Tuesday, November 2, 1999

Speak pidgin,
think pidgin,
write pidgin?

That's the fear of some isle
educators, who blame local lingo
for poor writing scores. But
linguists say you can't ignore
pidgin when teaching

How pidgin helps -- and hinders

By Crystal Kua


A child offers his playmate a treat.

Waving his hands, the playmate replies, "Nah, I no like."

Should the schools embrace or reject the everyday way of talking to improve education?

It's a question that has been debated not only in Hawaii since the turn of the century but across the country and in other parts of the world.

The pidgin English debate surfaced again last month when national writing scores for Hawaii eighth-graders were released.


'Every time we close the door
on pidgin, we close the
door on culture.'

Lois-Ann Yamanaka


The disappointing results led Board of Education Chairman Mitsugi Nakashima and state Schools Superintendent Paul LeMahieu to suggest looking into whether Hawaii's pidgin English has played a role in the scores.

Pidgin English, or what experts say should be called Hawaii Creole English, is part of the culture of nearly anyone who grew up in these islands.

"It's a language of solidarity," said Alan Ramos, a Department of Education specialist in English as a second language. "It's basically one that affirms that you are from here."

But is that good or bad for island children learning to read, write and speak standard English in the public schools?

It depends on who is making the argument. Nakashima said standard English should be the norm in the classroom.

If people speak pidgin English, they will think pidgin English and will then write in pidgin English, Nakashima said.

Ebonics issues similar

But that's not necessarily so, nationally recognized experts on language say.

"None of us writes the way we speak," said Walter Wolfram, an associate professor of linguistics at North Carolina State University. "Record somebody who gives a talk or transcribe what someone says."

Wolfram, a member of the Linguistics Society of America, said the debate over Hawaii pidgin English is similar to the mainland controversy involving black English, or ebonics.

"I think the same issues are at stake," Wolfram said. "Do people recognize it as a legitimate language? Knowledge of pidgin should be taken into account to learn standard English. That would mean, in teaching standard English, people need to know the structures of pidgin."

The Oakland school board in 1996 recognized ebonics -- a term combining ebony and phonics -- as a separate language in trying to teach standard English.

John Rickford, a Stanford University linguistics professor, writing in "Using the Vernacular to Teach the Standard," said, "The undeniable fact ... is that most African-American children come to school fluent in the vernacular. It will emerge in the classroom, and how teachers respond to it can crucially affect how the students learn to read, and how well they master standard English," he wrote. "Ignoring or condemning the vernacular is not a particularly successful strategy ... as suggested by the massive educational failure associated with this approach nationwide."

Rickford, who could not be reached for comment, also wrote about instances from across the country -- Tennessee, Chicago, Georgia -- and in the Caribbean and in Europe, where the vernacular was taken into account in the teaching of the standard language.

Will children suffer?

Gillian Sankoff, another noted linguist, also sees similarities between the Hawaii and ebonics language debates. "Critics tend to blame the kids, blame the home language," she said. "That child coming to school is a resource. If a school denies that, that's pretty tough on the kids."

Hawaii author Lois-Ann Yamanaka was a public school teacher for 10 years and has written books in pidgin English. She said taking away pidgin English could remove a portion of a child's identity.

"We value the whole child; you cannot say to a child, 'Strap a part of yourself,' " she said. "Every time we close the door on pidgin, we close the door on culture."

Sankoff and her husband, William Labov, another recognized linguist, are both professors at the University of Pennsylvania. The couple and their family also visit Hawaii every summer, and she observes distinctions in the pidgin English spoken here.

"It's a separate language of its own. It has its own system," Sankoff said.

Eileen Tamura, an associate professor with the Curriculum Research and Development Group at the University of Hawaii, wrote an essay on the historical perspective of Hawaii Creole English in 1996.

"Power, Status, and Hawaii Creole English, An Example of Linguistic Intolerance in American History" appeared in the Pacific Historical Review.

Tamura wrote that sugar plantation workers who were of different nationalities needed a common language to communicate in the 19th century. What the plantation workers spoke was pidgin, but the everyday language of their children became a creole.

'Linguistic intolerance'

Tamura said the controversy over whether this creole language was a hindrance to learning standard English actually began at the turn of this century when the children of plantation workers became a sizable population in the public schools.

"You see the same arguments: It's bad English, it's sloppy English," she said. "But they really didn't understand it. Not much had been done to study the language."

But things started to change in the 1970s.

"What is new is that since the '70s, the linguists have studied the creoles; they understand it to be a language," she said. "When you use it as language, you can look at structure and you find out there's rules. It's not just chaotic. Like any language, there are ways to say something."

Tamura said Hawaii Creole English is among other varieties of English such as African American Vernacular, Appalachian English, Louisiana Creole English, South Carolina Gullah and Chicano English in the United States. "These regional and social dialects are just as systematic and rule-governed as standard English, but they have been associated with lower classes and as a result have been stigmatized as inferior."

She also writes that "linguistic intolerance has been one way in which dominant groups have maintained their power and status."

Tamura said the UH College of Education makes teachers-to-be aware of the issues through various courses.

Sankoff said if writing is the problem, then the focus should be on improving writing skills.

"A pidgin speaker is not hampered by that," Sankoff said. "I don't see pidgin as a barrier to the acquisition of writing skills in standard English."

But many in Hawaii believe as parent Kyle Kwock of Pearl City does, that pidgin has no place in the classroom.

"I personally think it's inappropriate to have pidgin language mixed with the learning process in our schools," said Kwock, whose children are public school products. "When you get to the workplace, you have difficulty in communicating and dealing with life skills."

How pidgin helps—and hinders—
in one classroom

By Crystal Kua


Lurline Agbayani grew up speaking pidgin English, but she's now able to switch between pidgin and standard English, depending on the situation.

But to the students in the reading class she teaches at Hilo Intermediate School on the Big Island, standard English can be a foreign language.

"They don't understand what the teachers say," Agbayani said.

What she's seen in the classroom gives some credence to what state Board of Education Chairman Mitsugi Nakashima said about people who speak pidgin ending up writing in pidgin, she said.

Agbayani, who taught at-risk youth in Honokaa during the previous two school years, said she has received papers in which students have spelled words in pidgin English rather than in standard English. For example, "da" was written instead of "the."

"They write it the way they say it in pidgin," she said.

Even though she would like to see standard English used in the classroom, many times that's not reality. She said it's difficult to teach them anything if she can't communicate with them.

Agbayani ends up speaking pidgin to connect with them but then translates what she says into standard English by writing word for word on the blackboard.

"This is the only way I can communicate with them," she said. But she said that because some of her students have learning difficulties in general -- she currently teaches a group that includes eighth-graders reading at third-grade levels -- the issue goes beyond whether a child uses pidgin.

She said parents and teachers need to take an active role in overseeing a child's academic progress. "It's a combination of the home and the school doing it together."

Agbayani said her 8-year-old son, who also attends public school, speaks standard English in the classroom, but she knows he speaks pidgin when he's playing baseball with his friends.

Those who are able to switch between two languages are known as "code switchers," said North Carolina State University linguist Walter Wolfram. And the ability to switch depends mainly on the environment the speaker is exposed to.

For example, he said, Europeans are better code-switchers than mainland Americans because Europeans have a greater need to know different codes. African Americans are better code switchers than Caucasian Americans because there's less need for Caucasians to switch.

Being a code-switcher gives that person an added skill, Wolfram said. "They have a clear advantage in that they can negotiate in different situations."

Gillian Sankoff, a University of Pennsylvania professor of linguistics, said being multilingual is viewed by some as a negative instead of a plus but that shouldn't be the case.

"Just because you speak more than one language doesn't really say anything about your competence and your ability to speak English," she said.

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