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Date: Thu, 28 Jan 1999 15:23:11 -0800 (PST)
From: Robert Corbett <bcorbett@netcom.com>
Subject: Essay on Creole : Blanchet
To: Bob Corbett <bcorbett@netcom.com>
Message-ID: <Pine.3.89.9901281548.A8804-0100000@netcom19>

From: Max Blanchet <MaxBlanchet@worldnet.att.net>

On Creole and its role in Haitian society

By Max Blanchet, on Bob Corbett's Haiti list, 20 January 1999

Much has been posted here and on Windows-on-Haiti on Creole and its proper role in Haitian society.

Much that was to the point, relevant and constructive.

I have been thinking for sometime that I ought to inject my ideas into the debate as well.

I do so now.

First, I would like to start with a few incontrovertible facts:

1) Creole is a language invented in the crucible that was Saint Domingue as a result of the unequal interactions between the mass of slaves drawn from some 40 different African ethnic groups and their French masters. Some of the early works written in Creole included the poem Lisette by Duvivier de La Mahotière and the Sonthonax Declaration of 1794 that freed the slaves. The de jure recognition of a de facto reality. The work of our great writers in this century -- among them Morisseau-Leroy and Franketienne -- as well as the essential contributions by linguists in Haiti and abroad to codify the language should be enough to convince the most skeptical but fair-minded observer that we are dealing with a rich language capable of conveying the most subtle nuances of human thought in whatever field it should elect to exercise itself.

2) Creole is spoken and understood by all Haitians -- 7.5 million in all. If one factors in Haitians in the diaspora and the Creole-speaking populations of Martinique, Guadeloupe and La Guyanne, we are talking about a community numbering at least 10 million people and thus comparable to the populations of Finland, Denmark, Holland, Sweden, etc.

3) French is spoken by 15% of the 7.5 million. To be more precise, let us say that no more than 15% -- a generous figure most would agree on -- is functionally literate in French.

4) Of the balance -- assuming an adult literacy rate 45% per UNDP statistics, an equal literacy rate among those 15 years old and younger and 12% under 4 and under -- we are talking in round numbers about 3,100,000 (*) Haitians who are illiterate. The poignancy of this statistic is conveyed by a simple observation, namely the number of our fellow citizens -- otherwise bright, hard-working people -- who are incapable of filling out the immigration forms during the typical Port-au-Prince/Miami run.

5) Last but not least, an impartial observer would readily agree that the most rapid and efficient -- not to mention the most just, least-stressing psychologically and most socially empowering -- way to achieve some degree of modernization -- political, economic, educational, health-wise, etc. -- of Haitian society is to use Creole to tackle the massive problem of illiteracy.

What is to be done?

I will outline below a few steps that might be implemented with the hope that they will help complement the many good comments and suggestions that have been offered to date by participants on the Corbett list and on Windows-on-Haiti.

1) A literacy drive to teach adults to read and write Creole. Our neighbors in Cuba were able to do so quickly early on during the Cuban Revolution. In Nicaragua, rapid gains were made in similar fashion. In many other parts of the world, socialist and non-socialist governments alike made it their top priority to do away with mass illiteracy in short order. In Haiti's case, the goal should be to reduce illiteracy to less than 10% by 2004.

2) The Bernard Law should be revisited to insure that Creole is made the language of instruction in the primary cycle. This would be achieved by the requirement that the state examination at the end of primary school be given in Creole only. Lest I be accused of doing away with French, let me stress that I am not proposing the banning of French at that level. I am simply stressing that all -- be they in private (at least 75 % of students) or public schools -- demonstrate proficiency in Creole by the end of the primary cycle. Private schools would be free to figure out how to factor in the teaching of French. It is worth noting that certain elite schools such as Saint Louis and Lalue have for sometime been teaching Creole in the lower grades and done so successfully.

3) At the secondary level the teaching of Creole would be promoted by the simple device that at the end of the cycle exams in Haitian history and literature be given exclusively in Creole. In the private sector (at least 80 % of students) schools would have a great deal of latitude as to how to satisfy this requirement. In state schools, professors would use either language or both to do their work. For instance, lectures could be routinely given in Creole while textbooks written in French are used, at least initially.

4) At the university level, the approach would be to strengthen the structure introduced at the secondary level with courses offered in both languages with the exclusive use, however, of Creole in subjects such as Haitian history and literature and Creole linguistics. Special attention would be given to the school of linguistics in order to focus its activities on the development of tools to help turn Creole into the preeminent national language. This might include among other things translating into Creole our classics produced in French by writers such as Madiou, Ardouin, Delormes, Firmin, Price-Mars, Roumain, Alexis, Chauvet, Marcelin, etc. and the preparation of a Creole dictionary which we might call the Ti Dezi in recognition of the formidable work accomplished to date by Father Roger Désir, Haiti's premier linguist, in developing such a dictionary.

5)To cope with the conviction on the part of many, especially among those who would benefit the most from the full promotion of Creole, that social promotion can only be achieved through the mastery of French, the Haitian state should take steps to insure that Creole is made truly functional in the workings of all state institutions. This would require that all state documents (tax forms, invoices, birth and death certificates, marriage certificates, land titles, legal codes, publications, official announcements and speeches, etc.) be made available in Creole and that the state bureaucracy, especially in courts of law, be induced to treat Creole as the equal of French. The goal would be to have such a practice firmly established by the year 2004.

Notwithstanding the real damage caused by the misuse of French as a tool to marginalize the majority, in trying to remedy the situation we should be cautious lest we end up throwing away the baby with the water. As noted above, the intellectual output of our forebears in the French language has been truly phenomenal and deserves to be made accessible to all in Haiti. Furthermore, our strategy to survive, indeed to thrive on our own terms within the context of the powerful North American embrace, especially in the cultural arena, should have the use of the French language as the linchpin for strong cultural ties with France, Québec, and Africa, especially the French-speaking countries of that continent.

Contrary to what has been suggested by many to date, the language question in the Haitian context need not be a zero-sum game, a fight to the death between the two languages. I truly believe that a program to bring literacy to all in Creole and the promotion of Creole as the preeminent national language will lead to a true blossoming of the French language in Haiti. This is so because the preservation of French in Haitian culture will be perceived by the literate majority of our citizens as part and parcel of the broader issue of the preservation of Haitian specificity in a taxing environment.

Angle ekri, angle konprann

Max Blanchet
January 20, 1999

*) 7,500,000x[(1-0.45)(1-0.15)(1-0.12)]=3D3,085,000