by Dory Piccard Dickson
“ Imagine a new Haiti where everyone, at long last, can read and write their native language.” Michel DeGraff, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)-Haiti Initiative
Recalling a school-girl’s experience in Haiti:
When Mandaly Louis-Charles was growing up in Haiti, instruction there was primarily in French, a language largely unfamiliar to most students. Children memorized their ABC’s and words and phrases in French, then learned their meanings. “Back then,” remembers Mandaly, “we couldn’t escape the monotonous chants of children reciting their lessons by heart, in a school with few dividing walls.”
At school, children were forbidden to speak their native Haitian Creole (“Kreyòl”), so they had to memorize, without understanding, texts in a language they barely spoke. If caught speaking Kreyòl, they would be punished, sometimes severely. There has been progress since: Kreyòl is now included in the school curricula, though it is taught as a separate subject, and not integrated into the rest of the curriculum. The recently created Haitian Creole Academy works to promote the use of Haitian Creole in all sectors of society. However, most government communications, including laws and decrees, are still published in French only.
Recognized Kreyòl advocate, Mandaly Louis-Charles, has collaborated with animator Robert Capria, musician Bémol Telfort, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Linguistics Professor, Michel DeGraff, to produce an educational video introducing the first Kreyòl Alphabet Song.
Louis-Charles and DeGraff collaborated on the lyrics. Louis-Charles created the melody, and provided the vocal, including harmonies. Instrumental accompaniment was provided by Telfort playing conga and kata.
This is the first Kreyòl Alphabet Song and Video. The pictures and words selected for teaching the Kreyòl spelling rules will be familiar to Haitian children and adults alike. The sound of the congas is a common background to life in Haiti. DeGraff stated, “This is a specifically Haitian song, well anchored in Haitian culture, and will resonate particularly well with Haitian children, and enhance their reading skills.”
This video is available for free download at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6F6yK1HOhWI. The instrumental soundtrack, for singing along, is available in Audio CD Baby, iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, and Gracenote MusicID. The music score will be available on sweetcoconuts.blogspot.com in the summer of 2015. There is also a follow-up video with a song illustrating the basic principles of the Kreyòl orthography at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dW5LaUJ337U. The complete second video can be downloaded from Vimeo On Demand at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/thecreolealphabet.
“I hope everyone has lots of fun playing, and singing while they learn the Kreyòl spelling system,” said Louis-Charles.
What sets this video apart:
The video animation is polished and appealing. The percussion accompaniment doesn’t overpower the lyrics or Louis-Charles’ exquisite voice. The listener hears each letter sound and word clearly, while the beat of the congas sings under the words. DeGraff recently predicted, “I believe Mandaly’s voice, with the drumming accompaniment, will become a big hit in Haiti!”
About production of the video, Mandaly states, “I’m glad to have worked with Bémol Telfort on the instrumental accompaniment. He’s a gifted musician and we both had a lot of fun working on this project. Everything came together beautifully when Robert Capria of ActualityFilms.Com came on board. Capria has spent time in Haiti and his familiarity with the scenery shows in his work.”
The production team also created a follow-up video with a second song. In her second song, Louis-Charles is especially happy to have found a way to incorporate the principles of the Kreyòl spelling system: There is one letter or letter combination for each sound of the language; each letter or letter combination always matches the same sound; and there are no silent letters.
The introduction of the first Kreyòl Alphabet Song in the year 2015 is remarkable when one considers the 1835 copyright date of the traditional English language alphabet song. The traditional English alphabet song, which does not include the letter sounds, is sung to the tune of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” Louis-Charles’ melody, in contrast, is both new and original.
The delay of 180 years in developing a Haitian Creole alphabet song may be attributed at least in part to the fact that Haitian Creole was seldom used in written form before the 1960’s (with French spellings) or the 1980’s with the official spelling system in use today—the one illustrated in the Kreyòl Alphabet Song.
Historical Significance: With Haiti having been a French Colony, school instruction historically has been limited to the French language, a language which is not spoken in Haitian homes and communities and which is not familiar to over ninety percent of Haitians. Haiti was under French rule from 1625 to 1804. After a successful slave rebellion, Haiti became independent. Following independence, however, government business and education continued to be carried out using the French language.
Adequate resources for education, throughout this impoverished country, have always been lacking. There are not enough public schools, and public school teachers, who often do not have sufficient education themselves, and who often do not speak French fluently, are tasked with teaching younger generations to read, write and speak French.
Even those who live near a public school may not be able to send their children, if they cannot afford the cost of the mandatory school uniform, or even the cost of the fabric to make the uniform. By contrast, members of the ruling class have been able to afford private school tuition for their children, preparing them for government posts, and other elite positions, providing comfortable livelihoods.
DeGraff reports, “There has been some welcome progress with the Government’s new Universal, Free Obligatory School Program (“PSUGO”) but adequate educational resources for the general population are still lacking.
“For half a century now, advocates of Haitian Creole have fought to give everyone equal access to education and to other benefits of citizenship, benefits to which access has been barred by the almost exclusive use of French as the formal written language in government offices, in schools and in universities. The move to increase the use of Haitian Creole in education and government affairs requires political will. For much too long, proposals for education reform, going back to the Bernard Reform of the 1980s to promote Haitian Creole, have not been implemented. These proposals are often undercut by a lack of educational tools and resources in Haitian Creole. Yet all research in education keeps pointing out the central importance of the maternal language as the language of instruction. Now at last, with the recent inauguration of the Haitian Creole Academy and with recent efforts by the Ministry of National Education, we can hope that our national language, Kreyòl, will be put to use, as the official language and as the language of instruction, as it should be and as prescribed by law.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)-Haiti Initiative was founded in 2010 with the goal of developing, evaluating and disseminating technology-enhanced resources for teaching Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM subjects) in Haitian Creole—a necessary ingredient for quality and access in Haiti. These resources will serve as tools to change and improve the education system in Haiti.(1) The MIT-Haiti Initiative has developed teaching materials and methods, and produced videos that demonstrate the advantages of lessons taught through active learning techniques and in the students’ native tongue, Haitian Creole. In collaboration with the Ministry of National Education, the Initiative aims at incorporating these Kreyòl-based active-learning resources into the teaching of STEM throughout the country, in order to eventually create a strong basis for sustainable development through innovation.
Promoting the use of Kreyòl in classroom instruction, beginning with the very first years of schooling and continuing through all academic levels up to university, will enhance students’ learning, and will impact their future academic success. The Haitian Creole Alphabet Song is an important tool in the arsenal for this continued battle to improve the lot of Haitians and the economic future of their country, by building up and strengthening their education system.
(1) DeGraff, Michel, April 28, 2013
“Many Hands Make the Load Lighter”: Haitian Creole and Technology-Enhanced Active Learning Toward Quality Education for All in Haiti