Michel DeGraff and the MIT-Haiti Initiative for the Advancement of the Kreyòl Language

This post is also available in: Kreyol

This is the second installment of our in-depth conversation with Michel DeGraff, noted Creolist, professor of linguistics at MIT, and founding member of the Haitian Creole Academy. During this last week of #MwaKreyòl (Kreyòl month) we will be sharing our conversation in three parts. In part 2, DeGraff explains the activism involved in his work as a Creolist and an educator, and the great strides the MIT-Haiti Initiative is making for the Kreyòl language. (Part 1)

Unfortunately, this second-class treatment of Creole languages exists in many intellectual circles, be it in Haiti or abroad, where people, even linguistics colleagues, tend to treat Creole languages as inferior to other languages.

Woy Magazine: Do you consider your work as activism? Why and in what way?

My work as a linguist and educator consists of several interconnected layers.

One layer is technical and scientific. I analyze linguistic data in order to understand the structure of the languages being analyzed, to understand the technical details of how those languages function as complicated symbolic systems, and how these complex systems evolve through history. These are systems that require specialized linguistic training in order to analyze and understand.

Non-linguists typically cannot fathom the complexity of such systems and how to analyze them.  Yet many intellectuals speak about languages as if they are experts, yet all they do is promote myths and lies, especially about Creole languages and other socially stigmatized languages.

There is an aspect of my work that is not as technical, but has more to do with activism. Some of that activism aims at demystifying these age-old lies about Creole languages. This is the part of my work where I promote Creole languages based on scientific evidence about the history and structures of these languages. Yes, science shows us that Haitian Creole, and other Creole languages all over the world (in Jamaica, Hawaii, Australia, etc.), are indeed full-fledged languages on par with all other languages, including so called “international languages” such as French, English, Spanish, etc.

Now that it has been scientifically established that Haitian Creole is a full-fledged language as any other language, the question is: why has Kreyòl always been given so little importance in Haiti, much less importance than French? This is the case even among scholars who speak Kreyòl and organize conferences and other educational activities about Kreyòl. They go as far as conducting these activities about Kreyòl completely in French or English, from the invitations, to the announcements, and down to the presentations.

Unfortunately, this second-class treatment of Creole languages exists in many intellectual circles, be it in Haiti or abroad, where people, even linguistics colleagues, tend to treat Creole languages as inferior to other languages.

In my research, I’ve tried my best to dig as deeply into the history of Haitian Creole as possible, analyzing how people have historically treated the language, and how intellectuals have studied the language. When you look closely at these studies, you will notice this connection that exists between knowledge and power. That brings in Michel Foucault’s classic analysis of the “archaeology” underneath diverse systems of knowledge and their links to systems of power.

We have spoken already about how authorities who wish to maintain power have utilized “knowledge” to reinforce their power. Which is why those in power carefully choose what categories of “knowledge” to promote: they only promote those categories of “knowledge” that can serve to maintain their power.

During the colonial period and thereafter, European scholars and their followers, in their quest for political and economic power, wanted to prove that Africans were not really human beings, that they were more akin to monkeys than to human beings. According to these (neo-)colonial scholars, since Africans were not fully human, the languages they spoke (be it African languages or Creole languages) were not fully human either.  Back then and now still, language could be used as a litmus test as to who should be considered human.

This kind of “knowledge” has created a hierarchy whereby a small group of people dominate the rest. The “knowledge” that those on top decide to produce or legitimize is meant to “prove” that those who are forced at the bottom of society or in slavery deserve their place and must remain there. None of these teachings can be considered true “knowledge.” They are lies, prejudice and self-serving intellectual illusions masquerading as knowledge.

Haiti is a prime example of this phenomenon, whereby the educated are the ones that have taken the lead to push the idea that Kreyòl is not a full-fledged language, not a language that can be used in schools, at universities, for conferences, for government, in courts, etc. We have all heard people with PhDs and who speak several languages say that they cannot read or write Kreyòl, and are not interested in learning how to. Many even claim that they get “headaches” from reading Kreyòl. Yet the Kreyòl orthography is much easier to learn than that of either French or English.  Let’s please come back to that technical point later.

For now, I think we can see how certain teachings or “knowledge” are simply ideological barriers that are meant to block the education and economic development of those who grow up in communities where they only speak Kreyòl. If prestigious authorities refuse to write in Kreyòl, and if they believe that Kreyòl is not a real language, or that reading in Kreyòl gives them “headaches”, this means that they will never make a concerted effort to use Kreyòl as the country’s official national language, as the language needed for the country’s development.

As an activist, I help document how much of what passes as “knowledge” about language and education is actually lies. And we must do away with these lies because they are blocking the country’s development. These lies violate the rights of most Haitians because the majority of the population speaks Kreyòl only, so they need Kreyòl as an indispensable tool for education and development.

Baton ki nan men w, se avèk li ou pare kou.  That is, the stick in your hand is the one that can protect you. I view Kreyòl as Haiti’s linguistic baton.

Woy Magazine: Tell us about the different projects you and MIT are currently working on to advance the Creole language and the country, as a whole?

Here is one fundamental question at the root of these projects: what language can be best used as a tool to build knowledge for the population? For Haiti, the answer is Kreyòl. Our primary objective is not to advance Kreyòl per se. Our primary objective is to provide children with the best tool to build their knowledge. That is how we will be able to build a strong foundation to develop the country.

Baton ki nan men w, se avèk li ou pare kou.  That is, the stick in your hand is the one that can protect you.

I view Kreyòl as Haiti’s linguistic baton. The advancement of Kreyòl is somewhat secondary to the advancement of education. As we are improving education in Haiti, the MIT-Haiti Initiative is advancing Kreyòl as well, as a side-effect. We make Kreyòl an integral part of all of the materials we develop. There are many words that didn’t yet exist in Kreyòl because the language was never used in advanced science and mathematics. Thus, we have the task of finding new words to explain many complicated abstract concepts. Once we use the language in both its spoken and written form in areas where it has never been used before, this strengthens the language.

Jean-Jacques Dessalines would be so happy to witness these historic efforts, in our own national language, for the advancement of our people while setting up an example on how to open up the road to science for other underprivileged populations that speak local languages!

Many Haitians have asked us why MIT is doing all this sophisticated work in Kreyòl instead of French.  Here’s what I answer: if we were doing this project in France, we would do it in French.  If we were working in Norway, we would do it in Norwegian.  In Korea, we would do it in Korean. The MIT-Haiti Initiative is working to improve education for all in Haiti, for real. Since most students and teachers speak Kreyòl, we develop  our materials and activities in Kreyòl. As a linguist, I do know that giving students the strongest possible foundations in their native language will also help them master second languages such as French, alongside English, Spanish, and so on, alongside math, science, literature, etc. Indeed Haitian children who speak Kreyòl only at home and in their communities should study French as the SECOND language that French is for them. They should study French in French classes, instead of being taught all subjects IN French when they barely speak French, if at all.

Yes, Kreyòl is an indispensable tool to create a “different kind of schooling” in Haiti (“yon lòt kalite lekòl”!) in order to create a truly better country, a country where all children can have opportunities, even if they are not French speakers. 

Most Haitians do not speak French. French need not remain the number-one reason why parents invest so much of themselves and their meager resources when they send their children to school.  Pale franse pa vle di lespri. Indeed, your speaking French does not mean that you are intelligent.

Team Woy

Team Woy

Haiti through our voices. Ayiti nan vwa pa nou.

  1. I agree with this. As a matter of fact French should be removed as an official language as it is borderline useless. The only countries that speak French are por African countries or small French territories.

    China does trade with the world without speaking English or French and so can Haiti.

    English should be a second language while Haitian takes precedence. Japan speaks Japanese and South Korea speaks Korean while using English as only a tool to deal with other countries.

    Haiti should be the same way. The Haitian language, I don’t say creole because creole is a term that means many different things and is not a clear descriptor, should be promoted at all costs.

    Creole means a multato from Louisiana in popular usage. Creole in Martinique is a different language and an ethnic group. Cape Verdeans speak creole to. As an independent nation there should be no shame in calling our language Haitian. We are not creoles

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