Michel DeGraff: Yes, Kreyòl is a REAL language!

This post is also available in: Kreyol

This is part 3 of Woy Magazine’s 3 part interview with Michel DeGraff, noted Creolist, professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and founding member of the Haitian Creole Academy. (Read parts one and two.)

Black children are not safe in Haiti either!  Their human rights are violated by the school system on a daily basis.

Woy Magazine: How is this continued second-class treatment of Kreyòl affecting Haiti?  What can be done about it?

 This is a challenge that can be solved only if each and all of us Haitians work on it together as compatriots and as a nation.

Indeed, as Frantz Fanon has taught us, the post-colonial MENTAL chains are so much harder to break than the colonial metal chains. Fanon and also Jean Price-Mars have done a great job demystifying (in “good” French!) the alienation (or “collective bovarysm” as Price-Mars called it), prejudices and class interests that still shackle Caribbean minds and that have made French the only “real” language in (former) French colonies.  The mental chains have turned “education” into “zombification” by teaching, legislating, printing news, legal documents, and so on in this French language that most Haitians do not speak.  The same goes for English in much of the former British colonies.

The sad thing is that this nation-wide con job through mis-education has duped generation after generation of Haitians.   Yes, most everyone who is educated and working in Haiti—including our most progressive intellectuals and influential institutions promoting “liberty” and “knowledge” and “education for all” in Haiti—takes part in this daily charade that reinforces this lie that Kreyòl is not a “real” language; that Kreyòl is a linguistic “ghetto” that imprisons our nation.   They take part in this con job each time they exclude Kreyòl from written or verbal communications to, or about, a nation where everyone speaks Kreyòl.

Imagine what such mis-education does to a child’s psyche, imagine the massive psychological violence: generation after generation of children being told, in so many ways both subtle and not so subtle, from the first day of school, that they are not “real” human beings with a “real” language. Imagine generation after generation of children going through this traumatic experience of dehumanization, being taught, at school, that the single language that they have learned starting at the womb, the one language that they and their loved ones speak at home, is a worthless bastardized version of French.   Then let’s ask ourselves what these children can learn as they are being taught in what is, in effect, a foreign language that hardly anyone speaks at home and in their community!

Black children are not safe in Haiti either!  Their human rights are violated by the school system on a daily basis.

Woy!  Minister Manigat, we do need another quality of school—“yon lòt kalite lekòl,” tout bon vre!

Woy Magazine: Are there any examples where Kreyòl has been given its due, examples that demonstrate how Haiti could thrive if we end this charade? 

In my own research in Haiti starting with my collaboration with Yves Dejean in the 1990s, I have had the rare opportunity to work with children who are encouraged to embrace their native Kreyòl.  The latter is the language in which these fortunate children are taught from Kindergarten onward, with French being taught as a second language—first SPOKEN French, and then and only then, written French, according to best educational practice.

Such children, like those at the Lekòl Kominotè Matènwa (LKM) in La Gônave whom I’ve been working with since 2010, grow into joyful, dignified, confident and successful learners.  Their reading scores are way above that of their counterparts in other schools—and they understand what they read.  They also learn all academic subjects, including science, math AND French, with more success than their counterparts elsewhere.  Last year (2014), all 25 LKM kids who went to the Certificat exams passed: 100% success rate, compared to the 71% country-wide passing rate.  LKM gives a glimmer of what is possible when Kreyòl as a real language is adopted as linguistic foundation for knowledge and liberty in Haiti.  (See more details on the website of the National Science Foundation which funded one of my projects at LKM.)

It is my experience at LKM that led me to the MIT-Haiti Initiative that is now developing materials and methods for active learning in science and mathematics, all in Kreyòl.  One teacher explained to us that when he uses these materials in his physics class, the children are so happy that they understand so well that they sometimes get “too excited, talking too much and asking too many questions.”  Sometimes, to calm them know, what do you think he does?  He switches back to … French! This clearly shows that Kreyòl is an indispensable tool for interactive pedagogy. It releases their intelligence and creativity while French zombifies them!

Kreyòl as a full-fledged language has produced breathtakingly beautiful literature. We have many writers, poets, singers who have continuously illustrated how powerfully expressive the language is. Kreyòl as a full-fledged language is also fully capable of expressing politics, history and all the other fields of the arts and the humanities.  It is ironic that one of the earliest official documents in Kreyòl was commissioned by no less than Napoleon, in the 18th century, to proclaim the general abolition of slavery in colonial Haiti.

Woy Magazine: Fascinating. Can you give us one quick example that shows that Kreyòl is not a simplified “broken” version of French?

Ok, let’s talk about one example of a Kreyòl structure that is different from French. In French, the articles “un,” “une,” “des, “le,” “la,” “les,” come before the noun.  For example, French has “la table.” In Kreyòl, the definite article “la,” unlike the indefinite article “yon,” comes after, not before, the noun. For “the table,” we don’t say “la tab”, we say “tab la”. And we say “yon tab” for “a table.” This simple example shows that Kreyòl has its own rules for its own syntax.

Now, let us look at the different forms for the definite article in Kreyòl. We say: “tab la” for “the table,” “sant lan” for “the center,”  “machin nan” for  “the car,” “dra a” for “the bed sheet,” and “ban an”  for “the bench.” Not only does Kreyòl have its own grammatical system to place articles, we also have no less than five different forms for the definite article: “la,” “lan,” “a,” “an,” “nan”. Those five forms are not arbitrary: their pronunciation depends on the pronunciation of the preceding word. Kreyòl grammar has specific rules that the Kreyòl speaker has to implicitly know in order to decide where to use which of these five forms.  Beautiful, isn’t it?  Well, if Kreyòl is not a language, then French is not one either!

Woy Magazine: Is the failure of many educated Haitians to read and write their native Kreyòl partly due to difficulties in the official orthography of the language?  Is Kreyòl more difficult to read and write than French is?

As a linguist, I can tell you how easy it is to learn to read and write Kreyòl, and as an educator, I can tell you why we Haitians stand to benefit from that.

I am always struck by the fact that most educated Haitians, even those who speak and write many languages, do not write Kreyòl correctly.  Yet the orthography of Kreyòl is more logical than that of both English and French.  Just compare, say, the spelling of English “automatic,” French “automatique” and Kreyòl “otomatik.”  The sound that is represented by the letter “k” in Kreyòl is written by no less than three letters “q,” “u” and “e” in French.  As for the sound that is consistently represented by the single letter “o” in Kreyòl, it gets nearly 10 different French spellings: “au” and “o” (as in “automatique”) and “aud”, “aut”, “aux”, “eau”, “eaux”, “ault”, “ôt”, etc.

The systematic one-to-one (“morpho-phonemic”) correspondence between sounds and symbols in the Kreyòl orthography makes it “transparent.” This transparency is an extraordinary bonus for Haitian children who, when taught in their native Kreyòl, can learn to read and write very quickly and efficiently—much more quickly and efficiently than those who learn in a language with an “opaque” orthography such as French where one simple vowel like “o” can have nearly 10 distinct spellings.  This is a well-documented advantage of “transparent” (morpho-phonemic) orthographies like the Kreyòl orthography: children—even children who suffer from dyslexia—do much better at learning these transparent orthographies as compared to learning the “opaque” orthographies of languages like French and English.  This is one more scientifically documented reason why Haitian children should master literacy in their native Kreyòl before learning to read and write in a language (French) which they don’t speak fluently.

And now, for the first time in the history of the language and thanks to teamwork with Mandaly Louis-Charles, we have songs and videos to help us learn the official Kreyòl alphabet and its basic principles according to the 1979 law on the Kreyòl orthography.

If language is a hallmark of our humanity and if Kreyòl is not a language, then what do we say about those Haitians who speak Kreyòl only?  What species do they belong to?

WOY MAGAZINE: For those who continue to claim that Haitian Creole is not a real language, what would you tell them?

Woy! I am glad that this is the last question.  I hope my answer can help us break our neo-colonial mental chains and, then, progress to a near future when such questions won’t ever be asked again. We need to bring ourselves together as one free nation in order to meet this challenge, a second Haitian revolution—for “the liberation of our language and our souls,” as Pauris Jean-Baptiste, President of the Haitian Creole Academy, has asked us.

Look at how you and I have been using Kreyòl non-stop during the past hour to address such a wide range of fascinating topics: politics, history, science, linguistics, etc. If Kreyòl was not a language, we would not be able to do that. 

There are more than 10 million Haitians who speak Kreyòl. There are more than 9 million Haitians who speak Kreyòl only. We Haitians live in Kreyòl. We communicate our dreams in Kreyòl. It is in Kreyòl that we think, strategize, do politics, make love, play soccer, dance at carnival, fix cars, pray, plant corn, mangoes, and so on. In Kreyòl, we can also do science, mathematics, philosophy, literature.

If language is a hallmark of our humanity and if Kreyòl is not a language, then what do we say about those Haitians who speak Kreyòl only?  What species do they belong to? If Kreyòl is not a language, then most Haitians are deprived of their humanity!  Yo pa moun!  Is this really our wish after 200 years of a nation founded on the principles of liberty and equality for all?

The good news is that this most devastating hoax in the history of our country is now unraveling.  The subaltern strikes back, thanks to the heroic effort of young people like yourself, Nathalie, and of publications like “Woy! Magazine” that publish regularly in Kreyòl, and thanks to institutions like the Haitian Creole Academy whose primary job is to promote the use of the Kreyòl language and who has already managed to form strategic alliances with the Ministry of National Education and with the Ministry of Culture, with the State University of Haiti, and other institutions that regulate the production of knowledge (and liberty) in Haiti.

Plus, we have a new generation of teachers, like those in the MIT-Haiti Initiative, who now deeply understand that they can teach much, MUCH better in their native Kreyòl and with WRITTEN materials in their native Kreyòl to promote interactive pedagogy of the most constructive kind while respecting Haitian students’ intelligence and dignity. Now at last we stand a chance to escape from a school system that is both alienated and alienating and that violates human rights from Kindergarten onward.

Yes, the children and their teachers are now showing that the emperor wears no clothes!

The lies and the alienation must end. We as Haitians, every single one of us, are human beings in every sense of the term, linguistically as well. We are a nation. Our nation is fortunate enough to share one language in common.  That language is a REAL language. That language is Kreyòl, and it is a strong, vibrant language. As stated in Article 5 of the 1987 Constitution, Kreyòl is the only language that unites all Haitians together and it must be “official” in PRACTICE as well, alongside French. Let us cherish what is ours. Let us fight so that everyone can have an opportunity to thrive, as they deserve.


Photo credit: Gio Jules


Team Woy

Team Woy

Haiti through our voices. Ayiti nan vwa pa nou.

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