Latin America & Caribbean

Should Creole replace French in Haiti's schools?

Haitian school child looking a bit perplexed

Creole is the mother tongue in Haiti, but children do most of their schooling in French. Two hundred years after Haiti became the world's first black-led republic, is the use of French holding the nation back?

"The percentage of people who speak French fluently is about 5%, and 100% speak Creole," says Chris Low.

"So it's really apartheid through language."

Ms Low is co-founder of an experimental school, the Matenwa Community Learning Center, which has broken with tradition, and conducts all classes in Creole.

Educating children in French may work for the small elite who are fully bilingual, she argues, but not for the masses.

Most linguists would share her view - that education in vernacular languages is best - says Prof Arthur Spears, a linguist and anthropologist at City University in New York, and an expert on Creole.

"That is what children arrive at school speaking, and it's obviously going to be better for them to learn in that language," he says.

Michel DeGraff, a Haitian professor of linguistics based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US, describes educating children in a foreign language as "a well-proven recipe for academic failure".

He argues that French should be taught in Haiti as a second-language - after children have learnt basic literacy skills in Creole.

"Learning to first read and write in a foreign language is somewhat like a toddler who is forced to start walking with a blindfold, and the blindfold is never taken off," he told the BBC World Service.

Job prospects

No matter which indicators you pick, Haiti has an appalling record on education.

One recent report rated it as the third worst place in the world, after Somalia and Eritrea, to go to school.

It's estimated that about one-third of children never enrol at primary school, and only about one in 10 complete secondary school.

Prof DeGraff is working with the Matenwa school to try to prove the case for mother tongue education, in studies with the children there, showing - for example - their progress in maths, when taught in Creole.

But if the weight of expert opinion supports mother tongue schooling, not all Haitians agree.

Interestingly, those most opposed tend to come from the poorest backgrounds, who speak little or no French, and see school as the best place to correct that.

Twenty-five-year-old Daphnee Charles, who is among the 1% of Haitians who go to university, attributes her academic success to the Catholic primary school selected by her parents - who did not go to school themselves and speak no French at all.

"You would have [extra] homework to do if the sisters caught you speaking Creole, even during playtime - they didn't want you to speak Creole," she says.

But the tough policy worked for her, as she now speaks two languages to a high standard.

"When you can speak two languages, you can have a better job. It can open many doors," she says.

Theodule Jean-Baptiste, who is studying medicine, is also unconvinced.

"Whether we want it or not, we are influenced by French because of the history of colonialism - this is not something we can get rid of quickly," he told the BBC World Service.

"I don't think education should be only in Creole - Creole is not a scientific language."

English and Spanish

The belief is widely held in Haiti that Creole is somehow a primitive, inferior language - possibly because of its origins in the days of slavery.

Image caption The earthquake in 2010 destroyed about 80% of schools

But linguists are at pains to counter this perception.

Creole is "fully expressive", as well as being rich in imagery and wisdom says Prof DeGraff.

"Most have accepted the ideology of elites which says that if you go to school it's in French - that Creole is not worthy of being used, and that Creole is not a complete language," adds Prof Spears.

"Most parents accept that same ideology, just as in most societies, most of the masses accept the ideology of the ruling elite."

More than 30 years ago, a law known as the Bernard Reform was introduced in Haiti, with the specific aim of boosting education in Creole - but critics say it has never been implemented.

The Haitian Ministry of Education accepts that textbooks in Creole are in short supply, though it says Creole is already being used widely in classrooms, alongside French.

But the question of Creole or French as the language of instruction appears to be of less concern to the Ministry than the very different question - how to give students a good grounding in English or Spanish.

These are the languages, according to the Ministry of Education's Pierre-Michel Laguerre, that will really open up the world for Haitian children.

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