From the Islands to the Classroom and Back ; the Creole Language of Cape Verde Found Reinforcement from an Unexpected Source - the Bilingual-Education Law in Massachusetts. Now, That Law Has Been Repealed

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Language is one of the deepest legacies of colonialism. In most countries that gained independence from foreign rule, the language of the colonizer persists in schools and government offices.Yet for the business of everyday life - raising families, bargaining at the market, and chatting with friends - people usually speak something else, be it an ancient indigenous language, or a creole or pidgin that blends the colonizer's tongue with their own.This dual- language situation gives rise to the question: What language should a nation officially call its own? In the arid Cape Verde islands, 380 miles off the coast of West Africa, this query is rising with new urgency thanks to interjection by an unlikely contingent: expatriates now living in Massachusetts.Non-English speakers there were required by a state law to be taught in their first language. The Cape Verde immigrants in the US faced an unusual obstacle: Their language was primarily oral, not written, so suitable textbooks did not exist. As educators in Massachusetts began to design a curriculum to teach Creole, their counterparts in Cape Verde saw an opportunity.If they could use these teaching materials in their own classes, the hope of making Creole an official language, together with Portuguese, might be realized.Now, however, that window of opportunity may be closing. The 30-year-old Massachusetts bilingual- education law is being scrapped at the end of this school year. The statute was overturned by a 68 percent vote in last fall's elections."Bilingual education forced Cape Verdeans [in Massachusetts] to develop the written language," says Gunga Tavares, cultural attache for the Consulate General of Cape Verde in Boston. "There is now a whole range of experience from here that can be used [in Cape Verde]. Why reinvent the wheel?"Too obscure a language?Since Cape Verde won independence in 1975, sporadic efforts were made to use Creole - a mix of several African languages and Portuguese - in official situations. But Mr. Tavares says the enormous task of developing and installing written Creole in schools, courts, and ministry offices thwarted officials. "When you say you're going to have school be in Creole [in Massachusetts], it is much easier than doing it for the whole country [in Cape Verde]."But with fewer than 1 million Cape Verdean Creole speakers globally, opponents argue that students would be better off continuing to learn in Portuguese, a widely spoken language.Cape Verde is home to about 430,000 people, and an estimated 350,000 immigrants and subsequent-generation Cape Verdeans live in New England, where their ancestors migrated in droves on whaling ships in the 1800s. Cape Verdean communities also dot Europe, South America, and Africa.Because children on the islands are not exposed to Portuguese until they enter school at age 6, they spend a lot of time learning it - much the way immigrant students in an English- only classroom would do in the United States. "When you go to school in Portuguese [in Cape Verde], you spend five years learning how to say chair or table," Tavares explains, adding that students cannot express themselves or learn new material as quickly or as well in Portuguese.About five years ago, the council of ministers in Cape Verde agreed to put the Massachusetts-developed Creole writing system on trial in schools and government offices, says Manuel Goncalves, a bilingual guidance counselor who just published "Pa Nu Papia Kriolu" (Let's Speak Creole), a book on Creole language acquisition.In 1999, Cape Verde's minister of education visited several Boston schools to watch bilingual education in action and to start an exchange between schools in Massachusetts and Cape Verde, Tavares says. Cape Verde's Constitution was also revised that year to endorse the idea of bringing Creole into "every segment of society."Indigenous languages like Creole would then used for elementary education, lower courts, hospitals, and many radio broadcasts, says Eyamba Bokamba, a professor of linguistics and African languages at the University of Illinois. …