Michel DeGraff: Defender of the Kreyòl Language as a Tool for Education and Development

This post is also available in: Kreyol

Woy Magazine had the honor to have an in-depth talk with Michel DeGraff, noted Creolist, professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and founding member of the Haitian Creole Academy. For the last week of #MwaKreyòl (Kreyòl month) we will be sharing our conversation in three installments on DeGraff’s origin, his stance on the role of Kreyòl in Haiti’s history and development, and his ongoing work in this field.

Woy Magazine: Can you tell us about your origins, and what led you to do the work you do today?

I grew up in Haiti, and attended school at Saint Louis de Gonzague, a Catholic school for boys. As a child in Haiti, I never pondered the importance of our Creole language.   Why? Because everything in school was done in French. The Catholic brothers at Saint Louis didn’t teach us to value the language and culture that were really truly ours.

After obtaining my undergraduate degree, I returned to school for my doctoral studies at the University of Pennsylvania. By then, I had decided to study computer science and linguistics in an effort to better understand what language is, how it functions in our brains, how computers too can process language, and how to answer related questions in cognitive science with applications for digital technology. One reason I wanted to do research on Creole languages in particular is because I wanted to understand why schools in Haiti never showed us that Haitian Creole was a language like any other language. Quite the opposite, the brothers of Saint Louis used to spank students for daring to speak Kreyòl.

I remember that Brother Raphaël Berrou, our literature teacher, used to say: “With Kreyòl, you will never reach farther than the island of La Gonâve.” This is one reason why I felt the need to study linguistics, to find out and discover what the Creole language really is.

The more I researched, the more I realized that, in the course of 13 years of schooling at Saint Louis, the brothers destroyed our morale, our dignity, and our identity. They did that with lies about our native language and other aspects of our culture, for example the Vodou religion. But maybe they too believed these lies. Maybe they did not really understand what a language really is. Maybe they really did not believe that Kreyòl was in fact a real language.

After completing my doctoral dissertation, I became interested in studying how knowledge is created and transmitted. I studied the works of important thinkers such as the philosopher Michel Foucault and the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. These works explain how the production of knowledge is always embedded in power struggles.

Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argued that education systems not only create knowledge, but they also use knowledge to create social stratifications. These social stratifications help those in power keep that power for themselves, their children, their children’s children, and so on. This means that systems of knowledge serve to keep power in the hands of the small group of people who have access to that knowledge, and who can influence what sorts of knowledge should be created and circulated.

“Schools in Haiti function in a way to ensure that power remain in the hands of a very small minority.”

When I started reading these analyses, I began to understand the “Kreyòl problem” more clearly. Schools in Haiti function in a way to ensure that power remain in the hands of a very small minority. One of the key strategies for the elite to maintain this power is by holding on to an education system that is based on a language that only a small percentage of the population is actually fluent in.

This is how the elite maintains its grip on power. It is as if the masses should believe that they do not deserve any power or any seat at the table. Why should the masses be made to hold such a belief? According to some among the elite, the fact that the masses do not speak French makes them not actual people! It is this same lie (that African and Creole languages are not real languages!) that the European colonizers wanted the Africans to believe in order to keep them from ever thinking to, one day, rise up and fight for their liberty and equality. But the Europeans thought wrong! Thank you, Papa Dessalines!

“If Kreyòl is not given the place it deserves in education, government, justice, business, etc., these plans for “better schools” and for “sustainable development” will remain but a dream.”

Woy Magazine: What role do you think the Creole language plays in the liberation of the Haitian people, both in history and today?

There are certain people in Haiti who call themselves great statesmen, great lawyers, great educators, who make great speeches. When you hear them speak, you think, surely, these are intellectuals of the highest level. However, they seem to not realize that, every single day, their actions and words violate Haiti’s Constitution. Furthermore, their actions and words contradict what scientific research has taught us about the role that native languages play in learning and development. 

Indeed children’s native languages, those languages that they start learning as early as in the womb (that is, the “mother tongues”), are the best linguistic tools for building strong foundations for deep learning in all disciplines, including science, math and second languages as well. Therefore, in Haiti, for most children, there cannot be any effective learning of French or any other language if they don’t start with building strong foundations in Kreyòl. Strong Kreyòl foundations are a necessary condition for subsequent academic success in all disciplines.

The Haitian Constitution is clear on the topic of Kreyòl and French in the country. Article 5 clearly states that the country has two official languages, and that Kreyòl is the one language that binds all Haitians together. What does this mean? We have two official languages: French and Kreyòl. And Kreyòl is our national language, the one language that the entire country speaks. Article 40 states that all state matters should be handled in both of the official languages so that everyone can understand what is happening in the government.

It is not enough to have laws and decrees published in both Kreyòl and French. Everything that concerns the population should be available in both languages, so that everyone can participate without language barriers, without exclusion. Since 1987, our leaders, from presidents to ministers, have violated the Constitution by not respecting the letter and the spirit of articles 5 and 40 of the Haitian Constitution.

A national language is a language that everyone in the country speaks. It should serve as a tool for the people to create knowledge for themselves, to solve problems in their communities and in their country. This point must be made clear: when Kreyòl is not used as an actual official language at every single level and sector of society, when Kreyòl is not given the place it deserves in education, government, justice, business, etc., these plans for “better schools” and for “sustainable development” will remain but a dream.

If you study the African cultures that were present in Haiti during slavery, you will find that they were very diverse. All of the African ethnicities that were present spoke different languages. There were also various groups of people that came from France as colonizers in Saint Domingue who spoke a number of different languages. During this time, not all people from France were French speakers. Although Christopher Columbus and the Spanish settlers had massacred most of the indigenous population, the Amerindian languages too were present on the island among the European and African languages.

In the midst of all this diversity and linguistic contact, one new language began to emerge. This new language is what we Haitians call “Kreyòl” today. This Creole language is what united the various African ethnic groups, and it is this same unity that enabled the planning of the revolution. Kreyòl as communal language and Vodou as communal religion played key roles in the solidarity and liberation of the diverse African tribes and their descendants who were born in the colony. Many of them fought for one goal: to live free in an independent country.

This is how the Republic of Haiti was born in 1804. Once again, mèsi Papa Dessalines!

Photo via MIT.edu
Team Woy

Team Woy

Haiti through our voices. Ayiti nan vwa pa nou.

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