January 13 2016
Students enrolled in York University’s graduate diploma program in Latin American & Caribbean Studies are required to study a language other than English spoken in that region.
With Spanish, French and Portuguese being taught at the university, some students inquired a few years ago why creole wasn’t part of the curriculum.
Jamaican-born Dr. Michele Johnson, the co-ordinator of the Latin American & Caribbean Studies program at the time who is known for developing strong relationships with her students and demonstrating an extremely keen interest in their work, contacted linguistics professor Hubert Devonish, the head of the Jamaican Language Unit at the University of the West Indies (UWI) Mona campus. Her request was simple.
She wanted to know if there was anyone at UWI who would be interested in designing a Jamaican creole course that could be taught at the university.
Devonish, who taught English at Central High School in Guyana in the late 1960s and early 1970s before joining the UWI staff 37 years ago, selected Clive Forrester, a UWI graduate student teaching linguistics courses at the university and academic writing at the University of Technology.
“The plan was for me to come for an academic year,” recalled Forrester who arrived in Canada for the first time at the end of July 2008. “The weather was great then, but as the place started to get cold and it began to snow, I was looking forward to returning to Jamaica at the end of the academic year.”
Forrester designed an introductory course for students with no background in the language to help develop their basic aural, conversational, reading and writing skills and an intermediate module for individuals with some knowledge of Jamaican creole.
“This course seeks to develop further students’ proficiency in the language and provide them with a deeper understanding of how the language works,” he said.
Such was the success of the two two-hour weekly classes that Forrester was encouraged to return for a second year.
“Each class was capped at 30 and they were almost full,” he said. “There were also students from many ethnic backgrounds who were eager to learn Jamaican creole which is an English-based language with influences from West Africa.”
After the third year, Forrester successfully applied for permanent residency for himself and Dahlia Thompson who was a UWI research assistant that he married in 2010. They received the status in 2012, the same year that he secured his doctorate in applied linguistics.
Forrester also proposed a third course that the university accepted three years ago.
“It’s a summer course in Jamaican language and culture dealing with specific topics in Jamaican culture,” the contract professor said. “It’s a course not really to teach students the language, but to show them how it implicates these other parts of culture.”
With a severe shortage of qualified Jamaican patois interpreters in the province, Forrester – whose doctoral dissertation was, “How Judges Interpret Creole Speakers Inside the Courtroom” – is considering creating a blended program that could be delivered online and through face-to-face instruction.
“There are a handful of persons that do courtroom interpreting for Jamaican creole speakers in Ontario,” he said. “In fact, one of them did such a poor job recently that the case was declared a mistrial.”
Last year, Superior Court Justice Clayton Conlan expressed dismay that in a jurisdiction like Brampton with a diverse population and the criminal caseload including narcotics matters involving Pearson International Airport, the availability of Jamaican patois interpreters was so slim.
York University is the only academic institution outside Jamaica that offers Jamaican creole courses and Forrester – who will be a presenter at the Society for Caribbean Linguistics 21st biennial conference in Jamaica from August 1-6 – is satisfied with the program’s success.
“A few years ago, I had an Eastern European female student in my class who learned English as a third language,” he said. “When I played a recording of her oral test, many people who heard it felt she was a Jamaican ‘uptown’ person. She was that convincing speaking the language. I tell my students I don’t expect them to be transformed into a Jamaican in an academic year. But it’s quite likely that with practice and active class participation, they could actually come very close to a fairly convincing performance of Jamaican speech.”
Forrester graduated from Calabar High School where he was a member of the drama club and a rugby player in his last year in 1999. He has been quite active in the Calabar Old Boys Association Canada chapter, serving as secretary before being elevated to president in 2014.
By RON FANFAIR