By Damian Wilson
With all that's going on in the TCI right now, such as election campaigning, healthcare issues, financial issues, new laws and government policies, I know this may seem very trivial to many of you but I believe that this issue will get you to raise some questions about how we look at language. I received an email from a friend that made me think and this topic came to mind.
Damian Wilson was born and raised in Grand Turk. He attended the TCI Community College and graduated in 2007 with an Associate Degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering Technology. He was the host of Radio Turks & Caicos Good Morning Man Show from 2006 to 2012. He is currently studying Communications at the University of Buckingham in the United Kingdom.
Speech is often assumed to be the simplest thing we learn but studies have shown that, outside of hearing language on a regular basis, it is difficult for children to learn to speak. From their "goo-goo gaga" to when they first say "Mama or papa," children have an uncanny ability to learn language once they hear it on a regular basis.
Not moving away from speech, but two weeks ago I gave a Power Point presentation, which included music and video, on the history and culture of the Turks and Caicos Islands, as all students had to do as part of our class on Intercultural Communications. Not intending to boast or toot my own horn but many felt that it was the best presentation.
However, for some reason a few students seemed fascinated by the tiny language portion of my presentation. One student in particular, who just happened to be a 70-year- old British secondary school English teacher of 40+ years, who also teaches English as a foreign language (and has now become my adopted British mom) thought that the few colloquial words and phrases I shared made the "TCI" English dialect sound beautiful and friendly.
My new English mom has now decided that she will learn to speak like me, which made me smile and think; here we are with so many of us trying to lose whatever colloquialisms we have, so that we sound more American, Bahamian, Jamaican, etc. because most of our lives we've been told that we talk funny or that we need to "speak properly." And yet here is a woman who has devoted most of her life teaching people to speak "proper English" but is expressing admiration for our expression of language... It just makes me think.
Most of my childhood life, and I'm sure a lot of you can agree, I've heard “that's not proper English," "speak properly," "you sound dumb," "only dumb people talk like that," and in most cases it was from educated individuals who thought the TCI vernacular means you are uneducated or have limited education and that use of so called proper English is an indication of intellectual capabilities. But is this true? Is use of formal language an accurate measurement of intellectual capabilities?
I ask this question because many of us subconsciously seem to accept our child/children's use of language alone as an accurate measurement. For example, many years ago and even when I was a child I can remember when children came up from the Caicos Islands to participate at events in Grand Turk they were often teased or laughed at because of their speech, arguments would ensue and the first thing some children would do is call "those Caicos children" dumb -- but why? Why was the first instinct to call these children dumb? I even heard adults speak this same way about people from the Caicos Islands and I believe this is one of the things that may have contributed to the Turks-Caicos divide amongst TCI people; something as simple as language.
But is the ability to somewhat use formal English on a regular basis indicative of the individual’s intelligence... I say NO! While many of the “Caicos People” may have been teased or laughed at in the past for not having as firm a grasp of formal English as those in the Turks Islands, who, to be honest, until a few years ago had greater access to formal education (and in some ways still do) because of Grand Turk being the seat of government, from my observation the people in the Caicos Islands seem to be the most industrious, active and entrepreneurial people of the TCI. This in no way means that the other islands are lazy or don't have the capabilities but the Caicos people seem to put it into practice a little more often than not.
I didn't use this example to rehash old wounds between Turks Islands and Caicos Islands but rather to highlight how language may unconsciously affect how we treat each other.
Another example could be those children who don't have English as their first language; these children may be called dumb or teased by other kids but once these children have gotten a firm enough grasp of formal English they often catch up to and even surpass native TCI children academically, leaving behind any major signs of academic difficulty.
These two examples alone show that having a grasp of formal language is not the sole factor in recognizing intellectual or academic capabilities. Many people still thrive as business men and women although their command of formal language isn't the best. Again, this is not something that we may consciously think about or be aware of.
So am I saying that teaching formal English should be abandoned? By all means NO! English is still considered the language of business in many parts of the world and we must have a firm grasp of it as a nation if we are going to compete on a global platform. However, what I'm truly saying is that, while we teach formal English, why not teach the TCI vernacular and its evolution as part of TCI Studies or some other cultural and historical academic course?
After all I love words and phrases like "switcha, een, musse, chilen, to nuhrid and to suhrid." They are what make us Turks and Caicos Islanders and we should never be ashamed of that because our colloquialisms are "beautiful and friendly". I'm no linguistic expert, my linguistic capabilities are equal to that of Rowan Aktkinson's character Mr Bean but I believe having an appreciation for the TCI vernacular could only improve our sense of who we really are, while we learn other languages and cultures.
I recently learnt a phrase used by the Lucayan (Tiano) Indians that once inhabited the TCI, the phrase "Lukku Cairi", which I believe translates (correct me if I'm wrong), "people of the islands" -- and to me that's who we are, people of the Turks and Caicos Islands and I am not ashamed of that!