of mother tongue instruction as such”. In other words, if these logistical and financial problems were addressed, then arguably the objectives of the 1979 Bernard Reform could be attained, namely, creating a new generation of balanced, biliterate bilinguals, capable of functioning effectively in both official languages, and thus providing access to equal educational and professional opportunities heretofore denied to many Haitians.

3. Culture and Geopolitics

One cannot dissociate the presence of French or English (or other lexifier language) in the education system of Creole-speaking communities, from the legacy of slavery and other racist and discriminatory practices. Creole languages have long been looked down upon, even by some linguists, because they were spoken primarily by the descendents of African slaves. This legacy has been used to exclude Creole speakers from economic and social opportunities, and to reinforce low self-esteem among children who were raised speaking Creole languages. The low status of Creoles was (and still is) often reflected in the absence of official status for these languages, and in most communities the only recognized, official language is the European lexifier, thus perpetuating the colonial legacy, even after these countries have achieved independence (over 200 years in the case of Haiti). As Bartens et al. point out (2010: 11), “language attitudes (…) represent the most crucial factor hampering change. Many decision makers, as well as the population at large, do not see P/Cs as legitimate tools of education, but perceived them as corrupt derivatives of the standard language” (see also Siegel 2002, who makes a similar point).

Although most educators argue for a balanced approach, promoting the use of both Creole and French in the education system (in the case of Haiti), a minority of linguists have advocated a more radical approach, arguing that Creole should be the sole language of instruction. For example, in a recent discussion on the website of the Society for Linguistic Anthropology, DeGraff (2010) argues against the notion that Haitian parents and educators want their children to learn French, citing psychiatric and psychoanalytical studies suggesting that ‘stigmatized groups often internalize the stigmatization they suffer from’. This is reminiscent of studies on minority languages and language shift, including Lambert’s (1967) study on Montreal French, or Dorian’s groundbreaking work on the shift from Gaelic to English in the Scottish Highlands. However, strictly speaking, these studies are not comparable to the Haitian case, since Creole speakers are an overwhelming majority in Haiti, and there is no danger of a shift to French, given that there is no sizeable monolingual French-speaking community there. Haitian is alive and well, and will surely remain the L1 of most Haitians for generations to come. Second, the notion that Haitian parents’ judgments are somehow clouded by internal stigmatization may be an oversimplification of the issue. One could equally argue that Haitian parents want their children to be fluent in both Creole and French (not either/or) because of the many educational and economic opportunities afforded by knowledge of both official languages. It should be noted that no one would argue for the removal of English from the education system in countries like Jamaica, Barbados or Mauritius, so one wonders what the motivation is for suggesting the removal of French from the Haitian educational system, apart from a symbolic and highly political attempt to expunge all traces of European colonialism in Haiti and elsewhere. Well-intentioned linguists may believe they know what’s best for Creole speakers, but they would be well-advised to take into consideration the desires and aspirations of the local populations, rather than imposing an ideological, top down approach.

Whether one argues for a bilingual or monolingual educational approach, few linguists today would dispute the argument that it is about time Creole languages be given the recognition they deserve, and that they be recognized as both official languages and languages of instruction, especially in countries like Haiti, Surinam or Mauritius where creoles are the first language the majority of children. This will both facilitate the alphabetization of children and improve the pride and self-esteem of Creole speakers. In fact, in Haiti, the introduction of Haitian in schools over the past 20 years has led to a major increase in literacy rates: in 1980, 80% of the population was illiterate, whereas by 2008 the literacy rate rose to 50% (according to Carol Joseph, Haitian Secretary of State for Alphabetization, speaking in 2008 on Radio-Métropole). What is interesting, however, is that in addition to the increased literacy rate in the L1, Haitians are also increasingly literate in French, since both languages are used in higher grades. In November 2010, the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, of which Haiti is an active member, published a comprehensive teacher training manual for Haitian educators (under the direction of creolist Robert Chaudenson), stressing the need to continue promoting Creole as a language of instruction in schools, while using a comparative approach to draw on the lexical and grammatical similarities between French and Creole to facilitate the acquisition of written Creole and of spoken and written French. As Spears (2010: 17) points out concerning such bilingual programs, “contrastive analysis involves explicit classroom work focusing on how the language varieties in the program differ. Rather than expecting students to absorb this information indirectly, the grammatical differences and the rules that account for them are gone over in detail, typically with drills and exercises, and translation back and forth between the languages. » Thus, one could argue that an increased emphasis on the use of Haitian in schools and universities need not mean an elimination of French as a medium of instruction. Rather, literacy in both Haitian and French may lead to better economic and social opportunities for all Haitians, if one can surmount the old stigmas once associated with Haitian (as the language of the poor and uneducated masses) and French (as the language of the former colonial power and of a small bourgeois elite). Interestingly, the cases of successful introduction of Creole in the educational system described in Bartens et al. (2010) all describe cases of additive bilingualism, that is, of initial literacy in Creole and subsequent acquisition of another language (typically, but not necessarily, the lexifier language), including in communities like Curaçao or Suriname where the « other » language is an unrelated European language. Though it is true that Haiti is a more homogenous community than Curaçao or Surinam, this does not preclude the introduction of an instrumental program of bilingualism, as was proposed in 1979 in Haiti, and which has great potential, provided schools are given the means to achieve it.


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