Saturday, November 20, 1999

UH group:
Respect pidgin
in schools

Faculty and students of
'Da Pidgin Coup' say the gov's
attack discounts the
earning process

By Crystal Kua


Lee Tonouchi -- writer, community college English instructor and devout pidgin English speaker -- finds it curious that Gov. Ben Cayetano would criticize the use of pidgin in education while acknowledging that he speaks pidgin from time to time.

"So if I talk pidgin, I can aspire to be da govenah," Tonouchi said.

Cayetano, in remarks to reporters earlier this week, decried the use of pidgin English in the classroom. His comments came on the heels of Department of Education officials pointing to pidgin as a possible reason for Hawaii students scoring low in a national writing test.

"The only time we should be using pidgin English in the public schools is when they're studying pidgin itself, from a historical or cultural point of view," Cayetano said. "They should never use pidgin in the public schools."

Later, he went on to say, "Why do we want to complicate learning for our kids with unnecessary and meaningless debates about pidgin being part of a tool for instruction? I disagree with this concept entirely."

The governor's remarks also came as a group of University of Hawaii faculty members and students prepared to release a position paper which embraces pidgin English in the learning process for island children whose first language is pidgin.

As the convener of "Da Pidgin Coup," Diana Eades, a UH associate professor in the English as a Second Language department, said conclusions aren't completed yet, but the group does have a basic premise.

'So if I talk pidgin,
I can aspire to be
da govenah.'

Lee Tonouchi


"Our basic position is that pidgin is a language, and children whose first language is pidgin come to school with that language," Eades said. "It should be respected and never denigrated. There's plenty of evidence that ... if you want students to do better in standard English, then you have to recognize their home language."

In its look at pidgin and education, Da Pidgin Coup is also exploring topics such as what is pidgin, a history of attitudes, a look at whether standard English is the best language, pidgin in schools, speaking differently than writing, and pidgin and testing.

"There are similar issues in other countries," said Eades, whose expertise is in Australian aboriginal studies. "We need to learn from them."

But Cayetano also attacked the positions on pidgin taken by "academics."

"I guess if the academics think it's important and deserves that kind of priority, then they're looking at it from a point of view that I don't quite agree with," he said.

Cayetano later continued, "But what bothers me the most about these academics is that they keep on saying that (pidgin) can be turned off and on. And that's not the real world, as far as I'm concerned. Many of our kids cannot turn off and on. Even those with college degrees can't."

Language experts call the ability to switch back and forth between languages code-switching.

"If people can't code-switch, then why aren't we helping people to code-switch better," writer Darrell Lum said.

"The evidence seems to be that the more you recognize and validate languages and give students opportunities to explore similarities and differences in their language arts curriculum, then the more you empower them to switch on and off," Eades said.

Lum, an academic adviser at the University of Hawaii and editor with the island literary forum Bamboo Ridge Press, said Cayetano's position is not new but takes a simplistic view of a complicated issue. "It's a much more complex problem than being a problem with pidgin."

Contrary to popular belief, pidgin English advocates have never been anti-standard English, Lum said. "I just like to think that pidgin and standard English are on the same side of the scale in developing language fluency."

Eades said that Bamboo Ridge Press is good example of what can happen when different writing genres are accepted.

Eades said the governor's remarks are disappointing, but not surprising. She said they sound as if they are based on anecdotal observations and not research.

Lum said it appears Cayetano's criticisms are not just aimed at pidgin but at those who speak it. "In one sense, it's kind of a put-down of the same people who put him in office. He said there is something wrong with the way they speak."

Lum's opinion is that pidgin is an asset and not a handicap.

Eades said her group hopes to work with the governor on the issue and not be in conflict with him or others critical of pidgin.

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