Reflecting about the use of language in Jamaica

The use of language is arguably the distinguishing feature that marks the human being from the rest of the animal kingdom (Needleman, 2004).  Although, there is a growing amount of literature that advocates an end to animal research on the grounds that non-human animals are, in fact, sentient – capable of having conscious awareness of emotions, pain and experiencing intelligent thoughts and feelings – and there is anecdotal evidence that non-human animals communicate with each other and with human beings though grunts, squeaks, chirps, and rhythmic dancing among other expressions they may not be said to use language because this has been defined by some as being a form of communication specific to humans (CFW Trust, n.d.). This paper will refer to language as it is used by human beings.

 On one level, language unites people as it facilitates a common understanding of the world if people speak the same language(Needleman, 2004).  The appreciation of this understanding is made manifest through the sharing of ideas between individuals or among groups of people.  Linguist Edward Sapir expanded upon this description of the function of language, however.  For him, language “is not only a vehicle for the expression of thoughts, perceptions, sentiments, and values characteristic of a community; it also represents a fundamental expression of social identity.”  He argued that “the mere fact of a common speech serves as a peculiar potent symbol of the social solidarity of those who speak the language.” (Southern Alberta Heritage Language Association, Calgary, 1999).

This does not suggest, however, that cross-language interaction cannot take place as persons who speak different languages can still communicate with each other through the use of intermediaries called translators and interpreters.  This is most poignantly illustrated by the way in which the signing done by users of the American Sign Language was superimposed on the broadcasts of the Prime Time News on TVJ in Jamaica some time ago.  This would have been no different from the translation necessary between two members of the hearing community if a speaker of Arabic only needed to make herself understood by the members of the HRD Graduate Programmes Unit at the University of the West Indies (UWI).

The benefit to the individual of having a good command of the language

The process of replicating and building upon creative and intellectual ideas is carried out most effectively  within the educational system.  The materials used in institutions like the UWI that offer graduate education are commonly found in textbooks and journals.  Where these are written in English they are written in standard-Jamaican, UK, American, Australian, Irish etc. English.  They are unlikely to be written in Creole or a dialect of any of these countries unless this is being done deliberately for effect for studies in linguistics, modern languages, literature or cultural studies. Thorough processing of this information requires a higher-order cognitive response that is facilitated only by a keen knowledge of the nuances of the language – in short, a good command of the language.

Graduate level education also affords students the opportunity to become the knowledge workers necessary in high-performance organisations.  Students must compete with their peers for the best jobs and increasingly, recruitment officers are becoming more discriminating in making their choices.  The graduate student who presents a cogent application letter and handles the interview impressively will be at a decided advantage over the person who does neither of these things.

The role of language in academia or in the workplace

Yet, having a good command of the language will reap more than the personal benefits of getting a good job or education.  It also facilitates the development of the economy through the provision of the staff necessary for progressive organisations.  Writing and speaking are two of the most effective vehicles for sharing one’s thoughts with others. These means of communication facilitate the participation of persons with disparate backgrounds in the performance of group tasks (University of California Santa Barbara, 2004) or in individual actions predicated upon common values.  These tasks and actions occur both in the academic arena and within the workplace where the exploration and generation of knowledge, problem solving, product and service development and human resource management require students and workers to write research papers, technical reports, issue directives and give and act upon information among other activities.  Indeed, it could be argued that the need for effective communication increases with the growth in the complexity of the task at hand.

An example of this is seen where an eminent neurosurgeon explains a procedure to three audiences – to the patient, to a group of second-year medical students and to a group of his peers at an academic conference.  His language; the turn of phrase, the use of jargon, the quotation of relevant statistics and examples and the inclusion of details of information, are all determined by the level of sophistication and experience of these audiences.

The skills necessary

Having a good command of the language suggests that graduate students have a sound knowledge of the rules of grammar, punctuation, spelling and a good vocabulary. (2005). Additionally, the ability to inject an appropriate and interesting style that helps to convey additional meaning to the words chosen by the writer or speaker will enhance one’s reputation.  The mechanics of an effective use of language go far beyond appropriate word choice and arrangement to include using transitions that help to regulate the logical flow of ideas among sentences, paragraphs and sections of the paper or speech.  This serves to persuade readers and listeners to interpret the meanings being ascribed to the words by the user and to interpret the underlying logic of the arguments being presented (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2003).   By way of example one can consider the difference ascribed to the statements that Marie-Geonne is looking “slim” or that Marie-Geonne is “careful” versus the statement that Marie-Geonne is looking “meager” or that she is “mean”.

The social effect of having good language skills

Having good language skills undoubtedly enhance one’s standing socially.  This arises mainly from the assumption that people with good language skills are more highly educated and therefore more sophisticated and morally superior to those who lack these skills.   This will, in turn, afford these persons with opportunities not available to others like being invited to sit on Boards of Directors and serve in positions of leadership in academia, in business and in social organisations.

Despite this anecdotal evidence however, one darkly amusing example of the social effects of speaking Jamaican Standard English was the recent arrest of a doctor by Jamaican police on suspicion that he had lied about his nationality simply because his English was too good for him to have been a Jamaican.  Personal experience is less dramatic, but the writer and her siblings have spent their entire lifetimes protesting their “Jamaican-ness” because they too speak standard Jamaican-English.

Personal reflections

Maintaining a good command of the English language is difficult.  There is a fine line between using Standard Written English and being stilted. This reality points to another issue – the evolution of the language through common usage.  The difficulty of balancing these two forces is a personal concern.  Having been taught to use Standard Written English and having retained most of these lessons while undoubtedly being influenced by the world around, one finds oneself now speaking an uncomfortable blend of Standard English, American English, Creole and slang.  This has proven to be embarrassing on some occasions and frustrating on others.  It has also resulted in diminished self-esteem and, for years, a doubt about one’s ability to handle further studies.  However, one recognises that by reading the journal articles prescribed by one’s lecturers, and by one’s curiosity, one hopes to undo the damage to one’s speech wrought by daily living.

In Conclusion

There is unquestionable merit in using correct and appropriate language in the work of all Jamaicans.  The relevance of correct usage to these persons in their psychological, academic, social and business lives is unquestioned.  Here, I have scratched the surface with arguments about the ability of students and workers to have an enhanced chance of securing desirable employment and social opportunities as a result of their speech and written communications.  Additionally, the benefits accruing to the organisation and society of appropriate language usage are clear. I hope that you will have found my arguments equally so.


CWF Trust. (n.d.). Animal Sentinence. Retrived from (2005). Learn English Hot Links. Retrieved from

Needleman, R. (2004) The Importance of Language (Dr. Spock Web Site). Retrieved from,1510,4829,00.html.

Southern Alberta Heritage Language Association, (Calgary, October 9, 1999).“The Importance of Language”Remarks by the Honourable David Kilgour, P.C., M.P., Edmonton Southeast, Secretary of State (Latin America and Africa), Retrieved from

The Diamond Exchange (2000). The Importance of Graduate Education. (The Plug and Play Generation: See How They Learn…) Retrieved from

University of California Santa Barbara (2004) Career Manual The Importance of Language Skills Undergraduate Career Services. Retrieved from,

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (2003). The Writing Centre. Retrieved from

About Gabrielle Burns

I am a Jamaican at play here in this vast playground in cyberspace....Yes, at times I do like to live dangerously, but I AM also working hard at becoming more interesting by the day... :)
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