Language and the Negotiation of Identities

Havana, Cuba, March 2017

This story was originally published by University of Miami here on October 10, 2017.

A UM sociolinguist works to unveil and address the subtle nuances of historical and sociocultural context in languages from the Caribbean.

All human beings have a need to communicate. If you mix up a group of people who don’t share a common language, over a period of time, a unique language among them is likely to evolve. It’s just what we humans do—express ourselves and convey thoughts, ideas, emotions—and, if there is no system to do so, we create one that will fulfill our communicative needs.

That’s exactly how Creole languages in the Caribbean formed when African slaves, speaking different languages, were brought to the region.

“Creoles evolved out of tragedy and chaos,” says Arlene Clachar, associate professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning at the University of Miami School of Education and Human Development. “The captors, or those that controlled the holding stations off the coast of West Africa, knew that if the slaves spoke different languages, they would not be able to communicate and overthrow the colonizing power.”

Over the years, the slaves had to find a way to communicate. It was just natural, says Clachar. At first, pidgins, or makeshift languages with very limited communicative functions, were formed. As time went by, the needs of the speakers became more complex and varied, and the pidgins evolved into Creoles, explains Clachar, a linguist who has been at UM for nearly 20 years.

In the Caribbean, the Creoles used vocabulary from the languages of the European powers that controlled the African populations, but the grammar was heavily influenced by that of the African languages.

“For example, in Haiti, which had been controlled by the French, Haitian Creole evolved among the slave populations,” says Clachar, an applied sociolinguist whose research focuses on second language acquisition and usage. “So, if you speak French and are listening to Haitian Creole, you can understand some of the French words but you cannot understand the message because the grammar is influenced by the African languages.”

Though borne out of tragedy and chaos, Creole languages impart a strong sense of nationalism in the Caribbean.

“In the 1960s and 1970s, there was a focus on nationalistic pride in the Caribbean and people began to feel a strong sense of attachment to Creoles,” says Clachar, who grew up in Jamaica and started her linguistics career at the University of the West Indies, Mona campus. “We’re descendants of Africans and we know that Creoles represent the creativity of people in bondage.”

For Clachar’s recent research published in Applied Linguistics in 2015, she focused her research on English-based Creole-speaking eighth grade students in South Florida—home to the second largest Creole-speaking population in the United States, after New York City—and the unique challenges they face in learning Standard English in the U.S. public school system.

“Creoles are not fully understood by teachers in the public school system here in the U.S.,” says Clachar. “They are languages that were formed under very unique socio-historical conditions so they have developed distinctive linguistic features and many of the teachers here are not familiar with Creole languages.”

Apart from gaining insight into the particular challenges faced by Creole-speaking students learning Standard English, Clachar’s goal is “to help teachers understand the nature of the challenges and how they can be addressed so that the students will be able to develop literacy skills in Standard English.”

In her research, Clachar has focused on Jamaican Creole, Guyanese Creole and Tobagonian Creole because they are very conservative Creoles, that is, Creoles with basilects. In other words, these are languages that have preserved most of the Creole linguistic features and are the furthest away from Standard English on a continuum.

The demographics of a community have a lot to do with how Creole languages evolve and where they lie on the continuum.

In the Caribbean, explains Clachar, you had areas that were populated by a very large number of Africans and a very small number of Europeans; the Creoles that evolved, then, were more likely to maintain a lot of the linguistic structural features of the African languages.

In the United States, the circumstances were different. When the slaves were brought over to the U.S., there was a smaller African population and a larger European population, “so that the Africans assimilated towards Standard English,” says Clachar. “Whatever Creole that had evolved in the U.S. lost many of its features (decreolization) by the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery.”

Some linguists posit that African-American English was influenced by the English language varieties spoken by Irish servants who had the closest contact with Africans in the U.S. southern colonies, Clachar says.

This is why it’s easier, adds Clachar, for someone who speaks Standard English to understand African-American English than it would be, for example, for that person to understand the very conservative form of Jamaican Creole.

In Clachar’s latest research, published in the 2016 book “Spanish-English Codeswitching in the Caribbean and the U.S.,” she shows how Puerto Rican students who were born and/or raised in the U.S. mainland codeswitch, or employ different languages or language varieties, among African-American English, Spanish and Standard English in order to assert a variety of identities.

The research revealed how, for the students, each language represented a different identity. Puerto Rican university students, either living permanently in Puerto Rico or traveling back and forth between the island and the U.S. mainland, were tasked with collaborating via email to create a website advertising a workshop.

Clachar examined the students’ email exchanges and planned website content, and noted how the students position themselves among these different languages in order to exploit their different associated identities. By negotiating different identities through language, the students aimed at achieving different objectives with the digital project. The research adds a layer of complexity as it examines strictly online communication, which is somewhat more intentional than spoken language.

Unlike the research Clachar had done on English-based Creoles in South Florida public schools, in a more structured environment, this study was an exploratory sociolinguistic analysis, looking at language in society generally, where students had the freedom to use language however they wanted to use it.

“The Puerto Rican students do speak and are fluent in African-American English, mainly because of segregated housing and schooling in the United States,” says Clachar, who spent 11 years in Puerto Rico teaching sociolinguistics before coming to UM.

The informal segregation is partly why African-American English has continued to exist today, says Clachar. As this form of segregation continues and African-American English becomes more rooted within certain communities, the language is expected to have an even greater divergence from Standard English.

With language being so interwoven with identity, shall we expect a greater divergence of identities in the U.S., and a greater need for their negotiation?

Story and photo by Jessica M. Castillo

About the photo: Two street performers take a break in Plaza de Armas in the Old Havana neighborhood of Havana, Cuba in March 2017.

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