Time to learn Creole! The view from St. Lucia

Creole Girls: Creole is more than just Madras and food but do our people know that?

When the opportunity to learn Creole came my way I literally jumped at the chance. I got the details from my editor and from what she said it seemed I might be the youngest person there or the only one. It seems everyone was not as eager as I to learn the language.

No matter, I thought. The point was learning the native lingo that I’ve been missing out on my whole life; or so it seems at this point. Or more accurately, so avid Creole speakers seem to think anyway with comments like, “Don’t you feel any less St Lucian not being able to speak Creole?”

Previously I felt that Creole was a dying language and that young people who could not speak Creole should not be made to feel bad because most of the time it was not a fault of their own. Like so many other young people in St Lucia, I grew up in a household where Creole was not frequently spoken. The only time my parents spoke the dialect was when they really didn’t want me or my older brother to understand what they were talking about.

As I got older the curiousity to learn the language faded and my method switched to simply blocking out anything I could not understand. Attempting to pick out the few words I could translate proved useless as I’d still resort to asking a more experienced person what the heck was going on. Those of us who can’t speak “Patois” all know how much we miss out on when we ask someone to translate because they want to hear first then translate and by the time they’re done listening, they’ve “forgotten” almost all the good parts!

I recently stumbled upon an article I started working on that had to do with the Creole and the generation gap. Within the piece I noted that culturally conscious people would likely be devastated if they found out how many young people in the island could not speak Creole. When I was going to school more than half of my friends couldn’t speak Creole! When anyone attempted to crack a Creole joke to a student audience especially around Jounen Kwéyòl time, there was always a large section of students amid the laughter staring right back at them completely bewildered.

I was recently on a bus traveling to Vieux Fort and a Creole radio show was on. Everyone on the bus was having the time of their life dissolving into fits of laughter at everything the host and his callers said but every few seconds I had to resort to the translation method; much to the annoyance of the friend I was traveling with.

The one thing that led me above everything else to attempt to finally expand my Creole vocabulary to more than just a few select words and phrases was simply admiration of the irreplaceable way Creole brings people together. It can be clearly seen in the bond people from the island have when they travel overseas and come across another St Lucian. There’s also the oh-so-humorous way hotel employees automatically adopt the native tongue when dealing with difficult hotel guests!

To say that prior to committing myself to a Creole course I tried my utmost to learn the native tongue would be slightly off, but to say I didn’t try at all would be completely incorrect.

When I arrived on the Morne last week for my first class not only was I the youngest person there, I was practically the only person who was there for the particular class. Apart from a Trinidadian woman who was apparently more lost than I was, there was no sign of a lively Creole learning group.

When things came together I was enlightened despite the low attendance. There were only six of us there the first day and half of the class was not St Lucian. On the first day I joined the class, a St Lucian man fluent in Creole was forced to join our beginners class because there weren’t enough people signed up for the part of the course he’d signed up for where avid speakers could simply learn to read and write in Creole.

Learning the fundamentals of Creole proved to be an exciting challenge. On the upside, Creole was not one of the more difficult languages to learn as there were literally no verb conjugations to memorize. At some points the class erupted into lively discussion as Creole was not an out of the book language and very regularly, there were words that meant the very same as others used in entirely separate contexts, or words for which there was no real translation in Creole! I couldn’t help thinking, no wonder the language is as mixed up as it is with people randomly throwing in English words at any point in an otherwise genuinely Creole conversation.

“Everyone wants to jump on the Creole bandwagon but they don’t want to take the time to learn to read or write properly,” said course facilitator Lindy Alexander, also head of the Folk Research Center’s Creole Language Committee when participants argued that the FRC or another relevant body should make it mandatory that Creole announcers took the course. As opposed to English in St Lucia being influenced by Creole, class topics revolved around how English was now affecting Creole and the negative effects that could arise as a result.

A Choiseul-born Creole speaker I spoke, with argued that Creole was a language people learnt without writing it down or reading it from a book. He said for that reason the language would never die.

“Hearing people speak the language is all we really need,” he said. “Unlike English, French or Spanish we can learn simply by hearing people speak the language. Once you tell them to slow down,” he added. “It’s our language and it will always be with us.”

To that I say only time will tell. One thing’s for certain, my decision to finally learn Creole might be one of the best I’ve ever made. For one thing, Jounen Kwéyòl is going to mean so much more to me this year!


Written By: Kayra Williams on Oct 21st, 2009

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