Professor of linguistics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Michel DeGraff thinks Haiti needs a paradigm shift.
On Thursday night, approximately 75 people came to the Michigan League to hear DeGraff discuss prejudice and racism in linguistics at the Inaugural Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Lecture, held by the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures. His speech, titled “Can Our Black Lives Matter If Our Languages Do Not Matter?” focused on the suppression of Haitian Creole language in his native Haiti.
“As linguists, as scholars, the question for us is where is there injustice in this world today?” DeGraff said. “MLK Day should not be a celebration. It should be a call to action. It should be a day of passion.”
As director of the MIT-Haiti Initiative – a nonprofit promoting STEM learning taught in Haitian Creole – DeGraff studies variations of Creole, a group of languages that developed during the rise of colonialism. Creole languages, DeGraff says, are one of the most stigmatized languages in linguistics. Though it’s one of Haiti’s two official languages, Haitian Creole has been called primitive, undeveloped and childish by linguistic scholars. This perception is common among people in Haiti.
Growing up, DeGraff attended a private school where speaking Haitian Creole was forbidden.
“I spent the formative years of my life being told by parents who love me, who want the best for me, that Haitian Creole is broken French,” he said. “If you want to succeed, you have to be human. You have to speak French.”
Despite the stigma, only 5 percent of Haitians speak French fluently and most of the nation use Haitian Creole, French remains the primary language of instruction in schools. DeGraff believes this worsens Haiti’s standing when it comes to education. The country has a 61 percent literacy rate for males and 57 percent for females, which is currently the lowest literacy rate in the Western Hemisphere. Being taught in French rather than the much more prevalent Haitian Creole creates another obstacle Haitian students must overcome.
“We didn’t go to school to learn math. We didn’t go to school to learn physics,” DeGraff said. “Kids go to learn French. It’s a tough situation. How do you convince parents that kids can learn French as a second language, as well as math and physics and geography?”
After his lecture, DeGraff received a commemorative plaque for his scholarship and work in social justice from the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures.
LSA sophomore Dominique Witten said anti-Creole prejudice reminded her of Ebonics, an American variety of English spoken by some African Americans
“My mom has actively said, ‘You need to use standard American language,’ with the idea that Ebonics itself is a lower grade of English,” Witten said. “I’m even struggling myself –– would I want a school where I’m taught everything in ebonics? I’m not sure of the answer.”
LSA junior Mitchel Dipzinski said he also found similarities between attitudes toward Haitian Creole and Ebonics.
“Ever since I took a language and diversity course, it has kind of opened my eyes to the education system in ways that I didn’t think about it before, with things like Ebonics and how that can affect the people learning,” he said. “This just solidified more of what I want to be an activist for, and there’s ground being made.”
DeGraff and the MIT-Haiti Initiative have hosted numerous workshops promoting the use of Haitian Creole in government and academics. DeGraff hopes to expand Haitians’ access to Creole-speaking education.
“Children being taught in a different language and being told that what you speak at home is not a valued language is a serious issue,” DeGraff said. “It’s a challenge to human rights when you have schools or administrations that use another language for discourse.”