The question as to which language or languages to use in educating the children of Haiti and in adult literacy programs, which are organized by both government and voluntary organizations in Haiti, has generated a lot of debate among educationists and the Haitian public at large. Two languages are spoken in Haiti, Creole and French. Creole is the most universally spoken language in Haiti, accounting for over ninety percent of native monolingual speakers; whereas French language has for the past two centuries enjoyed the pride of place as the country’s sole medium of official government and business transactions as well as the language of education. To understand the position of the various parties to this debate, we have to go back to the evolution of language and education in Haiti since its independence from France on January 1, 1804.
Post Independence Haiti Haiti transformed itself from a slave colony of France to a full fledged self-governing and independent entity through sustained armed struggle and war between the French slave owners and their enslaved African fellow human beings. The revolutionary war was long, bitter, but sustained by the grim determination of the enslaved Africans to break the yoke of French enslavement from their necks or otherwise die in the attempt. When the white French were finally expelled from Haiti, their language remained as the means of official communication in all government and business transactions. The place of preeminence and influence vacated by the departing French was taken over by their mulatto offspring, who then occupied the elite upper class of the emergent Haitian society.
The unique position of the half-French and half-African mulattoes, as heirs to their departing French fathers, gave them the economic and political clout to call the shots in all aspects of Haitian public and educational life. This they did by entrenching the continued use of the French language in all official government business, as well as making French the only language of educational instruction. The vast majority of Haitians could neither speak nor write in French. This majority was consisted mostly of the Afro-Haitians, who were uneducated, and thus could not in any way contributed to the national discourse; whereas they constituted over ninety percent of the total Haitian population. The Afro-Haitians spoke only Creole, which until recently, was not recognized as an official language in Haiti.
Modern Haiti The situation of things continued like this for over a hundred years. The little progress made by a rather small number of Afro-Haitians who became educated did not have any effect on the dominant status and position of French language in Haitian national affairs. Instead, by what would amount to a rather ironic twist of events, these Afro-Haitians having moved up from their lowly status in the rural peasantry, through urban low class, to the urban middle class, were more interested in entrenching their positions, rather changing things for better for their fellow marginalized brothers and sisters in the lower classes of Haitian society.
These middle class Afro-Haitians behaved like typical status seeking social climbers, who believed that the French language was their passport to further their upward movement in Haitian society. Hence they teamed up with Haitian mulattoes in the elite upper class to frustrate any attempt at changing the status quo. To complicate issues further for the promotion of Creole into a national language, and a medium of instruction in schools, some members of the peasant class felt that it was better for their children to be taught in French, so that they could escape the poverty trap of Haitian rural peasantry. Even those past Haitian governments that claimed to represent the interests of the masses have hesitated to give Creole and French equal legal status, in order not to step on powerful toes of elite mulattoes in the upper class.
Creole language thus remained an informal medium of communication for over a hundred and seventy years. It was only in the late 1970s that the government gave approval for the use of Creole in education. Implementation of government approval was not wholeheartedly carried out. As late as the 1980s, there was still some doubt about whether Creole should be used in primary schools. In 1987, a major break through came with the inclusion of Creole in the Haitian National Constitution, as a co-national language of Haiti along with French. The door was now open for integration of the more popular Creole language into the school educational system.
However, a lot still needs to be done by both government and non-governmental organizations to really take Creole language into its rightful place as the authentic national language of Haiti. As a first and urgent step, the standardization of Creole orthography should be pursued with vigor by linguists in academia and all those interested in its progress, beyond a mere glorified appendage to French. The National Pedagogic Institute (Institut Pédagogique Nacional–IPN) has taken the initiative by developing an orthography of Creole language that includes elements of the two systems previously in use. In the areas of popular literature, books and magazines need to be produced in Creole at a faster rate than is available at the moment. The print and electronic media have taken tentative steps to popularize Creole literature, but much more needs to be done.
The government of Haiti needs to take the implementation of the relevant portions of the 1987 Haitian National Constitution more seriously. All aspects of the national life of Haiti need to feel the presence of Creole language, as a medium of official transactions. Much work needs to be done urgently in curriculum development at all levels of Haiti’s education, using Creole as a medium of such development. Similarly, adult literacy programs should be established to upgrade the literacy level of Haitian rural peasant and urban lower classes. It is noteworthy that some church groups have taken the bull by the horn, by publishing some religious literature in Creole language. The popular monthly Bon Nouvel, published by a Roman Catholic group, is one such publication. The New Testament half of The Holy Bible has also been published in Creole through the efforts a group of Protestant churches.