In Boston, however, it has taken a long time to get enough people—and the right people—to agree Haitian Creole deserved to join Spanish in the public schools’ dual-language program. And it wasn’t only district administrators who had to be convinced. The Haitian community wasn’t entirely on board, either.
Michel DeGraff, a professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a native of Haiti, draws that back to Haiti’s history with its colonizers.
“We became free in 1804 but through the French language we did remain colonized,” DeGraff said.
While the vast majority of Haitians speak Creole exclusively, French remains the chosen language of the nation’s power elite. For more than two centuries, Creole has been attacked as inferior, as a poor dialect of French rather than a language in its own right, and as a limitation for its speakers.
DeGraff said even Haitian intellectuals have contributed to these ideas about Creole, with scholars arguing that the language limits people from thinking abstractly; that people need French to evolve, mentally; and that Creole has no syntax or orthography.
All of these things, DeGraff says, are false. And major universities in the United States have created departments to teach students Haitian Creole, recognizing its international relevance and linguistic value. Haitian Creole is spoken by far more people in the Americas than is French, and a surge of aid workers have been drawn to Haiti since its devastating 2010 earthquake. DeGraff says, linguistically, it is also an interesting language to study because, unlike most languages, it has a clear birthdate and birthplace—in 17th century colonial Haiti.
Besides MIT, the University of Massachusetts Boston, Indiana University, and Florida International University all have such programs.
At the K-12 level, Miami and New York City have programs that support bilingualism in English and Haitian Creole. Boston’s program will be the first in Massachusetts, however, and Boston Public Schools administrators have worked with educators in Miami and other experts to develop a high-quality program.
Brain research has shown people who are bilingual perform better on a range of cognitive tasks, and long-term studies of students in dual-language programs show they score higher than their peers on standardized tests by middle school. When it comes to students who show up to school speaking a language other than English, dual-language programs that pair English with their native language have been the only ones shown to remove stubborn achievement gaps between these students and their native-English-speaking peers, according to the leading dual-language researchers Virginia Collier and Wayne Thomas.
Then there is the cultural benefit. Dual-language programs universally focus on both language and culture, giving students who come from that given culture an opportunity to see their own histories prioritized by their schools and giving other students an opportunity to develop a deep appreciation for people who are different from them.