Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Haiti’s Foreign Language Stranglehold

Around 90 percent of Haitians speak only Haitian Creole. So why is school mostly conducted in French?

By , an associate professor in the department of languages, literatures, and cultures at the University of Florida.
Students look at booklets at their desks on the first day back to school at the National School of Tabarre in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince on Sept. 5, 2016.
Students look at booklets at their desks on the first day back to school at the National School of Tabarre in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince on Sept. 5, 2016. HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images

People ask me why Haitians struggle economically and politically, with conditions worsening since the approval of Haiti’s new constitution in 1987. There are lots of reasons for Haitians’ struggles, but language policy represents an underlying condition.

Saint-Domingue (1697 to 1803), the French colony that became Haiti, was a cruel slave state. White society never built a school for its enslaved people, who were confined to awful sugar, coffee, and indigo plantations. A generation of Black and mixed-race men, women, and children waged a nearly 13-year war to banish French colonialism and slavery.

Gen. Jean-Jacques Dessalines dictated the Haitian Declaration of Independence in French to his secretary, Louis Boisrond-Tonnerre, for the occasion, which occurred Jan. 1, 1804. Half of the population had been decimated, and the elite survivors legislated exclusively in French, the only written language they knew. Although all Haitians spoke Creole, the elites were keen to acquire new knowledge in French and maintain their distance from Creole speakers. The Haitian masses—at least 95 percent of the population—only spoke Haitian Creole and were immediately severed from the state.

People ask me why Haitians struggle economically and politically, with conditions worsening since the approval of Haiti’s new constitution in 1987. There are lots of reasons for Haitians’ struggles, but language policy represents an underlying condition.

Saint-Domingue (1697 to 1803), the French colony that became Haiti, was a cruel slave state. White society never built a school for its enslaved people, who were confined to awful sugar, coffee, and indigo plantations. A generation of Black and mixed-race men, women, and children waged a nearly 13-year war to banish French colonialism and slavery.

Gen. Jean-Jacques Dessalines dictated the Haitian Declaration of Independence in French to his secretary, Louis Boisrond-Tonnerre, for the occasion, which occurred Jan. 1, 1804. Half of the population had been decimated, and the elite survivors legislated exclusively in French, the only written language they knew. Although all Haitians spoke Creole, the elites were keen to acquire new knowledge in French and maintain their distance from Creole speakers. The Haitian masses—at least 95 percent of the population—only spoke Haitian Creole and were immediately severed from the state.

Mastery of the minority French language, or the lack thereof, is a pivotal Haitian socioeconomic status symbol.

Dessalines, Haiti’s first ruler, ordered the execution of the remaining French citizens. However, Dessalines exercised statecraft with the French language, which he spoke fluently but could neither read nor write. Mastery of French became an obsession of the educated minority as it reflected their bilingual heritage and afforded them opportunities in Europe.

Even today, all these years since Dessalines’s assassination in Port-au-Prince on Oct. 17, 1806, Haitian children are still subjected to a school system that largely operates in a language few Haitians speak with competence—let alone can read or write. It is estimated that roughly 5 to 10 percent of Haitians are functionally bilingual in French and Haitian Creole. However, 100 percent of Haitians speak Haitian Creole, and, more critically, 90% of Haitians speak only Haitian Creole.

Throughout Haitian history, the state’s language policy has protected the linguistic advantages of the bilingual elite. French language privilege is enforced by the Haitian state and its Ministry of National Education through French language national examinations that all students must compose if they hope to graduate. This foreign linguistic stranglehold is also maintained by Catholic, Protestant, and secular private schools.

From 1804 until today, the Haitian Creole-speaking majority has been kicked to the curb, treated like barbarians, denied access to the core institutions required for social advancement, and forced to conform to a clownish Francophone ideal that keeps Haiti stuck in reverse. Haitian Creole was supposedly made co-official by the 1987 Haitian Constitution—183 years after the founding of Haiti—but nothing could be further from the truth. The Haitian state’s official journal, Le Moniteur, only appears in French. Haitian Creole speakers are still humiliated in Haitian classrooms, in the state’s bureaucracy, in interviews for employment, and in the denial of their linguistic rights. Mastery of the minority French language, or the lack thereof, is a pivotal Haitian socioeconomic status symbol.

As a Haitian Creolist, it has been heart-wrenching to watch—via YouTube—the frustration that grips Haitians since the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse on July 7. Beneath the assassination’s stunning details—from the role of Colombian and U.S. mercenaries and the involvement of Haitian police officers to complete silence from the U.S. Embassy—Haitians are governing in Haitian Creole. In the aftermath of the assassination, nary a word of French has been uttered in the public discourse of major politicians, civic leaders, or radio and television journalists. Outgoing Haitian Prime Minister Claude Joseph, police chief Léon Charles, incoming Prime Minister Ariel Henry, union leaders, opposition political leader Jean-Charles Moïse, and militia leaders like Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier as well as every Haitian who gets the chance to speak in front of a microphone universally employ the Haitian Creole language. They do this not only for efficiency and intelligibility but because using French in a crisis is deceptive and dangerous.

Behind the ironic spectacle of watching members of Haiti’s elite guiltlessly speaking Haitian Creole has been the miserable backdrop of Haiti’s children who are subjected to the Haitian state’s French-language school curriculum. In a country where nearly 42 percent of the people are experiencing acute hunger, most of the 11.6 million people lack electricity and running water, and most teachers have low French proficiency, the Haitian state demands children acquire educational content by means of a language nobody—not even the elite—is willing or able to speak.

Seeing footage of Haitian high school students conjugating French verbs in makeshift classrooms set up in shelters where refugees of recent gang warfare have fled is a reminder of the inhumane, underlying conditions of the Haitian state’s language policy in schools. Haitian Creole was only adopted as the main language of instruction for the first three years of primary education in 1987 after years of sabotage by the central government. By the fourth year, the French language curriculum takes over, and Haitian Creole is relegated to a subject. The “Bernard Education Reform” of the 1980s did lead to broader educational access, but the transition to French continues to generate far more dropouts than graduates.

Haitian students lack French speakers in their schools and families, they lack access to French media, and they have few French books. Only 35 percent of Haitians manage to continue to secondary education. A small minority of pupils take the state’s “sacrosanct” French-language exams at the end of the 11th and 12th grades, and of those, less than 25 percent pass in a typical year. One report from 2019 noted only 7 percent of Haitians who begin primary education ultimately complete their senior year. Would you like your kids in that school system?

The Haitian state demands children acquire educational content by means of a language nobody—not even the elite—is willing or able to speak.

Lacking even the semblance of resources, Haitians are expected to acquire the foundation for personal and societal development in an inaccessible foreign language. But why does the Haitian state cling to this language? The bilingual elites want advantages for their children. Opportunities in France and Canada are attractive. The masses have interiorized a linguistic inferiority complex and clamor for the elite language, dreaming of a better life for their kids. There are also foreign actors who want to preserve French in the Haitian state. Diplomats, foreign workers, employees of nongovernmental organizations, and military occupiers often can’t be bothered with Haitian Creole.

Defenders of the status quo include the French Embassy, the World Bank, and French state groups like the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie (OIF), which focuses on the advancement of French-language policies worldwide. The OIF wants the French language to be utilized in educational curricula of former French colonies to enhance the “progression” in the number of global French speakers. Those Francophone organizations are beholden to French business, cultural, and political interests, and the vision they foster violates the linguistic rights of 90 percent of Haitians who never graduate with a high school degree because they have no means of acquiring French.

Moïse’s assassination will not change the pro-French language practices that stymie Haitian students. Outside of the first years of elementary school, Haitian students will not be able to learn about chemistry, biology, physics, economics, sanitation, climate change, civics, mathematics, human sexuality, technology, agriculture, or art in the Haitian Creole language they speak so brilliantly at home with their families.

Inattentive people say Haitian Creole lacks a big enough published corpus or vocabulary capable of handling the “creolization” of the Haitian state and schools. For one thing, anything currently lacking can be produced straightforwardly by Haitian Creole experts. For another, important Creole books already exist: François Séverin’s Plant ak pyebwa tè d Ayiti (“Plants and Trees of Haiti”) provides hands-on agricultural, biological, and ecological knowledge while Séverin’s Ti Zwazo, kote w a prale (“Little Bird, Where Are You Going”) offers Creole ornithological and environmental knowledge. Although investment in schoolbooks is needed, more than a century of Creole publishing demonstrates the depth of Haitian Creole writers.

For now, the elites will keep cutting Haitians’ tongues off, so to speak, with a French that its own members can scarcely muster. The requirement that Haitian children acquire basic knowledge in a foreign language is a flagrant problem faced by Haitians today. People ask why Haitians struggle. The answer is simple. The Francophone Haitian state works against the Haitian Creole nation.

Ask yourself how economically and politically advanced a wealthy nation like the United States would be if it required English-speaking children to study in French or German. There can be little national advancement in Haiti if the state opposes the people it governs with linguistic policy.

Benjamin Hebblethwaite is an associate professor in the department of languages, literatures, and cultures at the University of Florida, where he teaches courses on Haiti, Jamaica, and France. His books include the forthcoming A Transatlantic History of Haitian Vodou, Stirring the Pot of Haitian History, and Vodou Songs in Haitian Creole and English. He is currently investigating Arabic influences in French, German, and Dutch rap lyrics.

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration of a captain's hat with a 1980s era Pepsi logo and USSR and U.S. flag pins.

The Doomed Voyage of Pepsi’s Soviet Navy

A three-decade dream of communist markets ended in the scrapyard.

Demonstrators with CASA in Action and Service Employees International Union 32BJ march against the Trump administration’s immigration policies in Washington on May 1, 2017.

Unionization Can End America’s Supply Chain Crisis

Allowing workers to organize would protect and empower undocumented immigrants critical to the U.S. economy.

The downtown district of Wilmington, Delaware, is seen on Aug. 19, 2016.

How Delaware Became the World’s Biggest Offshore Haven

Kleptocrats, criminals, and con artists have all parked their illicit gains in the state.