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The Politics of Language in St. Lucia

In Saint Lucia, the election of former Tourism Minister Allan Chastanet as political leader of the opposition United Workers Party has brought issues of language, culture and class to the fore.

Chastanet's perceived lack of fluency in creole (also known as “Kweyol” and “Patois”) has been deemed by some to be a major liability for his political career. The discussion of this issue in the Facebook group St. Lucians Aiming for Progress (S.L.A.P) was vigourous:

Wilson Jn. Baptiste felt that many of those criticizing Chastanet had problems just mastering English:

Some of you all cannot even write a complete sentence in English but you are the same ones complaining that Allen Chastanet cannot speak patois.

Poet Kendel Hippolyte believed that the situation of creole needed to be placed in a wider context:

The discussion could broaden out and have a better context perhaps if it took on board a few FACTS: (1) that Kweyol is an international language – Martinique, Guadeloupe, Cayenne, Dominica, Haiti, Seychelles, Mauritius and among small sections of the population in Trinidad, Grenada and Venezuela (someone also told me Brazil but i've never verified that); (2) that in terms of number of speakers, it is second in the Caribbean – after Spanish; (3) that all languages – English included – begin as purely oral and take on the component of literacy to the extent that the society responds to the initiative, from whatever source, to popularise literacy in it. Wales is an outstanding example. No one else in the word speaks Welsh, so it is not an international language. And a generation ago, it was considered a dying language. Now, due to the initiative to systematise and teach the writing system, written Welsh is everywhere: road signs, newspapers, textbooks etc. And not at the expense of English either. In fact, there's the unusual phenomenon of the younger generation being fluent and literate in the language that some parents cannot speak, much less write. And i'm not writing of what i've heard or read, but what i've seen. There's a far better case for this happening with Kweyol than there was for Welsh. The reasons it's not happening has much more to do with our pathetic, second-hand U$A notions of development than anything else.

Uriah St. Juste thought that anyone seeking to hold such high political office in St. Lucia should be fluent in creole:

Personally I think a person putting themselves up to be prime minister of Saint Lucia should be fluent in patois. There are many folk in our the nation who are functionally illiterate in English. While they may understand a few basic sentences in English, complex ideas expressed in English are beyond them. They are usually left in the dark when leaders only communicate in English. This is why in 1997 the Labour Party changed the rules of parliament to include creole as well as a means of communicating when doing the people's business on their behalf especially when they could now listen and watch, a thing they could not do before and a significant number of persons were left in the dark. Do we really want to go back to those days?

Amatus Edward was of the opinion that people who can only understand creole would be unlikely to grasp such complex issues anyway:

If you come across anyone who can't understand English and only understands Kweyol; they are still doomed to the knowledge level of basic english as the kweyol that they know does not capture the complex issues that you referred to. For example, if your grand dad does not understand the word ‘computer’ and does not understand what it is in english, he would not know it in Kweyol as his kweyol vocabulary would not have a word for it.

So the people whom you all claim can only understand kweyol would still be lost as there are (sic) quite bit that you can't translate to them in the kweyol that they know, not the new kweyol vocab that only the readers of english know.

Urban Dolor suggested that the issue was more about cultural awareness as opposed to language skills:

I don't think this is all about whether Mr. Chastenet can speak/understand/ Kwéyòl. I think more of it has to do with whether he has the experiences that would have allowed him to speak (or at least understand) that language. Now if he has not been exposed to the experiences that allows a person to become a Kwéyòl speaker I think it would be extremely difficult for him to understand the lives of Kwéyòl speakers. If he has the experience but chose not to learn the language then that may well be saying something else – he is either unable to learn [languages] quickly or he is condescending – I don't think either of these augers well for him.

Dolor continued:

The Corollary of what I have offered is that even if Mr. Chastenet were to take crash courses in speaking Kwéyòl he would still be handicapped without an ability to understand the experiences that would have shaped the lives of the Kwéyòl speaker. Why should we have a leader who is incapable of empathizing with a significant portion of the electorate?

Ian Charles wondered if there might be a double standard:

Sigh, this ‘can the white Saint Lucian man speak patios’ argument is a very pointless argument. I know MANY people, MANY PEOPLE who are black Saint Lucians and cannot speak more than patois cuss words. How many northern kids can speak a word in Patois?Juk bois has on occasion, gotten upset with his guests for not being able to speak patois! For me, the important issue is whether AC can identify with the circumstances, realities and challenges of the people he seeks to represent. If no, and if that is critical, then what of the argument that persons who did not hail from a community cannot or should not run that constituency in an election? I thought the reason for the latter was that those persons did not know the people or could not identify with them. Lastly, I think the unability of AC to speak fluent patois is excellent. It has placed an important cultural issue on the front burner. But if speaking creole is integral to our claim to true lucianism, then shouldn't we ALL be able to? And if Chastanet decides to take classes, what of the other black Saint Lucians who can't speak patois? Also, if AC learns Patois, would that then satisfy our requirements for representation? I see this as a case of be careful what you wish for!

Jan Lawrence took the position that ultimately all that matters is results:

You don't necessarily have to be poor to empathize wii (sic) people and most importantly work to change things, you don't have to speak patois for your message to get across. Less talk, show me what you have done and a plan for what you can do. And a PM is not a standalone figure, let the reps go out to their constituents passing along the message in whatever ‘language’ bet (sic) suited but again it's…in the doing. Anyone with a platform can promise anything but shoe (sic) me results and then we have reason to talk. And results can be understood in any and every ‘language'.

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