Moving Back to Jamaica

A blog about my Move Back to Jamaica after 20+ years of living in the US. Most of the articles focus on the period from 2005-2009 when the transition was new, and at it's most challenging.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Bilingual Skills

Earlier, I mentioned the need for bilingual skills when Moving Back to Jamaica.

On the very superficial level, there is the need to be able to understand and to speak patois, the dialect of the majority of Jamaican people.

At another level, however, lies the ability to be able to move between different levels of standard English.

To say that the Jamaican education system is weak, and is not serving the Jamaican populace is to make an understatement.

I recall my first time working with groups in Trinidad and Barbados, after an extended period of working in Jamaica.  My American colleague said it first - "these people are a LOT smarter."

I noticed it too -- their facility with spoken language (i.e. their vocabulary and diction), and ability to think logically were much more developed than we had seen when working in groups in Jamaica.

There are many reasons why this is, and many ways of measuring the difference, but the way it manifests itself on a daily basis is by the two kinds of English that one learns to use when operating in Jamaica.

There is a simple English that one must learn to speak that can be understood by almost all Jamaicans, that is not patois.  Instead, it consists of simple words, simple sentences, and simple logic.

I don't normally speak that way, but I find that I have to rephrase what I am saying when I happen to lapse into language that is too complicated to be readily comprehended.

What I have learned is that a proud Jamaican will not say "I don't know what that word means."  Instead, they will either ignore the speaker, repeat what they had said or just hear what they want to hear to do what they think makes sense.

This causes havoc in the Jamaican workplace when an expat manager gives what he/she thinks are easy-to-understand directions to a local employee.  The employee acts as if they understand, when in fact, they don't, resulting in a failure to execute the task.

Underlying a Jamaican's response is a feeling of embarrassment -- they think that they SHOULD know and understand, and feel as if they should hide their apparent ignorance. 

A recent arrival to Jamaica therefore not only needs to learn to speak patois as well as simple English, but they also need to be able to pick up the very subtle cues that tell him/her when they are not being comprehended.

The very worst thing to do is to pretend that no language difference exists, and to proceed as if you are benig fully understood.  The results are sometimes comical, are both parties think they are communicating when in fact they are not!

(I can't think of an example at the moment, unfortunately.)


At 8/27/2007 12:18 PM, Blogger Morpheus Rablings said...

Well written clarification.
I had similiar situations last November, when visiting, and I wondered about this very topic. Not having lived in Jamaica for 40 years, After reading your post, I now have a better grasp of why it happened at the time.
It is highly appreciated. I hope you continue the method of exposing us (the diaspora) to the joys and potential pitfalls of moving and living in Jamaica.

At 8/27/2007 1:07 PM, Blogger fwade said...

Thanks for the kind words

At 8/28/2007 4:04 AM, Blogger Leon said...

Been a while Francis. I agree, Jamaicans are a lot smarter. Better to humble yourself and ask for clarification before being humbled by failure.

At 8/29/2007 8:49 AM, Blogger iriegal said...

A friend related to me recently, that he was told to go back to school to learn to speak proper English. He was engaging in conversational banter among some Jamaican friends at a social function.

The person did not understand the dialect so automatically assumed he was illiterate. I wonder if the same comment would have been stated to someone speaking Spanish with their friends.


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