View Point

By Corliss Yamaki

Friday, December 17, 1999

Pidgin can live alongside
English in the classroom

I was born and raised in Hilo, attended Hawaii public schools, completed two years at the University of Hawaii-Hilo, and earned a bachelor's in education and a master's in English at mainland universities.

I have taught English in Hawaii public schools for 30 years. Credentials aside, I have the following observations about pidgin, a term I use intentionally even if linguists say it's incorrect. After all, a rose by any other name...

Pidgin is as integral a part of local life as is the zori, the indispensable rubber slipper. Just as the zori arrived when Asian immigrants arrived in the islands, local pidgin emerged from the many immigrants who made Hawaii their home and who engendered ethnic hybrid vigor.

Pidgin has therefore earned its place and established its value in one vital human activity: communication. As such a medium, then, pidgin deserves its place, just as the zori has earned its own.

Don't parents bemoan paying expensive mainland college tuitions, only to hear "da kine" sprinkled throughout their kids' conversations the minute these kids step off the plane? Why else are Hawaii clubs so quick to form and popular on mainland campuses? Just so local kids can get together and talk story while wearing T-shirts and shorts, even if it's snowing outside, that's why!

So it is goes with pidgin. Some can't live with it. Most can't live without it.

Yet I strongly urge the same for their proficiency in standard English. I assure them that I can speak pidgin with the best of my generation. I celebrate it in local literature, shocking some of my students when I read Lois Yamanaka's poetry to teach voice.

I speak pidgin when I want my listener to hear my heart instead of my education, when I want no barrier to understanding. I also speak standard English when the occasion calls for it.

I choose not to flout decorum and convention as some pidgin speakers do, nor do I express condescension toward those to speak nothing else. Nevertheless, at every chance meeting with a former student, I love to hear, "Hey, remembah w'en I wen' da kine in yo' class?" I usually remembah!

To those who point at low test scores and blame pidgin, may I remind them that earlier generations of us who spoke fluent pidgin, often exclusively, went on to college and fared well enough to succeed.

To those who think they know best, may I direct their energies to the problem of an increasingly endangered species: readers. Reading illiteracy is largely the culprit for many of the language skill problems in Hawaii public schools today.

Many students of all abilities and backgrounds come to school malnourished in reading literacy; many simply do not enjoy reading. How and where will they get food for thought?

Similarly, to those who fear that students will enter any workplace ill-equipped, may I also remind them that many nationwide fast-food chains, franchise businesses and most public-serving institutions provide training for prospective employees, including the appropriate use of standard English when they speak to customers at the worksite.

THE concern, then, should be that all job applicants be equipped with a communication tool that, in turn, is to be fine-tuned for the respective workplace. Those who can, do. And those who can do better, do that also.

As for those who choose to refuse to speak standard English at all, I can only refer them to James Baldwin, who says to people who speak Black English, "On the street, you have confessed your parents, your youth, your school, your salary, your self-esteem and, alas, your future."

Baldwin's use of "confessed" is not to be construed as admitting guilt. Rather, he implies that discretion in language choice is, at best, a matter of great consequence. Baldwin's "alas" certainly speaks volumes.

The bottom line is that pidgin and standard English must not be deemed mutually exclusive. What must be emphasized is that both are communication tools; each has its place. After all, don't we all own more than one comfortable pair of zori and shoes for different occasions and purposes?

Corliss Matsuyama Yamaki is a teacher at Waiakea High School in Hilo.

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