Tag Archive | "language"

Reviving Patois: Language of the West Indies

Patois is being taught here in the West Indies, but the movement is slow to reach New York.
Courtesy: Jo-Anne S. Ferreira

by Stephen Jiwanmall, Trinidadian Beat Reporter

Marvel Henry is on a mission to keep alive a dying language, known as Patois. Henry, a 26-year-old native of Trinidad, enjoys sharing his knowledge of the language with others and teaches a bit about the language every day.

“Say it with me, ‘Your shirt is blue. Chimiz-ou blé.’”

However, Henry, who lives in St. Albans, Queens, doesn’t get an immediate response from his students. In fact, he can’t even hear them. He’s teaching Patois online in an effort to keep the only remaining indigenous Trinidadian language alive.

Call it what you want, but Patois is a language that isn’t commonly known among Americans. Also known as Patwa, Kwéyòl and Kreyol, it’s a blend of various languages with roots in colonial Caribbean times.

Add a helping of French, a dash of Spanish, a taste of African and Indian languages, and mix it slightly with a garnish of English. To make matters more interesting, the word “patois” has different meanings in terms of national language. Patois to Trinidadians is French-based, while Patois to Jamaicans is English-based.

Just as Trinidadian Patois is difficult to explain linguistically, it is hard to calculate in terms of how many people speak the language in America. The 2010 U.S. Census has not yet released language data, and the 2009 American Community Survey lumps it into the French language category. More than 1.3 million people fall under this category, but more than 600,000 people fall under the “French Creole” category. Interestingly, Trinidadian Patois is also known as French Creole in some parts of the country. A more realistic estimate of Trinidadian Patois speakers in the U.S. is just over 28,000, as recorded in a separate category in the 2006-2008 American Community Survey.

Regardless of how it’s documented, Henry knows that Trinidadian Patois is a dying language. No one his age or younger really speaks it anymore, he said.

“It’s a heritage language for my family,” he said. “My mom, grandfather, my aunts, they all spoke the language.”

Patois was the dominant language in the West Indies about 200 years ago, but when the British started to colonize the region, English was forced upon natives as the primary language to use. Vishnu Mahadeo, president of the Richmond Hill Economic Development Council, grew up in Guyana when the British were still colonizing the country. He said Patois, known there as Guyanese English Creole, was discouraged from being used when he was in school.

“Speak properly. That’s not English,” Mahadeo recalled his teachers saying to him and his classmates. He spoke Guyana’s version of Patois for a time as a child but stopped by the time he finished school. Using the language while studying under British rule was considered as “uneducated ignorance,” he said.

This prompted West Indians to learn English and to abandon Patois, but some islanders like Henry kept using it.

“At home, it was a private language,” he said.

Though Trinidad and Guyana became independent countries in the 1960s, the effect of not using native languages for decades took its toll on the islanders. Like Mahadeo, many Guyanese immigrants have come to New York, but teaching Patois – be it English or French-based – often stayed behind in the Caribbean.

“When people first came here, it was more important for them to survive. It’s not lending itself to be more structured because of the economic hardship here. Most people are doing it because of personal issues, and they see a need for it,” said Mahadeo.

That’s exactly what Henry is doing. He started a blog called “Klas Kreyol” last December with periodic posts on basic pronunciation and vocabulary lessons. He has since expanded the online instruction to include grammar, phonetics, and the history of the language.

“It’s really sad that I had to teach myself to read and write a language that I spoke every day, a language I learned from my mother,” he said. “Unfortunately, it pains me to say this, but it’s almost extinct now. I hope to change that as time goes along.”

Henry also plays an active role to teach the language via Facebook. A group called “Annou Palé Patwa,” or “Let’s Speak Patois,” has just fewer than 1,000 members, and Henry posts in Patois frequently with English translations underneath.

“Sa ki fèt an fènwè-a, ké pawèt an klèté-a,” he posted Saturday. “That which is done in the dark, will appear in the light.”

Though thousands of Trinidadians now call New York home, Henry said Patois hasn’t resurfaced in the area.

“To my knowledge, there are no official meetup groups or educational programs geared specifically toward teaching it,” he said. “This language is moribund, and revitalization efforts have just begun in Trinidad.”

Mahadeo said English spoken by Trinidadians and the Guyanese in New York is often “populated with Creole words” to develop a sort of Patois in the area. He said enclaves in Richmond Hill and Ozone Park speak it in places of worship, restaurants and libraries – places in the community where Trinidadians and the Guyanese often gather.

References to Patois in recent pop culture are “very scant,” Henry said, but West Indian artists like Trinidad’s Machel Montano and Guadeloupe’s Admiral T incorporate the language in “Vibes Cyah Done,” a remix of one of last year’s most popular songs in the West Indies.

In any case, Henry hopes his blog encourages not just New Yorkers but people from anywhere in the world to learn Patois. He relaunched the site on Facebook last month with links to Patois music and a YouTube channel with audio and video lessons. In addition, he is working on creating a dictionary in Patois that he hopes to complete some time this year.

Though he said he enjoys teaching others from anywhere in the world, he wants to start actual classes in New York this year. Starting in Flatbush, Brooklyn, Henry said he hopes that the demand to learn Patois helps keep it alive.

“I was not going to let this language die,” he said. “It contains a lot of our history.”

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Language Barrier Creates Problems for Arab American Voters

Written by Jay Devineni

Reported by MaryAlice Parks, William Denselow, & Jay Devineni 

For many Arab Americans voting on Tuesday in Brooklyn, language barriers made it harder for their voices to be heard.  Despite Brooklyn’s large Arab population, there were no ballots available in Arabic.  However, the New York City Board of Elections does provide translations in Bengali, Chinese, Korean, and Spanish.

The Arab American Association of New York has been campaigning since the summer to increase voter registration among Arab Americans.  But members of the organization have found that even registered Arab voters run into problems when it comes to reading the ballot.

“We found that we would either have to write it out or interpret it for them,” said Aber Kawas, 20, a voter registration fellow for the association.

In addition, the voting process in many Arab neighborhoods proved to be difficult on Election Day.

“It’s confusing and people are not very nice,” said Kawas, who voted Tuesday for the first time.  “It can be intimidating for immigrants.”

Kawas grew up and works in the area of Brooklyn known as Bay Ridge, where an estimated 35,000 Arab people live.  Kawas and other Arab Americans in the area were told to vote at Public School 200 at 1940 Benson Ave.  They arrived there Tuesday afternoon, only to find that the polling site was closed.  The school had a sign that directed them to St. Finbar Roman Catholic Church about two blocks away.  Upon arriving there, they were directed to a third polling site, Regina Pacis Housing Corps, which was over 15 blocks away.  The process was confusing for many Arab voters who didn’t speak English, and some couldn’t even take the extra time to vote.

Before Election Day, the Arab American Association’s staff tried to find out if election materials could be translated into Arabic.  In order to do this, they talked to the Kings County Board of Elections, which serves the borough of Brooklyn.  But when they asked if Arabic ballots were available, the Board of Elections was not very helpful.

“People would give you different information,” Kawas said.   “You never really knew if you could get it.”

Upon further research, the group found that translations were available in several languages, but Arabic was not one of them.

“Hindi was the closest we found,” Kawas said in reference to certain areas of Queens that have high percentages of South Asian people and have been granted Hindi interpreters.

Kawas said that if the South Asian community in Queens can get voting assistance in Hindi, then Arab Americans in Brooklyn should be able to get help in Arabic.

“There might be racial undertones,” she admitted, but she doesn’t want to jump to any conclusions.

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Families Connect to Their Filipino Culture Through School

By Jaslee Carayol

Still in its inaugural year, the Filipino School of New York/New Jersey is a weekend program aimed at educating elementary school children in Filipino language, history and culture.  The curriculum fuses Tagalog vocabulary with Filipino history and varied activities to appeal to the young children.  And, many parents say, the youth program benefits them as well, as they find that the classes help them connect to their heritage.

A recent class at the school, held in an Asian American organization’s neighborhood center at 380 Monmouth St., Jersey City, New Jersey, centered on a Philippine island called Capiz.  After the five young students and their parents settled around a large table, the school director, Venessa Manzano explained the day’s curriculum.  The children would be writing to pen pals from Capiz, learning new vocabulary words, and doing an arts and crafts project, all of which related to the region.

Hipon,” Manzano said.

Hipon,” the parents and children repeated.

“Shrimp!”  One of the children excitedly yelled out the definition, already aware of the word’s meaning.

Manzano went through the vocabulary list, pausing to put words into context.  Hipon was on the list because the island is known for its seafood.  Capiz also indicates a shell that is found on the island and commonly used in Filipino decorating, examples of which Manzano passed around the table.  And simbahan (church) was on the list because the island is home to the oldest church in the country.  And after a brief history lesson, the children began to color pictures of hipon, capiz and other words off the list to create mobiles.

Manzano established the school after seeing a need in the Filipino community.

“I realized a lot of my friends were getting married and having kids,” Manzano said.  “And a lot of the parents were looking for Tagalog classes.”

Manzano, 33, is married and has a 2-year-old son.  She officially incorporated the school in 2008.  After extensive research and consultations, the first of several eight to 10 week sessions began in January 2011.  Manzano modeled her program after Iskwelahang Pilipino, the weekend school she attended as a child in Boston.

Manzano, who is American-born, remembered the Filipino school in Boston as allowing her to form relationships with other Filipino families and learn about aspects of Filipino culture such as the language, dances, arts and crafts, and food.  The multifaceted program was memorable to Manzano and she has tried to create a similarly engaging program for her own students.

The program Manzano shaped seeks to involve parents as well.  Families drive to Jersey City for the classes from different parts of the state to bring their children to the lesson.  The parents are mostly American-born and speak little to no Tagalog themselves.  Some said that  their own sense of  detachment from Filipino culture showed them the importance of such a program in their children’s lives.  They recognized that the program would allow them to reconnect with their culture.

Jerome and Grace You drive 45 minutes to bring their 4-year-old, Isabel, to the Filipino School each weekend.  Jerome, who is Korean-American, and Grace, whose parents are from the Philippines, grew up in the U.S. and felt it was important for their daughter to have the kind of cultural background they missed.

“It’s important to maintain identity and background,” Jerome said.  “It’s not the way it used to be when immigrants used to congregate together.”

Grace understands Tagalog, but does not speak it because her parents’ desire to assimilate outweighed their emphasis on culture.  But she does not share her parents’ views.

“She’s half Filipino, so it’s more important to get some kind of culture there,” Grace said of her daughter.  And the Yous said next on their list was finding a Korean language program for Isabel to learn the other half of her heritage.

Karen Barisonek, who brought her 4-year-old son, Thomas, was the only parent present that was born in the Philippines and immigrated at a very young age.  She characterized her upbringing as being in both a Filipino household and American society.  Though her parents spoke Tagalog to her and her siblings, they wanted their children to assimilate and speak unaccented English.

Though Barisonek understands Tagalog completely, she is still learning alongside her son at the Filipino School.  She did not begin to speak the language until after Thomas was born and says it is harder to do so than to understand.

“My husband is not Filipino, so I feel the responsibility to teach him our culture,” Barisonek said of speaking Filipino with her son.

And speaking the language and attending the Filipino School is the most significant way she can bring the culture to Thomas’ everyday life.

“Our ethnicity is getting diluted,” Barisonek said, since her siblings also married non-Filipinos and her parents don’t live nearby.

The idea that the Filipino School will help disseminate culture to their children and then on to future generations was echoed by Anthony Yabut.  He brought Patrick, 7, and Jackie, 4, to the program, which he felt was a good opportunity for them to learn.

“There’s not a lot of venues where you can do that formally, you know, outside of the family,” Yabut said.

The lack of Filipino educational venues was the need that Venessa Manzano was hoping to address.  Her immediate goals for the future include hiring staff and expanding into Queens and then Bergenfield, which has the second largest Filipino population in New Jersey.  At the moment, Manzano is happy to get the parents involved and to keep the school’s mission simple: it’s about the kids.

“By teaching our culture, it’s a legacy to give them,” Manzano said.

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