Talking about Creoles, Speaking in Kreyòl

By Peter Chipman, Digital Publication Specialist and OCW Educator Assistant

a cluster of small passenger boats on the beach in a cove.

Brightly painted water taxis crowd a beach in Haiti. (Image courtesy of Steve Bennett on flickr. License: CC BY-NC.)

We’re excited to announce the publication of the OpenCourseWare version of Professor Michel DeGraff’s course 24.908 Creole Language and Caribbean Identities, as taught at MIT in the Spring semester of 2017.

Instructor Insights Two Times Over

In a departure from our typical procedure, the videos Professor DeGraff recorded for the course’s Instructor Insights page are all presented twice: once with him speaking in English, and then a second time with him speaking in his native language, Haitian Creole (or Kreyòl). Professor DeGraff decided to do this because he feels it’s important to spread the word, both to English speakers and to speakers of Creole languages, that Creoles aren’t flawed or debased versions of colonial languages such as French, but rather are fully-developed and grammatical languages in their own right. By making his insights available to educators and students in Creole-speaking communities, Professor DeGraff hopes to ensure that his academic research and his teaching will be a vehicle for social change.

Customizing the Course to Students’ Backgrounds

To make the course as meaningful as possible for his students, Professor DeGraff begins each semester by finding out where each student is coming from. “On the very first day,” he explains, “while they are still fresh and unsuspecting of the class contents, of my own ideology, I give them a survey where I ask very simple questions. You know, their major, their year….I also ask them personal questions. Where were they born? Where did they travel? And during what years? … And I ask them about some of the course content. You know, what do they know about Creole languages? How do they define identity? What does identity mean? What kind of images does the word Caribbean trigger in their minds?…Through these questions, I’m able to see and to get a sense of both their personal background, but also what kind of assumptions they bring to the course. And then I can use that to have a beginning where I can address the fundamental assumptions they do bring in the course, and also to connect the discussion to their personal profiles.”

Professor DeGraff sitting in his office at MIT.

Professor Michel DeGraff has been teaching linguistics at MIT for more than 20 years. (Image by OpenCourseWare.)

Reading the World, Not Just the Word

In addition to Professor DeGraff’s videos, the Instructor Insights page has links to four Student Insights videos, in which students José Esparza and Dalila Stanfield describe what they learned in the course and what advice they’d give to educators who are designing courses on similar topics. Both students feel that it’s important to create a classroom environment that promotes discussions about identities—“It’s not just about the curriculum; it’s about the space you create,” as Dalila Stanfield explains in the second of her two videos. Esparza, who draws on the work of Paulo Freire and Donaldo Macedo (1987) in his assessment of the course, agrees: “Being able to have a space of discussion, a space in which people can tell their own stories … That’s one of the essential parts to making this a true learning experience that helps you read read the world and not just the word.” (You can get a feel for how these discussions went by viewing the course’s selection of class videos.)

Learning Outcomes beyond the Class

Professor DeGraff hopes students who participate in 24.908 Creole Language and Caribbean Identities will take what they’ve learned and apply it “to themselves, to their communities, to their countries.” He shares as an example one student who went on to volunteer in a bilingual education program in Boston, providing children with immersion from kindergarten in both Creole and English. “To me, that’s a dream,” he says, “because it’s one case where what you learn in the course can be directly applied in the real world context, which can make actual positive change in the lives of these children.”

A trilingual sign reading 'Au Revoir,' 'Orevwa' and 'Goodbye.'.

A sign in French, Haitian Creole, and English at the airport in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. (Image courtesy of Jason Rosenberg on flickr. License: CC BY.)

Reference: Buy at Amazon Freire, Paulo, and Donaldo Macedo. “Literacy and the Pedagogy of Political Empowerment” and “Rethinking Literacy A Dialogue.” In Literacy: Reading the Word and the World. Praeger, 1987. ISBN: 9780897891264. [Preview with Google Books]

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