Michel DeGraff Makes Me Think

Michel DeGraff is a linguistics professor at MIT. He has been described as “a champion of Creole” because of his work to push Haitian schools to teach their students in their native language rather than French.

Anyway, I just got done reading through part of a presentation he released that defines recommended standards for Kreyól spelling. Let’s go through piece by piece and see what he has to say:

-Bringing science into things makes them better…right?

In developing these standards, DeGraff wants to use “baz syantifik ak done anpirik” (scientific basis and empirical data). I’ve got a lot more research to do on the standardization of languages, but I’m pretty sure most aren’t entirely based on what makes most sense logically and scientifically.

I know standardizing some spelling isn’t going to convert Kreyól into Lojban, but it’s still worth remembering: people don’t like their languages to always make sense.

-Great, standards! How are you going to make sure everyone uses them? 

DeGraff’s answer to this question might just be to have MIT and others who agree with him  create materials that conform to the standards for Haitian schools, and have those be the only materials used.

Talking about the future, he asks what they’re going to need to establish “yon tradisyon solid” for the new standards. Now, I’m not old enough yet to have been around yet to see a tradition established – but it sounds like it’s going to be a pretty hard job.

-Does learning in Kreyól help students learn better?

DeGraff’s got a lot to say on this topic. Piece by piece:

Pou yon timoun ka MATON nan lekti (ak ektriti), fók li aprann li nan yon lang ki deja rele li “CHÈ MÈT, CHÈ METRÈS”

In order for a child to become proficient in reading (and writing), they must learn it in a language that already calls them “CHÈ MÈT, CHÈ METRÈS.”

I have no idea what that last phrase means (he keeps referencing some obscure things – then again, this document wasn’t intended for American high schoolers, so maybe they aren’t as obscure as I think), but you get the gist of it: Haitian students need to learn to read in Haitian Creole.

DeGraff even supports his theory with a quote from Descartes’s Discourse on Method, which was written in French, the language of the people, rather than in Latin, the language of academia. Obviously, Descartes’s argument can also be applied in favor of a modern transition from French to Kreyól…right? Interestingly, DeGraff has translated the Descartes quote into Kreyól, which gives us a good opportunity to examine how it might be done:

“Mwen vle pou moun k ap li liv sa a sévi ak BON SANS YO SÈLMAN pou yo rive konprann sa m ap esplike a. Moun sa yo ap rive analize metód syantifik mwen yo pi byen pase moun ki sélman kwé nan liv demode ki ekri an laten.”

Here’s my translation of that quote, just based on my knowledge of Kreyól:

“I want those who read this book to rely on their GOOD SENSE ALONE in order to understand what I am explaining. Those who do so will be able to analyze my scientific methods better than those who only believe outdated books written in Latin.”

And here’s the actual English translation of that particular passage:

” If I write in French, which is the language of my country, in preference to Latin, which is that of my preceptors, it is because I expect that those who make use of their unprejudiced natural reason will be better judges of my opinions than those who give heed to the writings of the ancients only.”

Hmmm, that’s a pretty stark difference. Something was lost going from French to Kreyól, that wasn’t lost going from French to English. Assuming that neither I nor Miche DeGraff are just terrible translators…well, it at least raises questions about what sorts of ideas can be communicate in Kreyól that I hope DeGraff is going to be prepared to answer.

Anyway, those are just some of my initial thoughts – there will be lots more tomorrow, and probably the day after that too. Yep, this presentation’s giving me a lot of thoughts.

Which is the ultimate goal of writing something: that someone will be able to translate the symbols you’re putting onto a paper or screen into words that will then become thoughts. That’s something DeGraff and I both agree on: that students in Haiti need to become good enough at reading to be able to do that.

Keep reading in tomorrow’s post for more about the advantages and disadvantages of DeGraff’s approach.

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One thought on “Michel DeGraff Makes Me Think

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