Thursday, June 24, 2004

TT: The death of English and calypso

MANY PEOPLE think that a degree in English is a useless thing in today's world. As an English lover, I never knew this until I went abroad to study my favourite subject and was somewhat ridiculed by the high and mighty Business and Accounting students, whose motto was: "That's all right, that's okay, you'll all work for us one day!" According to them, the only job a degree in English would get you was one where you'd have to ask, "Would you like fries with that?" This of course is not true -- you can't move up the corporate ladder if you can't string together a coherent sentence for a presentation or write a critical analysis for your boss. A firm grasp of the English language is a vital skill in any industry, so much that all over the world, particularly in Asia, companies will spend loud money to fly English grads to their country to teach them how to speak what is fast becoming the international language of pretty much everything.

This is why it is so troubling (with or without the now famous "u") that half of Trinidad cannot speak, read or write proper English. This is obviously a problem that has been deepening for decades -- children who cannot speak "good English" grow up and become parents and teachers who in turn fail to teach the next generation "good English", and so on, and so on. In today's world, the English language is taken for granted, but the study, practice and love of your mother tongue teaches you many important life skills -- how to listen, how to analyse, how to form arguments, how to imagine, how to write in different styles, how to use imagery, how to expand your vocabulary, how to THINK. Poor education can also translate into poor culture, and I think that the failure of our schools to teach proficiency and love of language is quite well reflected in the death of our local art form, calypso.

I grew up as a child listening to Arrow, David Rudder, Charlies Roots, Baron, Sparrow, The Roaring Lion, Kitchener, Tambu and all of the calypsonians of my parents' generation. My young ears took in old songs like "Government Boots," "Melosian Rhapsody," "Pan in A Minor," "The Hammer" and "Congo Man." As a child, of course, I was too young to understand all the lyrics, but I knew that they certainly meant something. Calypsos told a story, they were full of double meanings, metaphors, carefully disguised inside jokes, commentary, satire, and most of all humour. They were rude as hell, but in a discreet, dignified way. Those were the days of real calypso, when calypsonians -- even though they spoke in Trini dialect -- were bonafide musicians and poets.

Today, I hate to say, calypso is pretty much dead, and I don't think there is anyone out there in today's generation of soca stars who has the ability or the interest in writing calypso. It seems to me that these one-hit wonder soca stars are more concerned in producing a song with a fast, infectious beat that will win Road March and then become an advertising jingle for corn chips. Today's soca has little if any merit or intelligence other than to give you directions on where to put your left foot when you bend over to wine. The poetry of calypso is disappearing, especially as more and more of the classic calypsonians pass on with no one to replace them. Even David Rudder seems to have thrown his hat in the ring and has made Canada his new home.

You know something is very, very wrong when David Rudder abstains totally from Carnival. Maybe he too feels calypso as a musical art form is dead, and the new generation of soulless soca has taken over forever. The school system today is very, very different from the school system of 60 years ago. It was an education system based on strict discipline and rigorous academics and, of course, teachings of the Catholic church. Those were the days when they spoke in very flowery language. The older generations will tell you how they had to learn Latin, recite Shakespeare, read the classics and be versed in literature, poetry and the Bible. Language was of the utmost importance to a child's education.

This was a result of British colonialism -- it exposed the average Trini to a different cultural environment, so that even if you did not go school (as I'm sure some of the best calypsonians may not have had formal education) you were still exposed to higher learning in one way or another. But now kids cannot spell, they cannot read, they cannot write and they certainly cannot pen a calypso, much less a job letter. Today's soca stars know how to rhyme, but even a four-year-old child can rhyme "wine" with "twine", or "bad" with "mad", which is why instead of producing high quality, melodic, intelligent, clever and enjoyable calypso, they produce high-speed sexed-up nursery rhymes!
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Some may argue that you don't even need to have a degree in English to be a writer or a poet, and that too is true to some extent. But I don't think the art of calypso as Caribbean musical poetry will ever be revived as long as 50 percent of the country fails rudimentary English. A few writers have already given recommendations for improving the education system, so I won't get into that....But I would like to make one suggestion to TTUTA -- when allyuh teachers feel yuh res' and refleck enuff, allyuh better get back in de classroom and teach dem chirren and dem how tuh speak good English so dey doh fail de nex' exam! Yuh hear! Right!
This article by Emily Dickson brings to mind a Commerce teacher I had at Form Three in secondary school (average age is 13); I can't recall his name, but I think it was Mr. Babwah. For some mysterious reason, he had trouble with the word 'relevant,' and he loved to use it, and we sat before him like young guppies awaiting his next use of it. When Mr. Babwah said 'revelant,' instead of 'relevant,' as he invariably did, the entire class would titter, and he never knew why. The point of the story is that we knew the word, knew what it meant, knew when Mr. Babwah got it wrong, knew we could say it without making his error and we delighted in our very small advantage. It is questionable whether a classful of Form Threes today would immediately tap into a similar error today.

Another anecdote. My English teacher was Mrs. Khan, a lovely woman who had a tremendous influence on my life. She was no more than middling in height, about 5' 4", very slight, and controlled the class with a look. In those years in her classroom, I don't recall that she had to raise her voice very often, but when she did, we fell silent immediately.

Mrs. Khan was my English teacher for maybe four (could be all) of the five years of English we did in secondary school. Anyway, maybe because of a lisp or something, she was never quite able to get her 'th' to sound like 'th.' She got it closer to 'zh.' We students who were taught by her laughed about it, but not maliciously. We called her 'zhese and zhose' cuz that's how those two words sounded. Anyway, Mrs. Khan, without saying a blessed word on the matter, impressed us with the precision of her speech and language use. We learnt how to adjust register. When we answered in class, our English was perfection. When we spoke to each other, we used whatever English we wanted depending on how we perceived ourselves.

So, Emily Dickson is dead on.

What she does not realize, or did not think to mention, is that, today, it is the teachers of subjects other than English who themselves contribute to the decline in English standards in TT. Look at the closing words of Dickson's closing paragraph. That is exactly how some teachers speak in the class -- I have heard them. That's not the way it used to be. For the standards to rise to their formerly excellent level, TTUTA must impress on teachers the necessity to elocute using the standard grammar. Nobody says that the accent of the English must be British or American; indeed, a TT accent is a wonderful and musical thing. However, the teachers MUST use standard in the classroom and insist that the children do, too.

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