Petition seeks signatures for a bilingual Jamaica

Professor Hubert Devonish and a Patwa Cartoon by AL

A petition to make Jamaican language, also known as Patwa, official alongside English has so far attracted 1,590 signatures, and the Jamaican Language Unit (JLU) at The University of the West Indies (UWI) is appealing to the public to help increase the number to the required 15,000 by December 14 when the petition will close.

“People have been saying and thinking about this bilingual thing for at least a decade, but nothing has happened. This is an opportunity to get something to happen… to get the Government to answer the wishes of the people,” UWI Professor Emeritus Hubert Devonish told a media briefing at the university’s Mona campus last Thursday.

Stating that studies have shown that majority of Jamaicans are ready for Patwa to be officially recognised, Devonish highlighted the benefits of Jamaica functioning officially as a bilingual country, one of which is that the rights of monolingual and near-monolingual Jamaican language speakers would have to be recognised.

“Let us look at the trivial level of someone making a phone call to a Government office. If you call using English, naturally the customer service representatives will speak to you in that language. Now, if you call using only Jamaican, they have a choice. The customer service representative can talk to you in Jamaican and give you the information you want. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t,” said Devonish.

Professor Devonish said that based on a study done on discrimination of Jamaican speakers, some customer service representatives sometimes speak to people who use Patwa in a condescending way and respond casually and impolitely with “A we yu waahn?”.

According to Devonish, sometimes the tone used by the customer service representatives makes the caller feel less than human.

“In the research we found that the person who is calling gets the information, but he/she is made to feel like dirt, or the customer service person corrects the person by saying ‘what you mean is to say so and so. Is that what you mean?’” Devonish argued.

He said that in an officially bilingual Jamaica, the customer service representative would be trained to speak politely to customers in either of the two languages, depending on the preference of those who are being served.

He referenced a situation in which someone speaking Patwa called a Government ministry about duty concession for motor vehicles. However, the Government representative seemed to think that only people who speak English could possibly be able to afford duty concession for motorcars and proceeded to put the caller on speaker phone so that others could hear the conversation. In a bilingual society, he said, “that would come to an end immediately”.

Coordinator of JLU Dr Joseph T Farquharson referred to a recent report in the press about foreign doctors not being able to communicate effectively with patients because of their unfamiliarity with the local language.

Dr Farquharson pointed out that, “this is also relevant for our local doctors because English and Jamaican do not divide up the body in the same way. While ‘beli-batam’ is a relevant body part for Jamaicans, it is not for English people. Also, if your doctor prescribes medication for, or operates on your stomach when the problem is in your ‘tumok’, that is going to cause a problem”.

It is against this background that the JLU made representation to the Faculty of Medicine at The UWI to have a course in the use of Jamaican in medical contexts. Prof Devonish noted that the faculty is yet to be persuaded to do so.

The public campaign by the JLU is a part of the national programme of activities for the Miss Lou 100 celebrations. JLU will also be hosting a symposium on language rights in Jamaica on December 10, 2019 — International Human Rights Day.

The event will also bring to an end the 100 days of Miss Lou 100 celebrations.