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From The Islands To The Classroom and Back
Byline: Cheryl de Jong-Lambert Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Date: 04/15/2003

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 inMassachusetts 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.

At the elementary level, students study an international language - such as Portuguese - as a subject in school, and then go on to secondary school in that language to acquire fluency. South Africa, Tanzania, Rwanda, Kenya, and Nigeria are among the few African countries that have two official languages, he says.

"Most African countries have language policies that advocate use of the colonial language in education and government, and in most instances more than 80 percent of the population is not conversant in that language," Professor Bokamba says. "But there is a sizable population that needs to be served."

Massachusetts, which in 1971 was the first state to pass a bilingual-education law, has decided to replace bilingual education with a one-year English-immersion program for immigrants. Voters in California and Arizona also overturned bilingual-education laws in recent years.

In a bilingual-education program, students who speak little or no English could spend up to three years taking subjects like math and science in their first language while receiving supplementary English-language instruction. The idea was to bring students up to speed in English while still advancing their knowledge in other subjects.

Opponents charged that too many students languished in bilingual classes in every language, ultimately graduating from an American high school without the ability to speak, read, or write in English. In immersion programs, students focus on learning English for one year before being ushered into all their subject classes in English.

Tavares and Goncalves, who are recognized on both sides of the Atlantic as leaders in the Creole bilingual movement, agree that the demise of bilingual education is a setback for the Creole-education effort in Cape Verde - and for continued cultural development in the US. With low per capita income, according to the embassy website, and no universities, Cape Verde lacks the resident linguists needed to develop the written language and the funds to pay them.

"The seed is there," Goncalves says. "I just hope that individuals who have the knowledge will transmit it. It will be harder with no institution to guide them, but I don't think it will die."

Missing a connection

In the past few years, the movement's momentum has included the Creole publication of some dozen books on language, poetry, and fiction. There are also many instructional materials from Massachusetts that could be used in Cape Verdean classrooms. But still, supporters say, something is lost.

"It's one thing to look at a pile of books, and another to have an exchange with a live classroom," Tavares says. People also need to learn the writing system in order to read the materials in it, says Goncalves, who has taught Creole classes to adults at the University of Massachusetts, Boston University, and Rhode Island College.

As education officials in Cape Verde continue to consider schools for a Creole pilot program, the Ministry of Education has supported first-language instruction through a radio program on the station RTC. Every afternoon students can tune in to have all their subjects explained in Creole, Tavares says.

In the absence of video coverage - since television is a luxury - the program does not advance the effort of making written Creole widely available, but she says it does enable students to catch information they may have missed or misunderstood in the Portuguese classroom.

However, given Creole's obscurity and the fact that there are scores of dialects scattered about the islands, some educators feel that it is politically and logistically difficult to use Creole in the classroom. For these reasons, Rhode Island teaches its large Cape Verdean student population in Portuguese rather than in Creole.

"When students come from Cape Verde, many speak Portuguese very well," says Maria Lindia, a bilingual- education coordinator in Rhode Island. " Since there are problems in spoken and written Creole, our students participate in a Portuguese bilingual program."

Those who arrive in Rhode Island without any schooling go into an English as a Second Language program, she says.

With more than 120 language groups to cater to in the system, schools would have a tough time implementing bilingual programs, Ms. Lindia says. "Often we don't have enough students - or the qualified teachers - for a bilingual class."

Forced homogeneity is what Creole supporters and bilingual advocates in other languages are fighting against.

"Language identifies us as a separate group," Tavares says. "Otherwise we are identified as Portuguese. Using Creole is not only to learn better, but to have an identity."

Just as agreeing on a language to use in class can be a prickly issue, capturing the language in writing can be similarly challenging. Like indigenous languages around the world, a written form for Cape Verdean Creole was devised in the 19th century when missionaries and colonial officials needed a basic written language to carry out their work.

These early writing systems generally used letters and accents from the colonizing language, which linguists are trying to expunge today.

As such, the modern alphabets are usually phonetically based, with one letter representing only one sound and representing that sound consistently.

For this reason, there is no "C" in the Massachusetts-developed Creole. " C" does exist in Portuguese, but Goncalves says it is superfluous because, as in English, its soft sound can be made by the "s" (like " cyber") and its hard sound by the "k" (as in "cafe").

And with that, the name of the country changes from Cabo Verde in Portuguese to Kaboverde in Creole, a difference so dramatic even supporters like Tavares challenge it. "The argument against it is more emotional than scientific," she says. "It is strange to see Cape Verde spelled with a 'K'. I'm sure it makes sense from a linguistic point of view, but ordinary people like me don't like it or understand it."

Goncalves says that the spelling difference is the essence of the language distinction.

Beyond the loss of funding for curriculum development to aid the Creole movement in Cape Verde, educators in Massachusetts are worried about how the demise of bilingual education will affect students.

Without a gentler transition through Creole, Goncalves and Tavares say that culture shock - as well as catching up academically - may be harder for both new immigrants and students who are born into Creole-speaking homes here.

"It is a disaster," Goncalves says. "Kids were able to learn in their own language and culture. We sent thousands of kids to college through bilingual education."

(c) Copyright 2003 The Christian Science Monitor. All rights reserved.


Cape Verde Creole

Basic Mauritian Creole