Creole, Literacy, and Education

Haiti Table of Contents

Conflicting political interests have caused Haiti's national language policy to be inconsistent. Even governments that claimed to represent the masses hesitated to give Creole and French equal legal status. It was only in the late 1970s that the government approved the use of Creole in education. In the early 1980s, there was still some doubt about whether Creole would used in primary education.

For almost fifty years, Haitian linguists had debated the spelling rules for Creole. But in the late 1970s, the National Pedagogic Institute (Institut Pédagogique Nacional--IPN) developed an orthography that included elements of the two systems previously in use. The government gave semiofficial status to the new orthography as part of the education reform of 1978.

The most controversial aspect of the education reform was the introduction of Creole as the medium of instruction in primary schools. In many rural and urban schools, textbooks were in French, but classroom discussion of these books was in Creole. Nevertheless, French remained the official language of instruction, and a major goal of most students was to master written and spoken French.

The education reform program was intended to boost students' performance through instruction in their native language, but several groups opposed the use of Creole as the language of instruction. Bilingual families believed that the use of Creole in the schools was eroding their linguistic advantage in society, by reducing the importance of French. In general, the upper class believed that by offering instruction in Creole, the schools would increase poor people's access to education; however, many poor people also opposed the reform. The poor tended to view education more as a means of escaping poverty than as a means for learning, so many parents were most concerned about having their children learn French. Private schools often ignored the curriculum changes called for under the reform. Under pressure from the public, the government declared that students would begin using French when they entered the fifth grade. Students entering fifth grade found themselves unprepared for classroom use of French, however, because their textbooks in earlier grades had been entirely in Creole. The problem remained unresolved in the late 1980s.

In the 1960s, the government had established adult literacy programs in Creole, and the Roman Catholic Church had sponsored similar nationwide programs in the mid-1980s. According to Haiti's 1982 census, 37 percent of the population over ten years of age was literate; in rural areas, only 28 percent was literate. In rural areas, the literacy rate for women was almost as high as it was for men. The census failed to note, however, the degree of literacy, or the language in which people were literate.

Monolingual speakers had little access to literature in Creole. The major Creole publication, the monthly Bon Nouvel, published by a Roman Catholic group, had a circulation of 20,000 in 1980. A Protestant group published the New Testament in Creole in 1972. Numerous booklets about hygiene and agricultural practices appeared in increasing quantities in the 1970s and the 1980s. Nevertheless, Creole literature continued to be scarce in the late 1980s. In particular, information in Creole about politics and current events was in short supply. By the late 1980s, monolingual speakers regularly used Creole in letters and personal notes. Community leaders and development workers also used the language in recording the minutes of their meetings and in project reports.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress