More than talk needed on Ja's second language


Monday, November 05, 2018

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The recent opening of Excellence Oyster Bay in Trelawny has, yet again, raised the issue of Spanish becoming Jamaica's second language. Undeniably, this call is not new. It is an idea that many successive governments have considered; still, little progress has been made.

In fact, the third point under the Profile of the Educated Jamaican (page 34) from the 2004 Task Force on Educational Reform tells us that the educated Jamaican will “speak an additional language”. Some individuals will argue that English is already our second language; however, the 2001 Language Education Policy (page 6) cites Jamaica as being a bilingual society, the two dominant forms of language being Jamaican Creole and Standard Jamaican English.

The prime minister said that, “It is of strategic importance that the appropriate programmes be put in place, making Spanish a second language in Jamaica.” Certainly, the Ministry of Education would have to pilot such a reform. All non-anglophone countries that excel in English do so because of strategic programmes developed and implemented by their governments through their ministries of education. Germany and the Nordic countries (Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Norway, and Sweden) are good examples. All these Nordic countries have compulsory English programmes from primary up to high school. To say the least, they have a bilingual set-up in which students are taught subjects in both their native language and English. Could this be an approach to adopt?

To achieve Jamaica's goal, it is incumbent that the Government starts to introduce such Spanish programmes from the early childhood level and make them mandatory up to the secondary level. One of the challenges is that, because most students are not exposed to a foreign language until grade seven, they are uninterested in learning same and believe that it is an insurmountable obstacle. Having nurtured a culture of acquiring a second language from their early years should help them to have a greater appreciation for languages as they develop.

Another critical aspect to take into account is the training of our teachers. With this objective in mind, it becomes evident that foreign language teachers would have to be of the highest standard and quality, especially those who teach at the secondary level. Consequently, student-teachers at the teachers' college level would have to undergo extensive, mandatory immersion in a country where the language is spoken. As far as I know, only Shortwood Teachers' College has a compulsory six-week immersion to France and Panama for students who study in the Bachelor of Education in French/Spanish. This time period, of course, is insufficient. I believe that the minimum time frame should be a semester, and the Government must play its part in helping to fund such initiative.

Spanish, just like French or any other language, is of paramount importance to our tourism sector. Some of the tourists that come to our island have a very low level in English, and it is unfortunate that they can hardly find a local with whom they can communicate in their native language. Truthfully, there are some circumstances that require communication to take place in one's native language. Jamaicans who travel to non-anglophone countries can attest to this. I have been helped several times by French natives, despite their very thick accent. It leaves one to wonder when exactly will even a quarter of the Jamaican population be able to help a foreigner in this regard in French or Spanish (the two major foreign languages taught in Jamaican schools).

In addition, languages are in demand in the business process outsourcing (BPO) sector. Call centres are finding it difficult to find people with the required language level to work on their special accounts. I have also been told that the hourly rate for the language accounts is significantly higher than the regular ones. A Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examination (CAPE) level student with an intermediate level in French or Spanish could easily secure employment, whether full-time or part-time.

The Government needs to get serious about its foreign language policy as this could open up a world of opportunities for young people. After 14 years (since 2004), how many Jamaicans can even have a simple conversation in Spanish, apart from saying, “Hola”?


Oneil Madden is a PhD candidate, didactics and linguistics, at the Université Clermont Auvergne, France. Send comments to the Observer or

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