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Sparrow and Scarlet Ibis

Denis Solomon • 1,183 words

In other words, being told what is wrong is not the same thing as knowing what is right. "May" after "anticipated" and "hoped" conveys, at best, a lack of ambition quite unsuited to the enterprise of education. The writer is obviously still uneasy about using "will", and therefore takes refuge in what in language learning theory is known as an avoidance strategy.

The Schools Broadcasting Unit of the Ministry of Education must read the Independent. On 23 May I criticised the SBU’s Notes to Teachers programme for, among many other glaring faults, the persistent Trinidadian use of “would” for ‘will”. The Notes of 22 May had stated “it is hoped pupils would understand…” and “it is also hoped an attitude toward nation-building would be cultivated”.

In the corresponding section of the Notes for June 12 “would” no longer appears. But it has been replaced, not by “will”, but by “may”. Under “Aims and Objectives” the Notes say: “It is anticipated that through these broadcasts pupils may understand…” and “Also it is hoped that they may obtain greater knowledge…”.

In other words, being told what is wrong is not the same thing as knowing what is right. “May” after “anticipated” and “hoped” conveys, at best, a lack of ambition quite unsuited to the enterprise of education. The writer is obviously still uneasy about using “will”, and therefore takes refuge in what in language learning theory is known as an avoidance strategy.

The word “anticipated” is out of place here too. It should be “expected”. As Fowler points out, to anticipate marriage is not the same thing as to expect marriage. Anyone who doesn’t know who Fowler is should be working in the URP, not the Ministry of Education. And let no one write to the Independent to say the dictionary authorises the use of “anticipate” to mean “expect”. When things are said wrongly often enough, they find their way into the dictionary.

A number of passages in the June 12 Notes, while not outright bad grammar, are clumsy or tautologous, and not very worthy examples for pupils to follow. “Also it is hoped…” is one. The young Scarlet Ibis, we are told, is greyish-brown in colour (what else would it be greyish-brown in, taste?) To say that the ibis roost in a “traditional spot of the swamp” is anthropomorphism gone mad (presumably the writer means not “traditional” but something like “regular” or “habitual”). Besides, in English you say “a traditional area of the swamp” but “a traditional spot in the swamp”. The punctuation of the Notes is also abominable, but that may be the fault of the Guardian.

This is not nit-picking. Poor style is an accumulation of small irritations. In writing, if you take care of the pennies the pounds will take care of themselves.

The second part of the Notes for 12 June contains songs to be used to teach the pupils patriotism. The songs in question are calypsoes by Sparrow.

Now, the Minister of Culture, Community Development and Women’s Affairs announced last year that “calypso was to be taught in schools”. When she was, inevitably, attacked by Mr. Sat Maharaj, she hastened to “clarify” her statement. What would be taught, she “explained”, was not the singing of calypso but “the art of social commentary, similar to that of creating poetry”.

The clarification was if anything more ambiguous than the initial statement. It left me in serious doubt as to whether Dr. Phillips had ever heard or read either poetry or calypso. It also gave no idea of how the new discipline was to be introduced into the curriculum. Would there be timetable slots labelled “Calypso” or “Social Commentary”? Or would the material be part of instruction in social studies, history, civics, literature or English?

It must be remembered that Dr. Phillips was not, and is not now, the Minister of Education. But it seems her prophecy has come to pass, and the subject for which calypso has been chosen as a teaching tool is Civics.

I have no problem with that. Nothing could be better adapted than Calypso to teaching national awareness. If teachers of social studies or civics are not using calypso in presenting their subjects, they should be. I don’t see the history of the US occupation of Chaguaramas coming alive if it is not illustrated with excerpts from the work of the Roaring Lion or Sparrow’s “Jean and Dinah”; the history of the Trinidad diaspora without Kitchener; the study of ethnic relations without “Moonia” or “Curry Tabanca”; or penal reform without “Gunslingers”.

But the problem of poor mastery of English should caution us as to how we are to use the form, as opposed to the content, of calypso. First of all, there is the question of its status. The inflated value we give to calypso in this society is bound to be transferred, in the minds of children, to the language of calypso. Every use of calypso should clearly recognise it for what it is: light, satirical ditty, composed in the vernacular, which in this country happens not to be English, but Creole. The pompous attempts by Sparrow and others to turn it into a “loftier” form of expression are the result of the spurious dignity we have conferred on it, under the prompting of our politicians, as “we culture”, and on calypsonians as the bards of the nation. To invite children to express patriotism through the words of Sparrow is to invite them to accept the syntax of Sparrow as the standard for the expression of patriotism, and to accept Sparrow’s rhymes and prosody as the rhythmic patterns of English.

The value of calypso, as far as its form is concerned, is illustrative and contrastive. The illustrative value is its usefulness in demonstrating the socio-cultural domains of the different language varieties present in our speech community: Creole for some domains, English for others. Not that calypsoes have not always dealt with serious subjects. They have. But they have not dealt with them in a formally serious way. To present calypsoes as privileged vehicles for the expression of such concepts as patriotism is to complete the denaturing of the genre that the calypsonians themselves have begun. It distorts the learners’ appreciation of the match between linguistic variety and subject matter, as well as their appreciation of the appropriateness of particular musical forms to particular themes.

The contrastive value relates to the teaching of English: the demonstration of what is not English, though pupils (and unfortunately some teachers) think it is. A better use for the patriotic calypsoes in the SBU notes would have been to ask the pupils, rather than singing the words, to say how the same ideas might have been expressed in English.

There is no need to teach Creole. The children already know it. But the only way to teach English, or any language, is by reference to what the learners already have in their heads, and through topics of interest to them. Calypsoes are an admirable source of such topics. More formal documentation is not lacking either. My own book, The Speech of Trinidad, is a complete reference grammar for teachers on the contrastive structures of Creole and English. Merle Hodge’s recently published The Knots in English is the only teaching text which specifically relates English target structures to Creole equivalents.

A Minister can be excused for vagueness in her educational theories. Specialists should have a clearer idea of what they are trying to do.

Copyright © • Denis Solomon • Trinidad and Tobago Humanist Association • www.humanist.org.tt/humanist/forum/solomonPage Top