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.

Wakapoa reflective essay: Colwyn Benn

Courtesy Colwyn Benn

Day one
Day one consisted of leaving the convenient city I’m accustomed to on my way to a very different living space I am not acquainted with in the company of my classmates and our tutor. But as exciting as this new adventure might have been, starting off we faced a few challenges. We did not receive the hoped-for financing from the university, consequently some students had to abandon hopes of being on this trip. Transportation was also a bit of an issue because the university’s bus was already booked. Nevertheless, with the help of Miss Wilkinson and the determination of a fellow classmate, Tamesh, who was unable to make it on the trip, getting the trip off the ground was successful.

Arriving safely at the Parika Stelling, we all got aboard a ferry on the Essequibo River to sights we town people don’t normally have the privilege of seeing: this vast river system littered with islands… To me it was quite a relaxing view on the hour-long ferry ride. My classmates and I got to know each other a little better, sharing our different expectations of this trip. Students of the civil, mechanical, architectural and electrical engineering classes with a lot of ideas for this new place they were about to venture on to, playing a few games to pass the time. We all had a good laugh as we slowly approached the Charity stelling, which seemed very quiet as we got closer and closer to it.

From Charity we travelled along a very slim road, passing the Damon 1988 monument found in Anna Regina, and a little further up the road there was a jaguar, one of the national animals of my country, kept captive by some local resident. It was quite exciting to get that close to the creature, but I think it should be released back into nature where it belongs.

On the next leg of our travelling, the team split in half, moving up the Pomeroon River. Transporting us were the village of Wakapoa’s very own Toshao, Howard Cornelius, and his brother, David, moving skilfully on the river. We diverted into a smaller waterway, getting directly to the landing at the foot of St. Lucian Mission, one of the many islands found in the village of Wakapoa, where we would be lodging for our trip.

Right after leaving the boat the Toshao introduced himself to us and welcomed us to his village, giving us advice, educating us about the village and finally asking for our views on things that could be done to enhance the village over time. After the Toshao’s presentation, we met a woman called Skeitha or Samantha, who gave us a general run down of where we would be sleeping for the time that we would be there. We also were introduced to the woman that would be cooking for us, after which we got unpacked and settled in. Miss Charlene, our tutor, briefed us on the goals we needed to attain: the completion of the questionnaires we had brought with us, targeting the community’s desires for development.

Day two
On our second day, we set out to make kites for the village children. I knew that I was not a very good kite maker, but I was still willing to give it a try. All of the supplies that Tamesh and his family had donated were put to very good use. I started about three frames and completed one. It was not my best work but still I thought my kite was air worthy. Each and every person did a very good job in getting their kites to be air worthy, after which the Toshao came and took us to the island of Myrie, where we began to gather information for our questionnaires.

When the Toshao stated that he would like for his community to become self-reliant, I saw an opportunity to suggest a project. The discussion had hinged on the need for funding to make signs for the individual islands. We were informed that the signs were estimated at $15,000 each. Seeing that there was an abundance of logs in the area I suggested making the signs out of the logs would be a good idea. My point was that if you have a renewable resource and the needed manpower, simple things like this would be a step in the right direction to becoming self-reliant.

The Toshao then took us along a makeshift roadway that was made by the community with the help of foreign volunteers. He explained that this roadway would take us directly to Whypakqua. We were shown the medical centre and told that it was currently vacant due to the last medical person leaving the community to work in Charity. He explained that she had encountered issues that caused her to leave. This was sad news to us because in the case of any emergency there was no immediate first aid response or medical or public (village) boat service to rush someone that might need help to Charity Hospital.

On our way back to Myrie, we came across one of the wells where the community members would get their water from, because on most of these islands there is no potable water or direct electricity to power homes.

On returning to St. Lucian Mission I found a long-time friend of mine that I did not know lived there. It was a pleasant surprise. We got to catch up and I decided to take his views on the issues of the community and how he thinks the village is being managed. For the most part he confirmed what the other villagers had previously told me, and went on to tell me about idea the Toshao had: to build another school to make easier access for the children on other islands. He thought that this was a good idea, but added that the current secondary school is still underdeveloped so further renovations and expansions could be done to better the system they have and then move on to better systems for now and expand later. He noted that Wakapoa needs jobs on the islands for its people to make a better living.

One interesting point to note is that, while filling out the questionnaire, a lot of people disagreed about keeping their culture alive. When asked why, they responded by saying they wish for where they live to be more like Georgetown because “Georgetown got everything.” But essentially what we were trying to get out of the respondents was if they wanted to continue the Lokono language. A few older folks know the language and even fewer are willing to teach it. I was told by one of the villagers that it’s good for the young people to learn and keep the Arawak language alive, but in the minds of some of the villagers there is a separation between culture and language.

The father of one of our newly found friends was explaining to us that, from his understanding, some people were not very happy about certain parts of their culture, such as like heavy drinking and some spiritual practices. But in essence he said that the culture and language are together as one thing.

Coming to the end of the day we were well taken care of. Our cook, Ms. Janet, turned out to be the mother of my friend. She had a lovely fried rice and chicken, and I made it clear that the only thing I did not eat was “lil bit”. Even though there are a lot of issues in the village, there are good community relations. It’s just that people are not willing to work with the Toshao.

My experience was great, even though later that night my friends and I kept Miss Charlene up for the entire night with our loud conversations. It wasn’t intentional but at the same time she didn’t stop us. She probably thought this was a good bonding experience for each of us getting to know each other a lot better and form bonds that would last throughout university life.

Day three
Continuing our journey among these beautiful different islands, it came to my mind how beautiful my country is; this land where most of the coastlanders fly to other lands for betterment instead of bettering using what we have been blessed with right in our own land. Continuing on to Massarie we were greeted with even more lush forest and scattered houses along the island. We continued to meet people to complete our questionnaires. While doing this, a few others and I strayed a bit from the group but caught them up back and found a little house amidst the trees where we met a man introduced to us as Father. I can’t remember his name but he lives there with his wife. They are both elderly people. His wife was more than happy to sit with us and teach us a few words in her mother tongue. She told us in Lokono that she was a proud Arawak and some other phrases.

Father then took us on a tour on of the land that he himself had cultivated. The sheer size of land that had been cleared and shared was quite amazing. He shared with us his hopes of having a resort in that serene place. Miss Charlene stopped us for a while to reinforce the responsibility that we have as young engineers and to see this as a way we can begin to impact communities meaningfully with projects and experiences such as this. That day felt as though it time was against us as it finished quite quickly in my opinion.

Later that night we built a bonfire and learned a cultural dance taught by Trevis’s father, and we in turn shared some stories of our own and I did an outstanding kata for the entertainment of my peers, something thing I know none of them knew I had knowledge of. The night ended even better because I got cassava bread to eat. And we allowed Miss to have some well-deserved rest for all the work she had done in making sure her students were well taken care of.

Leaving Wakapoa the following morning with a head full of ideas, hopes and plans to execute projects to help better the entire village for the years to come. As much as none of us wanted to leave, the experience of actually being there will stay with us. We now have a place and people who are now very close to our hearts and a mission to fulfil.

Wakapoa reflective essay: Jumiah Whittington

Courtesy Jumiah Whittington

Embarking on the trip to Wakapoa was the most amazing and exciting thing I’ve ever done. Although it had its ups and downs, terrifying moments and embarrassing times, only one word can describe it: extraordinary.

From the very beginning I was anxious to go somewhere no one has ever been before, but coming down to the day of departure I felt like I was making a mistake. I was about to spend four days of my life with complete strangers. How crazy is that, right? But it took me by surprise when everyone got along like they’d known each other all their lives. We got along like we were all family. We argued about the most stupid things just like siblings would. We shared interesting life stories like best friends, and made remarkable memories that will be with us for the rest of our lives. And Ms. Wilkinson! She was way cooler than I expected. I may not be able to share every detail with you or make you feel the way I did but I would love to share my experience.

I took my first ferry ride from Parika to Essequibo on the 18th April, 2019. My fellow ambassadors made one hour feel like 20 minutes, and the game of “Mafia”, originated by our very own Calvin Benn, kept us entertained the entire trip to Essequibo, along with several introductions and photos, weird conversations, and the amazing view of the Essequibo River and the beauty of nature surrounding it.

The trip to Charity was one to talk about. Being able to see Guyana’s national animal and the statue of man who protested against the 1834 system of apprenticeship (Damon’s Monument) was indeed a privilege. Arriving in Charity, the honour was ours to meet in person Mr. Howard Cornelius, the Toshao of the village and Miss Skeeta Thomas, a member of the Thomas family (a family known for their generosity, friendly attitude and loving kindness towards outsiders).

The journey along the Pomeroon River was indeed terrifying at first since it was my first time travelling by speedboat, but the excitement the other ambassadors displayed made me feel safe and excited as well. Diverting into the Wakapoa River – seeing the unbelievable beauty of nature, the way the trees formed an arch and water just rushed through them, the curves, the swings, the ups and downs – excitement managed to overpower fear.

Upon arrival, not even seeing the face of anyone, I could feel the village itself welcoming us. The power of standing in a circular form shows unity and togetherness as well as equality, the first thing I learnt. Standing under the Umana Yana, also known as the Community Centre, we held our first meeting with the Toshao. There we were enlightened about the rules and regulations of the village, our dos and don’ts and were also reminded about our purpose for visiting: to help develop the community and revitalise the Lokono language, Lokono, otherwise known by outsiders as ‘Arawak’.

We didn’t have the chance to engage in much the first day because we arrived late the afternoon, but we did, however, have the chance to meet two of the most kind and friendly people in the village: Miss Janet, our cook (she usually cooks for any visitors), and Miss Marcy, one of the shopkeepers. Marcy was very friendly. She kept us entertained every night with both scary as well as fun stories about the village.

The second day we visited Myrie, one of the 49 islands in Wakapoa and the island the Toshao resides on. There we moved off in pairs to gather the villagers’ opinions and to carry out a survey on what people in the community thought about development. We were also taken by the Toshao to see the roadway joining Myrie and Borada (another island) and to voice our opinions on how to develop the road and the better way to construct it, since it is being flooded in the rainy season. We then met with three young ladies who wished to further their education at the University of Guyana. Sharing our experience with them made me realise what a blessing it is to be at the University of Guyana.

We spent the last day making kites with children of the village. This was a great success for most of us. For the others, well things didn’t go so great. The rest of the day was spent on the island called Massarie, where we continued to carry out our surveys and then had the opportunity to journey through the forest with the eldest priest of the village. He enlightened us about the developments he would like to see for the village and one day wishes to transform part of the island to a tourist site, a project he has been working on for years. Then we journeyed into the coconut forest, chased by a rare bird which is known for war and there ended our journey on Massarie.

Then came our last night in Wakapoa, hosted by the Thomas family, which was the most amazing, entertaining, enchanting, remarkable moment of my life. We gathered around the camp fire, introduced ourselves, and listened to how the trip was for everyone and what a privilege it was to have us there. There were stories of all kinds, songs, dancing and singing of folk songs. I didn’t want that night to end, but sadly it had to.

I got up very early the next morning. I didn’t want to leave. I felt like I had started something new. It was like I had found a new part of me I didn’t want to let go of, but I realised I didn’t have to. The friends I had made were still going to be there and the village is still there for me visit because I haven’t started my work there as yet. It was only the beginning. I also had a few new words to take back with me, which I could share with others.

Then everyone was awake and it was time to leave. At 9:00am on 21st April, we embarked on our journey back to Georgetown, and to our respective homes but one thing I’m grateful for is that the bond built between us was never broken.

Wakapoa reflective essay: Shaquille Fiffee

Courtesy Shaquille Fiffee

I have always dreamed of going to the different parts of my country to see and experience all the great, natural and amazing scenes that are housed here. On Thursday April 18th, 2019, I fulfilled a small part of that dream as my English class got the opportunity to go on a field trip to the great Arawak village of Wakapoa, in the Pomeroon-Supenaam region on the Wakapoa River.

The village, I would say, is one of the best examples of an Amerindian community that has not only preserved some of the traditional Arawak culture but also some of the elders retained its tribal language. The purpose of the field trip was to expose us to some of the culture, along with trying to grasp a small part of the tribal talk but our class went beyond that by taking a questionnaire – not to worry the villagers but to see what or how they think of development and town life versus their way of living.

We started our journey before the mist of the early morning when we all gathered at the meeting place at the University of Guyana. We were all excited as the day was finally here. The journey began a bit off track because not everything went as planned but throughout the trip everyone coped well with the route and remained positive, making the trip very enjoyable despite its frustrations.

I’ve had many wonderful boat rides but my favourite new memory would be that of the one from Charity to the village, for it was filled of great thrills and excitement. One such experience was of the boat moving side to side as it rode the waves of other passing boats. We arrived on St. Lucian Mission, an island in the Wakapoa region, just after 2:00pm the very same day. That would be our host island.

It was such a refreshing and simple yet breathtaking sight, my body became as calm as the wind blows for it was like nothing that I had ever felt before. A few minutes in we were greeted by village Toshao, for it was mandatory to have the approval of a Toshao before visiting an Amerindian village. It was a brief introduction of the island. We were all too tired to roam the island during the remainder of the day so we all took a quiet and easy evening as the travelling thrills soaked in the mind.

The following day was well planned by us and the Toshao, and we ventured off to his side of the Wakapoa Region, Myrie Island. There we took full advantage of the trip and carried out the survey using the questionnaires we had prepared. It was very enlightening to hear what all the villagers had to say as we toured and saw more of its wonders and also expanded our knowledge about the island’s general needs and the needs of the individuals who took the survey.  Myrie Island is a very large and popular area because it is connected by a small roadway to a neighbouring island called the Whypaqua, which we also took a small tour of that was very satisfying.

We then returned to St Lucian Island; tired but craving more. The final day was yet more unbelievable than the previous. It started very early because we had planned a very exciting special treat for the children of the island: making kites with them. Inexperienced students we were in making kites, for the children showed us more about making kites that we showed them – they were the professionals and we were the trainees! It was such a rewarding exercise and one to always be remembered.

After the fun-packed activity of making kites, we visited yet another island, Massarie. That was even more adventurous as we all felt like jungle kings and queens climbing through the outreach of the jungle, seeing its natural and raw beauty. The pastor, an elder of Wakapoa, Priest Jones Richards, made it look easy as we struggled to keep pace with him. He created an image in our minds that entailed so much beauty that it’s impossible to forget.

Later that evening we made yet another thrilling exercise possible by creating a camp fire; I had never had the opportunity to be around one. The last night was fun filled around the camp fire, occupied with musical touches and great speeches of gratitude for the time spent on the island. That night we begged for more time on the island for it was too short of a time for so much adventure. I will always carry this trip with me for it was nothing but the best

Surviving UG as a blind student (and how to make things better)

Ganesh Singh is the first blind student to have graduated from the University of Guyana (UG) with a masters. There are others, he says, who have a masters and are blind but as far as he is aware he’s the only one to study for and complete the programme while visually impaired.

“The experience was an interesting one and one that I embraced,” he says. His masters was in social work – and he found the programme, taught by lecturers from York University in the UK, spoke to his more radical, direct approach. “As a disability rights advocate I am more of a critical social worker in the sense of: I think advocacy, I think of being radical and getting thing done.”

It wasn’t an easy process, he admits. “It was challenging at some points because of the number of academic papers and the standard of writing for social sciences [at UG], especially social work, is very low – so they really do not challenge you from early to prepare yourself for the transition … But I feel very satisfied, it’s a dream come true. It’s something I always wanted to do. It also raises the bar for other persons with disabilities who are following my footsteps.”

Singh’s next step is a postgraduate diploma in (higher) education, and he’s also contemplating a PhD. We asked him to share with us some thoughts and tips on studying at UG as a disabled student, how lecturers can better support their students, and what UG needs to do to improve its disability policy.

“Lecturers need to view those students just like any other students. Because a lot of times what you find is people have their preconceived ideas of persons with disabilities. There are lecturers that are of the feeling that we should not be in a classroom. That’s fact. So because of that, they’re very apprehensive in providing the necessary support. So it’s for these lecturers to see the student – not their disability – and at the same time, provide the necessary support.

“…the university is void of any relevant disability policy. The lecturers need to seek advice on whatever support they can provide to that student. They seek it from the student themselves but also persons that are experienced or would have a better idea in providing that kind of support.

“I’m not being critical of UG, but I’ve been at UG for the past five years and UG is very disorganised when it come to dealing with person with disabilities … one of [a colleague’s] lecturers made an intervention for her to get a computer to write her exam but in other faculties they bluntly refused to provide the computer – or allow her to use a computer, they rather use a scribe. So at the university there’s no go-to person and everyone does things as they see best. The assistant registrar for exams is supposed to be the one to [put] systems in place but again the preference is scribes. In any institution you should be given a choice.

“I made some input along with Sinikka Henry and Rosemary Benjamin-Noble into the disability policy for UG [a part of the adhoc committee on disability]. It’s in draft and again that might be there in draft unless we push! … the university should implement that disability draft policy and upgrade their delivery of education to persons with disability in sync with international best practices and standards.

“Sometimes it’s embarrassing the way they do things. Simple things: lecturers would have to send out copies of documents – which would make our lives much, much easier – but they are unwilling to provide them. To be honest, I never had these challenges but I’m in touch with all the other persons who are visually impaired that are at UG and those are the challenges that they experience.”


> Do not see your challenges as barriers but see them as stepping stones to uplift yourself.

> Being accepted and registered at the university to read for any degree is a major accomplishment already and you should see that as just the beginning.

> You have to work doubly hard to achieve anything because you have to deal with the course content but at the same time you have to deal with all the other obstacles that are in your way in ensuring you can write an accessible exam, ensuring you get to classes in physically accessible environments. You have so many other challenges other than the actual content of the course.

Work hard and build a network. Once you have people around you at university, in your class and outside the university arena, you can get support whenever necessary to complete assignments, to help you with studying, to explain things – whatever it is they can help you with.

You need to be very strong. Lecturers can be negative towards you and can really affect your confidence and self-esteem.

> They have an accessible scanner in the library but I don’t know how much it’s used. It’s there but it’s not a service they would inform you of when you register as someone with a disability.

Report from the Sounds of Advocacy, Language and Liberation Conference

Two founding members of the Guyanese Languages Unit, Tamirand De Lisser and Charlene Wilkinson, attended the conference ‘Sounds of Advocacy, Language and Liberation’ held at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, in Jamaica from October 25 to 27.

The event was held in honour of Professor Hubert Devonish and was organised by his past and present students and the staff of the Jamaican Language Unit. It extended over three days and attracted participants from the Caribbean and international community.

All the papers presented covered areas of research, teaching and advocacy inspired by the professor’s work, such as language and the law, language and African diasporic identities, language death, orthography, academic literacies, bilingual education, Bible translation, language and sexuality, language rights, linguistic discrimination, language policy, language in the media, language and Caribbean music, phonetics and phonology, syntax and semantics, indigenous languages and creole linguistics.

The paper by Wilkinson and de Lisser was presented on October 26 in the concluding session of the conference:

Daidrah Smith-Telfer: Wa no ded no dash we: Language revitalisation efforts in Wakapoa – The case of Lokono (Arawak)

Ian Robertson: Losing linguistic competence: Two Berbice Dutch case samples

Audene Henry-Harvey: Linguistic fieldwork in a ritual context: A model

Charlene Wilkinson & Tamirand Nnena De Lisser: Colloquium 2016 and the Emergence of the Guyanese Languages Unit at the University of Guyana

The paper described the activism carried out and the challenges faced in the establishment of the Guyanese Languages Unit (GLU) at the University of Guyana (UG). It outlined the role of the Colloquium 2016 in envisioning the action plan which inspired the proposal for setting up the GLU. It also detailed the works that the unit has been involved in and provided insights into the GLU’s plan of action for mobilising language policy and planning in Guyana.

This conference provided an opportunity for participants to exchange ideas, get feedback on research, open avenues for collaborative work and, in general, broaden their knowledge. Wilkinson and de Lisser said: “We are particularly pleased that we were able to participate. We would like to thank Vice Chancellor Griffith, for funding most of our expenses – airfare and accommodation – and the Faculty of Education and Humanities for funding our conference fees and per diem. We would be delighted to share our presentation with the University of Guyana community and possibly the wider public.”

Text reworked from a report by Charlene Wilkinson and Tamirand de Lisser, ‘Report on the Sounds of Advocacy, Language and Liberation Conference’ dated November 12 2018.

INTERVIEW: Dr De Lisser on preserving Jamaican Creole in Costa Rica + lessons for Guyana

Go to Costa Rica and you’ll most likely expect to speak to people in Spanish or English. But in a city called Limon there is a community of Jamaican descendants who speak what is called Limonese Creole – a dialect of Jamaican Creole. 

Dr Tamirand de Lisser, a member of the Guyanese Languages Unit (GLU) and a linguistics lecturer at the University of Guyana, visited Costa Rica in August 2018 for the 22nd Biennial Conference of the Society of Caribbean Linguistics (SCL), held in collaboration with the Society for Pidgin and Creole Languages (SPCL) at the Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica (UNA) in Limon and Heredia.

Herself Jamaican by heritage, Dr de Lisser shares some of her experiences and explains how what she discovered could help influence the work of the GLU in Guyana…

How did the opportunity to visit Limon come about? Had you heard of them before you went?
The visit to Limon was organised as this was a designated host site of the conference. Unfortunately I had no idea that the people of Limon spoke a language called Limonese Creole, which is a dialect of Jamaican Creole. If I had known I could have prepared beforehand, which would have included taking copies of my books for the community. It’s also unfortunate as this is my area of interest and I had no idea that it existed. But so it is, you live and you learn… no regrets!

Tell us a bit about this community i.e. how they came to be there.
Jamaican migrant workers went to Limon to work on the railways and banana plantations and managed to maintain their language.  

Courtesy Dr De Lisser

From a linguistic perspective, what was the most exciting part about the visit?
The realisation that this community existed and that linguists at the UNA are moving forward to develop and give status to the language e.g. establishing a writing system and alphabet, working on descriptive grammars, promoting positive attitudes towards preservation of the language etc.

What linguistic challenges (if any) are they still dealing with in the community? 
The linguistic challenges they are facing are similar to those of many Caribbean communities e.g.
– Negative attitudes towards the language, primarily among the younger generations
– Restricted domains of use (mainly at home among families and friends)
– Suppressing the use of the language in schools/education in general
– Non-recognition of the language as a language by the government

Courtesy Dr De Lisser

How does the visit relate to your work in Guyana/Jamaica and with the Guyana Languages Unit?
The visit is very relevant to my work and research interests in Guyana and Jamaica, and in particular the works to be carried out by the Guyanese Languages Unit. As the challenges faced by the Limonese-speaking community are similar to those faced in Guyana, the GLU can use this as an example and implement similar procedures and mechanisms for uplifting the status of the Guyanese Creole language. We could partner and collaborate with the linguists at UNA on various research initiatives for the  holistic development of Caribbean Creoles.

Do you plan to keep in contact with the community, visit again or follow up in any way? 
I plan to keep in contact with the community primarily via the linguists at UNA. Collaborating on linguistic research with this community is definitely a priority for me. I would love to visit again, and to follow up on the progress of the linguistic developments of the community. I would also like to make a gift available to the community in the form of my translations – Di Likl Prins and Alis Advencha in a Wandalan, which are written in Jamaican Creole but to which they will be able to relate.


This address was made by the coordinator of Fos Klaas, Janice Imhoff, at the inaugural graduation ceremony for the group, which aims to promote the usage of Guyanese Creole in writing and society more widely.

On an evening resembling this one, in 2017, the University of Guyana created history with its first-ever course titled An Introduction to Writing Guyanese Creole. Its criteria for selection were a basic primary education. I liked that! It meant anyone just knowing to read and write could walk through the university door. On the last day of class, Tiicha Charlene suggested we form a group. And so, UG fos Kriiyoliiz kors gave birth to a baby we called Fos Klaas: Guyanese Creolese Advocates.

This however was no ordinary baby. It embodied 14 spirits representing the 14 students who were eager to transfer all we learnt to the rest of our beloved Guyana. Yours truly is the coordinator for this first year and we will be rotating this leadership. So, here I stand, to bring you greetings and to warmly thank the University of Guyana, especially our three teachers – Charlene Wilkinson, Dr. Tamirand De Lisser, and Dhanaiswary Jaganauth – for making our birth equally historic… Awi diiz jomp, plee skuul, lil ABC, big ABC, fos standard an awi miit aal di wee to yuuniivorsitii, an tonait, awi iz fo get wi sorfitiikeet dem. Tangk yu a-plenti.

Ladies and gentlemen! This baby is still growing. We are still being nurtured by our “parents”, each bringing their unique growing-food to help us through the creeping stage. Each “parent” is helping us to develop firm walking legs, so that while we have many stumbles and falls, we will be able to get up and continue to acquire skills, and so become responsible Guyanese Creolese advocates.

Fos Klaas, like all babies, has a mind of its own. If you don’t believe a baby has a mind and knows what she or he wants, think again. Put down a baby who wants to remain cuddled, or try to pick up a toddler who has found the glory of walking… iz sheer woriiz.

So, Fos Klaas has many plans and dividing them into short and long term may not be the ideal thing. For example, mastering writing in the Guyanese Raitin Sistem, perfecting the art of transcription and translation from English to Creolese, and vice versa, all start as short-term plans but will continue well into the long term. Also, acquiring data collection skills will start in the short term and continue into our long existence.

What we know is that through both our long and short-term plans, we will be challenging some misconceptions about Guyanese Creolese. I will briefly mention three.

First misconception: that the Creolese language is bad English in action, and it is a poor man’s play thing. No such thing! Bad English is bad English! Don’t use it to write Creolese. Guyanese Creolese, developed by our ancestors, has structure.

Second misconception: teaching the Guyanese Writing System will confuse school children who already have trouble learning to “speak properly”. That, ladies and gentlemen, means speaking the English language correctly. Maybe, the real question to ask is: why did the children have difficulty in the first place!

Third misconception: that the writing system is meant to regularize the different varieties of Guyanese Creoles into one standard Creole. Let us pause here… the Guyanese Writing System will do no such thing. It has no such intention. So whether you speak the Creolese of the African villages, or of the sugar estates, or of the urban working class, or whichever type of Creolese you speak, all the writing system will do is help you write it just the way you speak it. So if for the English word ‘we’ you say ‘wii’, ‘awii’ or ‘abii’, you will write it likewise.

One of our definite long-term plans is to, one day soon, gallop enough running speed so we can lift off and fly. To where are we flying? To meet with other groups, like the already established Informal Working Group, and the soon to be established Guyanese Languages Unit. Together we hope to advocate for the Creolese language to become an official language, right alongside the English language, not in front of it (even though madam chairperson that mightn’t be a bad idea!), but definitely not behind it – where it is now and where it is not being taken seriously. We want it accepted as a language with equal respect.

Gone must be the days when those who speak Creolese hear their mother tongue ONLY through the telecommunication giants who use their language in advertisements to enrich themselves. Gone must be the days when their mother tongue is heard on the drama stage at the National Cultural Centre for actors to receive awards predominantly for cheap melodramas or slapstick comedies. And gone must be the days when the only time politicians seem to find the mother tongue useful is when they seek electoral votes. Those who speak ONLY Creolese must have their voices heard and their writings read and accepted in our legal system, our education system and in our health system. “Wa gud fo di guus mos gud fo di gyanda, ya!”

In closing, may I ask you to imagine this: Students about to take an examination – for example, the one we once called Common Entrance. Imagine the invigilator saying, “Raise your hand if you want to do this examination in the English language… And raise your hand if you want to do this examination in Guyanese Creolese”. And then she concludes, “All those who can do this examination in either language say, yes!”

Yes! This we must accomplish…. in my lifetime and in yours.

[NB: This is an edited version of a previously published post.]



By Janice Imhoff, Coordinator, Fos Klaas

Very high energies were released when the University of Guyana (UG) held its course: Introduction to Writing in Guyanese Creole. This made history: one, because it was the first of its kind after more than a half century of UG’s existence; and two, it must be considered among the firsts of all other sincere attempts to build upon a post-emancipation creation.

Those energies led a group of participants to form Fos Klaas (First Class). This is not yet the definitive name; others, such as Creolese Language Activists, either as an extension or a replacement, are being considered. The group’s philosophy and its main objectives have not been finalised. Fos Klaas has 13 members: 9 females and 4 males with ages ranging from the 20s to 70s. Our three Creolese teachers – Charlene Wilkinson, Dhanaiswary Jaganauth and Dr. Tamir De Lisser – are ex officio members. We boast inclusivity! We reflect the diversity of our Guyanese heritage by way of race/ethnicity, geographic location, occupation and more. Our visually challenged participant used Braille to write Creolese!

So, what are some of Fos Klaas’s plans? For this quarter, we’re heading to Parika for our first data-collecting exercise. This was organised by one member, Robert Samaroo. Next is a trip to University of Guyana’s Berbice Campus, Tain. There we will meet and collaborate with other Creolese-speaking enthusiasts. Finally, in 2018, we’ll publish a booklet titled Why a Guyanese Writing System? and develop a working relationship with the Informal Working Group for Language Policy at UG.

These combined efforts are meant to agitate for a Guyana language policy, the pillars of which must be the acceptance of Creolese as an official language, and the introduction of multilingualism alongside English Language into our education, legal and social systems, throughout the Guyanese community.

Fos Klass is currently open only to members of the Introduction to Writing in Guyanese Creole course, but may open up in future. Sign up to our newsletter for more updates.


Some of us refer to our language as Creolese.  Others have been using the name Guyanese. Both refer to the same language. Which do you prefer?

Guyanese (or Creolese) is no different from any other language. It has rules just like any other. If you speak Guyanese, you can tell right away whether a sentence is Guyanese or not.

See if you can pick out the grammatical Guyanese sentences from this list:

  1. Meemee de a bakdaam                  (‘May-May is at the backdam’)
  2. Joo de wan brait pikni                   (‘Joe is a bright child’)
  3. Dem a plee krikit                                (‘They are playing cricket’)
  4. Meemee wan tiicha now               (May-May is a teacher now’)
  5. Joo bai som buk dem                     (‘Joe has bought some books’)
  6. Di bokit wash                                      (‘The bucket has been washed’)

You may not know it, but you know the rules of your language. Every human being knows the rules of his/her language. No one has to teach them. This doesn’t mean that they can explain the rules. That is the job of someone trained to write grammars. So, did you pick numbers 1, 3, and 6 to be grammatically Guyanese?

The grammar of Guyanese is different from that of English in many ways. But the words are different too. If I say that you’re disgusting, I don’t mean that you repulse me. We have special  sayings too. Let’s say I hear a song and it reminded me of something you said. I might say, “Mi main jos ron pan yu.” The man talking English would say, “You just crossed my mind.”

Creolese/Guyanese was created by enslaved Africans working on the plantations. The indentured labourers who came later learned this language from the Africans and added words from their own languages. But they did not change the grammar very much, if at all.

Many of the words that came from India are still in use today, but these are often not known by the general public. For many Indo-Guyanese, however, words are all they remember of their ancestral language. They do not know its grammar.

Let’s learn about each other’s language and culture. Let’s learn about our own. There is much to celebrate about who we are.

Further reading

The Linguistic Legacy of Indian-Guyanese