Academic journal article Journal of Haitian Studies

Myths and Realities: A History of Haitian Creole Language Programs in New York City

Academic journal article Journal of Haitian Studies

Myths and Realities: A History of Haitian Creole Language Programs in New York City

Article excerpt

This paper intends to shed light on language policies and issues of social justice and equity impacting the education of Haitian immigrant children in New York City public schools from the 1980s to the 1990s. By focusing on Haitian immigrant school children in particular, this essay aims at further informing the reader of ongoing debates among scholars, researchers, educators, and community leaders on issues affecting the educational needs of minority children in American schools. Another objective of this paper is to stress the importance of Haitian Creole in the education of Haitian immigrant students and to draw attention to the need for a bridging policy, research, and practices to achieve a more equitable schooling experience for all children.

In researching this paper, I consulted many primary and secondary sources and conducted numerous interviews with current and former bilingual Haitian Creole educators and community leaders. In addition, I made several visits to schools serving Haitian students and also conducted fieldwork in three New York City grassroots organizations working with Haitian immigrant children and families in order to help them observe what Canagarajah (2005) and others called "local practices" (Blackledge & Creese, 2010; Canagarajah, 2005; Makoni & Pennycook, 2006; Pennycook, 2010). My fieldwork focused mainly on enrichment activities and community-based efforts that address issues of dropout rates, students with limited and/or interrupted formal education (SIFE), and adult basic literacy needs among Haitian immigrant children and their families.

THE HAITIAN LANGUAGE COMMUNITY AND ITS CHALLENGES

In order to understand Haitian immigrants and their educational needs in New York City, it is essential to have a comprehensive knowledge of the evolution of the Haitian Creole language. Historically, Haitian Creole has been a unifying and empowering force in the development of Haitian society. In the past, this language served to unite enslaved people in Saint-Domingue against colonial oppressors. Yet, after the independence of Haiti in 1804 and for well over a century, the leaders of the nation never sought to implement "a determined and explicit [language] policy," that is, to introduce a clear plan of action that would support the use of Haitian Creole and assign a governmental entity to monitor and enforce such policy (Spolsky, 2004, p. 5). Thus, French was used as the medium for instruction, denying the majority of Haitian students the right to use their native language in education. In effect, it was not until 1979 that the then Haitian Minister of Education Joseph C. Bernard introduced a reform, known as the Bernard Reform (Dejan, 2006, 2010; Joseph, 1984; Locher, 2010; Spears, 2010; Trouillot-Lévy, 2010; Zéphir, 2010), establishing Haitian Creole as a language of instruction. However, more than thirty years later, the much-debated 1979 Bernard Reform in Haiti has yet to be fully implemented. Similarly, it was not until the 1987 Constitution (Dejan, 2006; Joseph, 1984; Déjoie, 2010) that Haitian Creole was finally written in as a co-official language with French, 183 years after the Haitian independence.1 Article 5 in the 1987 Haitian Constitution states: "Sèi lang ki simante tout Ayisyen se Kreyôl." (The only language that cements all Haitians is Haitian Creole.)2 In fact, the statement is true at home and abroad. Based on current estimates, there are 9.7 million Haitian Creole speakers in Haiti (CIA World Fact Book, 201 1; US Census Bureau, 2010), and an additional 1.5 million Haitian Creole speakers of the Haitian Diaspora living all over the world, with an estimated 830,000 (American Community Survey, 2010) of those Haitians residing on US soil.3 However, many colonial, ideological, and political constructions continue to plague the status and advancement of Haitian Creole in Haiti as well as in its diasporic communities.

One debate among linguists who study Haitian Creole concerns the creation of the language. …

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