Point of View

Help for Haiti must include embracing Creole

February 20, 2014 


Officials try to control the media as Haitian President Michel Martelly meets with the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Capitol Hill this month.


In 1964, Indiana University became the first American university to offer a course in Haitian Creole. Today, more than a dozen American universities teach Creole – including Duke – and countless dissertations have been written on different aspects of the language.

Yet in Haiti, where everyone speaks Creole, the government has steadfastly avoided embracing the language. That’s largely because many educated Haitians treat French as the gold standard, a vestige of Colonial times that adamantly ignores the fact that just a sprinkling of Haitians fully understand French.

UNESCO’s International Mother Language Day is today, so it’s worth noting how Haiti’s officials are ignoring the country’s linguistic roots and the effect that has on its people.

It was not until 1979 that Joseph C. Bernard, then the Haitian secretary of Ministry of National Education, published a decree introducing the teaching of Creole in primary and the first three years of secondary school. Since then, there’s been no tangible effort from the Ministry of National Education to use the language at all levels of the school system.

The websites of the president and prime minister do not have Creole pages. During the first year of current President Michel Martelly’s presidency, the website used both languages, but his Creole page was removed in April 2013.

The Haitian Parliament, which has pushed for a Creole Academy as required by the Haitian Constitution of 1987, finally added a Creole page this month. Even the Haitian literacy office and the Ministry of National Education eschew a Creole-language website. This speaks to the linguistic hypocrisy so deeply entrenched in Haitian society.

How can any illiterate Haitians become literate without the use of Creole? How can they become aware of government initiatives if official documents are written solely in French?

In Haiti, just one government website uses Creole as well as French: the Department of Agriculture. This makes me wonder whether that’s only because the department must communicate directly with peasants. Nevertheless, the department deserves credit for using both languages.

In contrast, since 2008, Creole has been one of the six official languages in the state of New York, and the New York City Department of Education’s website has a Creole page.

Many educated Haitians think French is the only route to a good education. However, in a country where most children speak only Creole, the language cannot be seen as an optional means for interactive learning.

The Creole language can make such a difference in Haiti. The MIT-Haiti initiative, a project funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation and led by Michel DeGraff – an MIT linguistics professor and expert on the language – illustrates the major role Creole should play in Haitian education. DeGraff has organized many workshops in Haiti, bringing MIT professors and Haitian educators together to develop and evaluate digital resources in Creole for active learning at all levels. As a linguistics evaluator at three of those workshops, I saw many Haitian educators leave with a new appreciation for how much their teaching can improve through the use of Creole.

Still, one wonders whether the project will get the support it needs, given that Haitian institutions are so invested in French, at Creole’s expense.

The time has come for Haitian authorities to govern the country for the benefit of everyone. President Martelly’s government endlessly claims “tout moun jwenn,” which means “everyone wins.” But the fact that French is still the only language available on Haitian government websites proves that it is business as usual.

It is imperative that Haitian authorities use Creole on government websites and in all levels of school, for Haiti is first and foremost a Creole-speaking country. Its leaders are staunchly denying the linguistic rights of the majority of the population.

Creole was officially recognized 183 years after Haiti’s independence. Let’s not wait another century for Haiti to fully embrace the language.

Jacques Pierre is a lecturer in Haitian Creole and Creole studies at Duke University

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service