Language and identity issues in the education of African heritage people of Caribbean origin in Britain

Est. read time: 16 min

This paper is the abridged text of a conference presentation in March 2004 in the City of Birmingham, England.

The conference explored the status and current usage of Caribbean languages in British schools and in social interactions and the conduct of business in the wider community.

The paper considers three main themes:

1. Caribbean languages in schooling and education;

2. Caribbean languages in the identity formation of British born children of African heritage and the relevance of that for learning and self development;

3. Caribbean languages as the first language of adults in their interface with social institutions and with other language groups in the society;

I begin with a quotation from two eminent writers in this field. The first is by Niyi Osundare, a long time Professor of English at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria:

When two languages meet, they kiss and quarrel. They achieve a tacit understanding on the common grounds of similarity and convergence, then negotiate, often through strident rivalry and self-preserving altercations, their areas of dissimilarity and divergence… Yoruba and English. I do not only write in these two languages.  I also live in them. I am close enough to hear their amorous chuckles and bitter bickerings. Poetry comes more naturally to me in Yoruba:  the words dance to the drum of the heart; the lines pluck their beat from the rhythm of the mind. Mediating all this in English is a problem which has long become a challenge.

The second is Edward Kamau Braithwaite, another Professor of English and, like Osundare, a distinguished poet, writer and literary critic:

Now I’d like to describe for you some of the characteristics of our nation language.  First of all, it is from, as I’ve said, an oral tradition.  The poetry, the culture itself, exists not in a dictionary but in the tradition of the spoken word. It is based as much on sound as it is on song.  That is to say, the noise that it makes is part of the meaning, and if you ignore the noise (or what you would think of as noise, shall I say) then you lose part of the meaning. When it is written, you lose the sound of the noise, and therefore you lose part of the meaning.  Which is, again, why I have to have a tape recorder for this presentation.  I want you to get the sound of it, rather than the sight of it.

I want to make a link between Osundare’s living in Yoruba and English and Brathwaite’s assertion that if you ignore the noise of nation language, you lose part of the meaning.

In “Language in Jamaica”, Dr Christie places literacy and the orality of Creoles or patois in their proper historical context, reminding us that English is not the native language of Jamaicans. Indeed, Creole was constructed in the very process of forging a Jamaican identity and cannot now be separated from it. But, that process is not completed and will never be as long as human beings interact and communicate with one another, absorbing influences from home and abroad, transcending their own circumstances and negotiating power relations based on class, access to education, lifestyles, patterns of employment and much else besides.

Language is dynamic, and that is as true for Creoles as it is for Yoruba, Swahili or English, French or other standard European languages.   Dr Christie has very helpfully charted for us the African retentions and adaptations, the derivations and deviations, the inventions and additions that have accompanied the “kiss and quarrel” between Jamaican Creole and standard English over the centuries, with each language undergoing development and transformation in its own right.

The teaching of English and teaching in English that Africans in Jamaica and other parts of the Caribbean were subjected to was not matched by the teaching of African languages let alone teaching in African languages.   The assumption that by superimposing a new language you would displace the subjugated people’s formative language, the language in which they learnt to construct their world and share their innermost feelings, the languages they must negotiate in order to communicate with their ancestors, their deities and with one another was bizarre, even for imperialists with their unmatchable arrogance.

Caribbean languages in schooling and education

A major concern to education practitioners like myself over the last 4 decades or so has been the insistence on the part of education policy makers and providers, from nursery schools to Universities, that the languages spoken by Caribbean people and their descendants are simply differing versions of broken or bad English, with varying levels of desecration of ‘the language of the Crown’ and the symbol of British influence across the world.

In this respect, as in many others some of which I will mention, British attitudes to the Creoles and patios of Caribbean people in Britain were simply a more extreme and more ill-informed version of that which obtained within and across most of the Caribbean countries themselves. Contrast that with British attitudes to speakers of languages other than English from other backgrounds (e.g.: Chinese, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Indian, Turkish and more recently Somali). Local education authorities encouraged and funded the development of community provision to teach the mother tongue to children in those groups. Teachers were and are actively encouraged to see those children’s first language and their acquisition of proficiency in that language as pivotal to their learning of English as an additional language and their access to the curriculum.   Their mother tongue was readily acknowledged and vested with worth and importance for their sense of well being and self confidence. It was widely acknowledged that if children were simply allowed to straddle both languages, lacking confidence and proficiency in either, there would be major consequences for their identity formation and their capacity to perform to the best of their ability.

Prior to becoming the Director of Education and Leisure Services in Hackney in 1989, I worked with the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) in the late 1980s as Assistant Education Officer and Head of Community Education. In that capacity, I had responsibility for grants to voluntary organizations. The ILEA funded a plethora of mother tongue teaching projects across London and actively encouraged their growth. Polish, Chinese, Greek, Turkish, Bangladeshi, Gujerati, and other community based projects received sustained funding from the ILEA for the promotion of ‘mother tongue’ teaching.  It also funded  Saturday Schools/Supplementary Schools for Caribbean children that were focused as much on identity building as on tackling academic underachievement amongst those children in mainstream schools.  Few of those schools, however, had the acquisition and preservation of Caribbean ‘nation’/mother tongue languages as their primary focus

Despite the large and growing number of speakers of Caribbean languages across the ILEA, however, Jamaican heritage children in particular, no attempt was made to formally validate those languages which, at best, were considered to be ‘dialects’ or, at worst, corruptions of standard English that had become part and parcel of popular usage over time.

But, as they say, charity begins at home.   If we as a people were ambivalent about the provenance and centrality of our own languages, if we were hotly disputing whether or not what we spoke and, increasingly, wrote as part of our cultural and artistic expression could properly be called ‘languages’, what messages were we sending out to the education system about how it should regard the languages our children presented in school and college?   Sadly, there has not been an informed and sustained debate about the Caribbean languages issue among Caribbean people in Britain.  In a social and political system that had a tendency to stereotype us massively as a matter of course, it was to be expected that that situation would lead to us being seen as the problem, no less than the manner of our speaking and writing.

That is despite the fact that throughout the 1970s, people like me ran classes at the ILEA Centre for Urban Educational Studies at Aberdeen Park in Islington,  London, in which we helped white teachers and black to come to an understanding of the origins, basis and structure of the languages spoken by Caribbean children in London’s schools.  We were assisted in that by the work of a number of people whose historical contribution must be noted. The very first title produced by New Beacon Books, the first black publishing house in Britain (established by John La Rose and Sarah White in 1966), was The Theory and Practice of Creole Grammar by John Jacob Thomas.   That publication, in 1969, marked the 100th anniversary of the first publication of the book.

Then there was the ground-breaking work of Louise Bennett (Miss Lou), a cultural activist, teacher, poet, performer, who dedicated her life to reclaiming and validating the Jamaican Language and helping the speakers of the language and everyone else to understand its roots and structure and its spiritual connectedness with the very core and essence of the people of Jamaica.

Frederic Cassidy and Robert Le Page researched the language and its usage over many years and were able to identify the African retentions in the language, retentions that could be identified in all other aspects of the lives of the Jamaican people, from spirituality to culture, religion, medicine, agriculture, cuisine and economic activity.  Cassidy and Le Page first published their influential book A Dictionary of Jamaican English in 1967.

The 1960s and ‘70s saw the scandalous practice of shunting masses of black children into schools for the educationally subnormal, principally because of language issues and the assumptions that were made about children’s performance because of their speaking and writing.  When their frustration with the way they were being treated, including teachers’ refusal or incapacity to help them make the transition from their first language to the language of the classroom, led to certain inappropriate behaviours, that simply helped to confirm teachers’ views of those children as unteachable or as having varying degrees of learning difficulties, from moderate to excessive.

That tendency to attribute poor educational performance among Caribbean heritage children to the way they speak and the influence of their speech on their writing skills has taken on a new lease of life. Schools have begun to focus to a much greater extent recently on the assumed link between underachievement and the use of what is variously called ‘patois’, ‘dialect’, ‘black talk’, ‘street talk’ and ‘slang’.  The Government’s ‘Aiming High’ initiative, intended to help raise the achievement of Caribbean heritage children, is leading more and more schools to target their language as well as their dress and other aspects of their life style.  There appears to be very little evidence, however, of the schooling system (or, indeed, those children and their parents themselves) acknowledging the need to assist Caribbean heritage children in making the transition from their spoken language to standard English, validating the former and using it as a lever to support the development of the latter.

Some schools go as far as prohibiting the use of Caribbean languages, Jamaican Creole especially, while children are in school.  This in my view is nothing short of oppressive and is potentially deeply damaging.  In terms of theories of teaching and learning, that practice seems particularly absurd as the best speakers of other languages are people who are confident in their own language and take the self confidence that that engenders to the learning of the other language(s).  ‘Talk’ in the context of teaching and learning has many advantages.   It allows students to engage, using the language that they feel most comfortable with to demonstrate their levels of understanding, to express their views, share their emotions, etc.  It also allows the teacher and their peers to help them develop strategies of mediation between the students’ first language/mother tongue and standard English, especially as, for many students, Creole or patois remains the principal means of communication in their home and among their peers.

Teachers have access to a range (limited though it be) of material written in the first language of Caribbean students that could help those students develop an awareness of the language in its written form and of being bi-lingual if not multi-lingual. We have all come across Caribbean students who regard themselves as bi-lingual, with high level skills in French, German, Spanish and even Russian, but who would not consider the Creole they speak as one more language in their repertoire.    Such students in my view must be encouraged to be ambassadors for the validation of our languages and their formal and informal usage.

Teachers (including Caribbean heritage teachers) often argue that no two speakers and writers of Jamaican, Trinidad or Dominican Creole could agree on the precise spelling of certain commonly used words and phrases and, therefore, it is difficult to standardize usage and find enough common elements in terms of structure, vocabulary and syntax to constitute a language.   While it is undoubtedly the case that Caribbean Creoles have developed and been sustained much more through the medium of a rich oral tradition than through texts and the formal teaching of the language, the fact remains that generation after generation has preserved a language with identifiable characteristics and agreed usage, a language in which children become socialized and through which they identify themselves and the language group to which they belong.

Caribbean languages, identity formation and self-development and learning

Language is crucial to Caribbean students’ understanding of their African heritage and of the role of the first and succeeding diaspora in the formation of the Creoles they now speak.   This is important if only because Caribbean languages in Britain in the Post-War period have borrowed extensively from one another.  Theatre and music no less than electronic media have propelled that mix in myriad ways, from the international reach of the resistance language of reggae and of the Rastafarian movement, to soca and kaiso, to rap and hip-hop, to ‘house’ and ‘garage’ and to the work of people such as Alex Pascall, Abdul Malik Decoteau, Merle Collins, Paul Keens-Douglas, the late Mikey Smith, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Errol Lloyd, Benjamin Zephaniah, John Agard, Grace Nichols and Marc Matthews among others.

The symbiotic relationship between having your language valued and commensurately having worth and respect given to the group who are carriers of that language and from whom you learn it as your first language, and developing a positive self image and a confidence in your communication cannot be underestimated.  For one thing, it gives you the confidence with which to approach other languages, including standard English, and to take responsibility for your own learning.  This is as true for speakers of Yoruba, Hausa, Ashanti and the other West African languages that are the first language of a growing number of children in London’s schools as it has been for the children from the Indian sub-continent, China, Hong Kong and elsewhere whose mother tongue British education authorities actively assisted them in acquiring.

Caribbean languages as the first language of adults in their interface with social institutions and with other language groups in the society

The importance of acknowledging that Caribbean people speak languages other than English, but that have a resemblance to English, is perhaps best illustrated in the conversations groups of speakers of the same language have amongst themselves and the difficulties many experience when they attempt to communicate in formal settings, such as with doctors and dentists, civil servants, post office workers, people in the criminal justice system and in Further Education.

Serious misunderstandings frequently occur which could easily lead to life threatening situations, especially where doctors are involved.   Caribbean adults who communicate in Creole, whether derived from English or French, have more difficulty, generally, in switching from their first language to standard English than their British born children and grandchildren.  This is especially the case in situations where people are anxious or agitated.  Even speakers who are fluent in standard English have a tendency to reach for the Creole when they are agitated.   The ‘problem’ with the language, therefore, is that it is seen as having no legitimacy in itself, but rather as a tool of resistance, bolstering the “attitude” that Caribbean heritage learners, boys especially, are thought to have.  As such, it must be outlawed in the same way as their trainers, their hooded jackets and their baseball caps.

To deny people their language is to deny them their history and a people without a knowledge of their history are a people without roots.   It is in the interest of older Caribbean people to find ways of keeping Caribbean languages alive and of sustaining and validating them in a manner that makes for the personal and cultural rootedness of their offspring and of future generations.   That means that we must all, young and old alike, engage the Government and the schooling system in a meaningful debate about the damage that has been done over the years and continues to be done through the neglect of Caribbean languages and the very denial of their existence except as “bad English” .


Many of us have wrestled with these issues in schools, colleges, community education and higher education for decades.    If I have a fear it is that new groups of migrant settlers will make sure their issues are addressed by the State and would take care of their business to the obvious advantage of their children, while we continue to be seen as congenitally unable and as the “almost” people.  Almost making it in the schooling system, but not quite.   With languages that almost qualify for recognition as languages, first second or third, but not quite.  With languages that are almost validated in print and could be included in the national curriculum and in examination syllabuses, …but not quite.

Meanwhile, our young people continue to be ungrounded, uprooted from their history and the language and customs of their people, estranged from their spiritual selves and, increasingly, falling for anything and anyone because they stand for nothing.


Brathwaite, Edward Kamau (1984) History of the Voice. London: New Beacon Books;

Brown, S (ed)  (2000) Kiss & Quarrel:  Yoruba/English strategies of mediation, Birmingham: University of Birmingham Press;

Cassidy, F.G., and Robert Le Page (1967,1980)  Dictionary of Jamaican English. Cambridge University Press;

Cassidy, Frederic (1961) Jamaica Talk: Three Hundred Years of the English, Language in Jamaica. London: Macmillan;

Christie, Pauline  (2003)  Language in Jamaica. Kingston: Arawak Publications;

Crystal, David (2000) Language Death. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press;

Devonish, Hubert (1986) Language and Liberation: Creole Language Politics in the Caribbean. London: Karia Press;

Thomas, J.J. (1969) Theory and Practice of Creole Grammar. London: New Beacon Books;

Warner-Lewis, Maureen (1997) Trinidad Yoruba: From Mother Tongue to Memory. Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press.

Picture: School desk“, by jcbwalsh (Flickr)

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