Reflections on Language & Education

by Charlene Wilkinson, University of Guyana
Republished from: Transforming Pedagogy: Practice, Policy, & Resistance (Sargasso 2018-19, I & II)

The uncountable moments that impinge upon a student’s consciousness, confined—even distorted as it can often be in these ex-plantation societies—to the shape of neo-colonial institutions, can indeed serve to energize an iconoclastic transformative impulse. By practicing that both cursed and blessed activity that some have referred to as “the art of memory” (Yates) or “inventing the truth” (Zinsser), we may indeed present an artform that breaks through time barriers with the sole intent of transformation.

Two of my earliest student memories are of my primary and early secondary school days. In the first memory, I am eight years old. I am standing in the school yard. Another student comes up to me and, in a menacing tone, says,

Yuu tingk yu wait, na! Yuu tingk yu wait! Wel, le mi tel yu. Yu een wait jos biikaaz yu doz taak so! Yu iz a Potagii! [Do you really think you’re white? Do you think you’re white? Well, let me tell you. Talking like that doesn’t make you white. You are a Portuguese.]

In the second memory, I am twelve years old. My British cousins are visiting from England and we are all sitting around the dining table after dinner chatting and laughing about everything and nothing when my otherwise gentle and loving Creole-speaking mother suddenly says to our cousins in her best English and in a deeply apologetic tone, “My children don’t speak as well as you, you know!”

There is a momentary silence at the table, but the talking quickly starts again. I would never ever forget the slap in the mouth I felt that evening, as real as though it were a brutal physical slap. And yet it was “forgotten,” and life went on, the moment disappearing into the beautiful mess that is life. Yet I can say that it was those two memories sitting side by side across the years that contributed to the emergence of the language activist, the “Afro-Asian-Euro-Indigenous” Guyanese* who eventually came to master the “White language” that the primary school child was singled out for and that her mother was in awe of.

The scientific detachment that often accompanies matters of “policy” and “human rights” clearly cannot alone drive the validation of Guyanese Creole and the further inclusion of all of Guyana’s languages as valid languages for teaching and learning in the school system. For the language aware teacher, being powerless in the face of language discrimination can be soul-destroying. Nowadays it is fashionable to give the condescending nod to Guyanese Creole and those Amer-indigenous languages that are still the mother tongues of many of our students, “Use them to facilitate comprehension.” But generally, teachers in today’s Guyana deliver an English-only curriculum.

The rage for English in Guyana has resulted in a nationwide school curriculum from nursery school through the university level that patently denies the linguistic genius of the nation. This denial further eclipses the various traditional knowledges of the people, relegating them to “folk customs” that may be studied as objects of anthropological consideration at the university and paraded during national cultural events.

A third memory, from many decades later, at New York University during
the 1990s, stands out, and accentuates those two childhood memories. I was enrolled at the PhD level in a programme called Educational Theatre. The course in question was called Drama in Education. One of our tasks was to design a set of drama structures to teach any topic in the school curriculum. The details are vague but what looms up, and again is informed by a series of related memories and experiences all the way from childhood to adulthood, is the power of drama to transform. Drama structures can provide the opportunities for both students and teachers to liberate the voices trapped inside the English-only curriculum. Can we envision a curriculum where the focus on English becomes more tightly concentrated on teaching it as a language for “wider international communication” and the focus on increasing drama structures in the curriculum becomes more tightly concentrated on promoting self-expression and engendering knowledge sharing and knowledge creation for nation building?

The spoken word in drama can then present the material for texts in Guyana’s native languages, none of which, to date, are present to any significant degree in the education system. This, to my mind can be the seedbed for curriculum reform. Who knows whether we cannot in fact, repair the house while we live in it?**


* In a personal conversation with Carinya Sharples, creative writer and freelance journalist, I was made aware of the ethnic description “Afro-Indigenous.” In some amusement, I labelled my own ethnicity thus.
** When Lawrence Carrington did a short spell–three years–as Vice Chancellor of the University of Guyana from 2009-2012 he described our task of reconstruction in these terms.

The entire issue of Transforming Pedagogy: Practice, Policy, and Resistance (Sargasso 2018-19, I & II) can be accessed via FIU’s Digital Library of the Caribbean (dLOC). Back issues are also available through dLOC. The issue is available for purchase in the College of Humanities at University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras, or through Sargasso’s website. Sargasso is A Journal of Caribbean Literature, Language, and Culture.

3 thoughts on “Reflections on Language & Education

  1. Thank you Guyana Languages Unit for mailing me this interesting article. It is always good to read such educative and informative writings on Language and Education. Continue pressing on with your efforts at advocating for language rights and policy in Guyana Your work in this field is most commendable.

    On Wed, Nov 13, 2019 at 6:26 AM The Guyanese Languages Unit wrote:

    > guyanalanguagesunit posted: ” by Charlene Wilkinson, University of Guyana > Republished from: Transforming Pedagogy: Practice, Policy, & Resistance > (Sargasso 2018-19, I & II) The uncountable moments that impinge upon a > student’s consciousness, confined—even distorted a” >

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