CROIX-DES-BOUQUETS, Haiti (AP) — Teenagers in blue-and-white uniforms pour out of classrooms of this boarding school at the edge of Haiti’s capital, chattering in their native language of Creole about the science test they have just taken.
‘‘Eske ou te byen konpoze?’’ asks one boy in the campus courtyard. In English, it translates as ‘‘How do you think you did?’’
‘‘I'm not so sure,’’ a girl answers back in Creole with a shrug of her shoulders. ‘‘The exam was really difficult.’’
The students don’t speak much French at the school, although it remains the primary language of instruction in most Haitian classrooms. In fact, less than 10 percent of the country’s 10 million people speak French fluently, and in most schools, even the teachers don’t understand it very well although they’re asked to teach in it.
The private Louverture Cleary School has already broken from that linguistic tradition and is instead emphasizing the Haitian Creole children speak at home. The school is also introducing students to Spanish from other parts of the Caribbean and the English they will likely need in the future.
‘‘It is a practical issue,’’ said Deacon Patrick Moynihan about the Creole language-based curriculum at the boarding school. ‘‘It really is about being part of this region.’’
Elsewhere, students struggle using French text books and coping with what largely remains a foreign language in a country once colonized by France, but more and more under the sway of the powerful economies of the United States and Latin America.
In many schools, children copy French lessons by rote from the chalkboard, understanding little.
‘‘I really have to work hard, because I don’t speak French at home. My parents don’t speak French at home,’’ said 14-year-old Alexandra Julien, who attends another school, as she walked to class one recent morning. ‘‘They speak Creole.’’
Three years after a devastating earthquake killed more than 200,000 people here, Haiti’s abysmal educational system remains an obstacle to building the expertise and skills needed to help this impoverished country recover.
Haiti’s 1805 Constitution declared that tuition would be free and attendance compulsory for primary students. But the quality of education lagged through the years, and plunged during the 29-year-long dynasty of Francois ‘‘Papa Doc’’ Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude, or ‘‘Baby Doc,’’ which ended in 1986. Haiti’s professionals fled into exile to escape political repression, spawning a major brain drain the country has never bounced back from.
About 30 percent of the country’s youth are now illiterate, according to the U.N.’s children agency, UNICEF, and only half of all children can afford to attend primary school. Less than a quarter attend secondary school.
In a 2011 report published in the journal ‘‘The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs,’’ author Brendan McNulty wrote that 80 percent of Haiti’s 16,500 or so primary schools are private, and they adhere to no academic standards. The article focused on rebuilding Haiti’s education system after the quake.
Like the Louverture Cleary School, more organizations inside and outside the country are saying Haiti’s educational crisis can be eased by educating the nation’s children primarily in Creole, which all students and teachers truly understand, and bid adieu to French as Haiti’s primary teaching language.
‘‘We have lost, we have wasted, so many Einsteins because of the language barrier,’’ said Michel DeGraff, a leading Creole scholar and Haiti-born linguistics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. DeGraff led a four-day workshop in January to help Haitian teachers incorporate Creole into math and science curricula, challenging the notion that the language is not sophisticated enough for the hard sciences.
In a sign of growing interest in Creole’s educational potential, the U.S. Agency for International Development last fall awarded a $12.9 million contract to the North Carolina nonprofit group, RTI International, to create a basic reading curriculum that includes the language.
The humanitarian group Concern Worldwide is also developing Creole course materials and training teachers in the language. Duke University recently held a Creole linguistics workshop for U.S. and Haitian scholars in Durham, North Carolina, that treats Haiti’s native tongue as a subject worth serious academic study.
Haitian Creole, which grew out of a mix of 18th-century French and West African languages, is the nation’s lingua franca, but it wasn’t until 1961 that it joined French as one of the country’s two official tongues.Continued...