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The Language Barrier to Education in Haiti

The roots of the language barrier that pervades Haiti today go back to French colonial rule. Slaves were forbidden to become literate or receive any education. As a result, Haitian Creole developed as an oral language that defined Haitian culture in opposition to French, the written language of colonizers and the high-society. Over the years, Creole became more widespread. It was used amongst families, in religious worship and storytelling. Creole was also critical during the Haitian slave revolt. Its oral passage through generations as well as the colonial ruling class's disdain for the unrefined French dialect, allowed communications to travel undetected and convinced many slaves to fight for Haiti’s freedom in the 18th and 19th century (Hebblethwaite).

When Haiti became the first and only nation to be founded by former slaves in 1803, it was dominated by a world economy resting on colonialism and race-based slavery. Haiti suffered economic isolation, piracy, and occupation throughout much of its early history. Urgently in need of trade, post-revolutionary Haiti’s first leaders declared French the only official language of Haiti, both as an appeal to foreign powers, and because their elite position further perpetrated the racist view that Creole is the primitive language of slaves, unfit for proper society.

Despite 95% of Haitians today speaking only Creole, the French language continues to dictate Haitian society. This furthers the unequal divide of culture and power in Haiti, between those few French-speaking elite who control most of the wealth, and the deeply impoverished Creole-speaking majority (Hebblethwaite).

The largest impact of French language policies remains is the educational system. Children are almost solely taught in French, but they live in homes that only speak Creole. This policy means that the vast majority of Haitian children arrive at school knowing little to none of the language that classes are taught in. When they bring homework home, many have little help due to their parents being illiterate. Additionally, many schools utilize outdated, memorization-based curriculum. This preference for French has restricted education and literacy to a tiny portion of the population, disproportionately impacting the futures of rural and impoverished children, and thus the future of Haiti (Hebblethwaite).

Despite all of this, there is hope! D2C’s education access program provides funding for teacher training and professional development. The training has allowed them to devise new classroom strategies, like using Creole more to help students struggling with French. This has led us to observe, on average, a 30-50% increase in attendance rate for grades 1-6, as well as a recent 70% pass rate for end-of-year exams; in other words, providing children with culturally grounded education with a focus on how these kid's actually learn, works. Every child, regardless of their family’s wealth or status, deserves the access and support needed to learn. In whatever language that come in.

Hebblethwaite, Benjamin. “French and Underdevelopment, Haitian Creole and Development.” Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages, vol. 27, no. 2, 2012, pp. 255–302., doi:10.1075/jpcl.27.2.03heb.

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