Linguist Takes a Stand for Haitian Creole

A creole language is a type of language that arises from a clash of cultures, where people who speak two different languages have to learn  to communicate. Over time, features and words from both languages combine to form a new language.

The most well-known examples of Creole languages come from areas colonized by Europeans and their African slaves, like Haiti. Unfortunately, because of their association with conquest and slavery, Creole languages have long been given the short end of the stick, considered less worthy than their parent languages.

Michel DeGraff, a Haitan linguist who has made a career of defending Haitian Creole, calls this perception misguided at best and prejudiced at worst.  Growing up in Haiti and having to learn French at school while speaking Creole at home, he’s seen firsthand how damaging it is to treat Creole as anything less than a real language.

As DeGraff explained toMITNews:

“If you go to a typical science or math class, you don’t see that much science or math going on. What you see is this obsession with getting the French right — an impossible and humiliating challenge since most of the kids and their teachers live in communities where French is hardly ever spoken.”

Meanwhile, according to DeGraff, they could be learning in Haitian Creole, a language in its own right that’s just as complex and organized as its colonial parent.  DeGraff has spent the past 15 years trying persuade the linguistic community that Creole doesn’t deserve its bad reputation. He’s had a good deal of success;  Jo Anne Kleifgen, a professor of linguistics and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College, told MIT that:

“His work shows that, fundamentally, these languages are structurally and developmentally no different from other languages.”

Convincing academia is one thing, but winning over his home country, where the ability to speak French fluently has long been used as a marker of elite status, is much harder. DeGraff sees the tragic Haitian earthquake as an opportunity to do just that, telling MIT “Now there is a chance to do things better.” Hopefully, he’s right.

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