Today’s blog post was written by Jo-Anne S. Ferreira, a Senior Lecturer in Linguistics at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine and a member of SIL International (Americas Area).  Her academic interests are (socio)phonetics, contact linguistics, the history of Portuguese language and culture in the Caribbean, South American French Creole varieties, and Bible Translation.

In 1999, UNESCO proclaimed that International Mother Language Day (IMLD) would be celebrated on 21 February; the day was chosen to remember two students who died on 21 February 1952 in defence of Bangla, their mother tongue (spoken in what is now modern Bangladesh). Since 2000, countries around the world have observed IMLD to promote peace and multilingualism.

Quoting from the UNESCO website on IMLD 2016: “The theme of the 2016 International Mother Language Day is “Quality Education, Language(s) of Instruction and Learning Outcomes.” … UNESCO is highlighting the importance of mother and local languages as channels for safeguarding and sharing indigenous cultures and knowledge, which are vast reservoirs of wisdom.”

Here in Trinidad and Tobago, what are we celebrating? What is our national mother tongue, or what are our national mother tongues? Is it English or Trinidadian English Creole or Tobagonian English Creole, or two or all, or none? Are we monolingual, bidialectal/bilingual, trilingual, multilingual?

Our official language is English and our national languages are English, Trinidadian English Creole and Tobagonian English Creole (both English Creoles are widely called Dialect); these 3 are the mother tongues of the majority of our population. Our other heritage languages, now in the minority and largely endangered, are Spanish, Patois/French Creole, Cantonese, Hindustani/Bhojpuri, Portuguese, Yoruba, Arabic and T&T Sign Language (TTSL) (there are others too). Fortunately, there are studies documenting aspects of most of these languages and their cultures, and a great deal of work remains to be done.

Historically multilingual and home to over 10 indigenous languages of the First Peoples in the 1400s, to over 30 languages in the 1800s (spoken, written and possibly signed), Trinidad once used to allow many languages and cultures to co-exist, each one thriving for a time. Two centuries later, we see a handful of languages struggling to survive. Evidence of our historical multilingualism is seen in our surnames and place names; in the National Archives’ historical collections of documents and newspapers with articles and advertisements in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Cantonese and more; and in our cemeteries with tombs with multilingual inscriptions.

The disappearance of so many languages and the ongoing struggle of the surviving ones is the combined result of authoritarian language and language education policies, and negative language attitudes. These policies (especially the Anglicisation Policy) and negative linguistic attitudes militated against the old tradition of many languages. Parents and grandparents, under pressure to sustain their families, were told and once believed that English only was the key to socio-economic success and acceptance. Many reportedly focused on English education to the point of not exposing their children to the languages of the family and community. The result is non-intergenerational linguistic transmission, or our children not learning the vast majority of our languages. As young people are not speaking/using most of these languages anymore, the pool of native speakers/users is ageing. And as elders pass away, communities of speakers/users are shrinking.

Now we know that multilingualism is key to cognitive, neurological, psychological, social, intellectual and personal development. Somehow, even though we know about the benefits of bi- and multilingualism, we still seem to have difficulty with our Creole and Sign and other heritage languages. Some people (still) think they aren’t real languages, and not worthy of being developed, and these languages are always being negatively compared to standardised, official European languages. But a language is a language and the Linguistic Creed tells us more.

Some of our heritage languages are now only personal and family memories, and some are remembered in songs. Most are remembered only in words incorporated into our national lexicon (even some of these words are being forgotten by young people). We can be proud of Winer’s great historical dictionary of our national lexicon of 12,200 words belonging to the English language and to our English Creole languages.

History is key. Knowing the history of modern English helps us to understand where the language came from and how it changed radically over the last 1,500 plus years, and how and why it is changing before our very eyes. Knowing the history of our English Creoles builds respect and shows connections and bridges to the Americas, Europe, Africa, India, China and the Middle East.

Remembering our multilingual past and our multilingual lexicon is one way of honouring our national languages and their speakers/users. Another way is to honour speakers/users of the languages still among us. Many of our elderly native speakers/users of our heritage languages are bilingual from birth (some trilingual). Younger family members can be encouraged to learn the techniques of interviewing, and start recording elderly and other relatives for oral history, family memories, and learn the languages and cultures.

Some say that both our islands and the country on the whole are too small to continue to host a number of languages. There are smaller islands and countries with more languages. The population of Aruba is about that of Diego Martin. Every Aruban speaks a minimum of four languages (Papiamento, Dutch, English and Spanish), and multilingualism there is both natural and appreciated. We can take example. Using our mother tongues in our schools is key to national development; preserving our ancestors’ mother tongues is key to national self-understanding.

Many languages of the world have been inscribed on the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding, including Garifuna, a Caribbean language. Most of our languages continue to be spoken elsewhere, so we can revitalise them a) by depending on our elders to learn our own stories and traditions, and b) by reaching out to neighbouring communities in the region, all the while being careful to document our variety and version of these languages (and not use others as references and yardsticks).

The Caribbean is a richly diverse, multilingual space. Multilingualism is our heritage, and is our key to global citizenship. Language is the uniquely human way of communicating inter-species. Knowing our and other languages is key to developing self-respect and therefore respect for others. We celebrate and respect all languages and peoples.

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