I recently read an article by BBC journalist Cordelia Hebblethwaite (what a very British name that is) about the language of instruction used in Haitian schools. Having spent two weeks this summer teaching English in a Haitian school I think that I’ve got at least a glimmer of understanding on the subject.
Hebblethwaite generally implies that because fairly few Haitians are fluent in French it means that to use it as a pedagogical medium is implicitly flawed. I largely disagree. For example students here in the good ol’ Land of the Free may be placed in a immersion school for language (like Chinese, Japanese, or Spanish) by monolingual parents and still turn out to have an excellent learning experience and becoming bilingual from a younger age. The fact that French has been the language of instruction since the days of colonialism just shows that the system was built and has since evolved into something that understands that students will not come in with a high knowledge of French since everybody speaks Creole at home.
When I was down in Haiti is was explained to me that yes, nearly everybody does speak Creole as the primary language with the exception of some of the most high class folks who only speak French and turn their nose at Creole. Creole has only been taught in schools for 30ish years which is amazing to me but it was very much put down for many years before gaining recognition and being standardized in 1979.
I really don’t think that language is a strong issue in Haitian education (not that I’m an expert). Many people I met were quadrilingual (Creole, French, Spanish, & English) or some combination of them which I strongly admired and wish I had. It didn’t seem a huge problem even in the rural, less educated town of Thomassique where children were helping to teach me both French and Creole (even though I could rarely tell the difference) which are so related that learning one from the other is not a distant reach. One comment on the article raised an excellent point:
French in schools is only one of three pillars that have characterized the Haitian school system for over 200 years. The other two are corporal punishment and memorization. Add to this that the greatest financial burden for any family in Haiti, other than the elite, is paying for their children’s education. The greatest heartbreak is deciding which children you can’t afford to send to school. Hugh
I definitely agree with this. I did see some corporal punishment which fortunately didn’t reach the level of being cruelty. Memorization is also certainly a vital part of the system. I was told to just dump vocabulary on the students and then they would go home and memorize it and that is just what they did. I was very impressed with their ability to go through words time and time again until they got it down. Finances certainly seems to be more of the problem. Few textbooks (those I saw were supplied by the European Union), teachers with limited education, crowded classrooms and poor facilities all contribute to a system that is filled with difficulties.