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Michel DeGraff: Linguistics and education in Haiti

Michel DeGraff is a professor of Linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Director of the MIT-Haiti Initiative. He is also a founding member of the Haitian Creole Academy. His fields of scholarship are linguistic theory, Creole studies and the relationship among linguistics, ideology, education, human rights, and development.

In this interview with One More Book, Mr. DeGraff discusses his life as a Haitian child being forced to use French during education, and how this experience prompted him to study linguistics in order to help improve educational outcomes for Haitian school systems. Mr. DeGraff also discusses why Haitian Creole is a necessary tool for helping Haitian children to become proficient and creative learners in all academic areas, including non-native languages such as French, English, Spanish, etc

Michel Degraff has collaborated with One Moore book in the past to produce a Kreyòl translation of Katia D. Ulysse’s Fabiola Ale Lekòl. Recently, we partnered with DeGraff and Texas Christian University to produce a Kreyòl translation of Edwidge Danticat’s The Last Mapou, which was originally published by One Moore Book

in 2013.

Twitter: @micheldegraff Facebook:



Thank you for partnering with us at One Moore Book on this translation project with Texas Christian University.


I find it so very exciting and encouraging that One Moore Book is translating and publishing books in Kreyòl, including Edwidge Danticat’s The Last Mapou. This project is so heartening to me because, in my work on linguistics and education in Haiti, I clearly see how important it is to have books available in Kreyòl in all disciplines, especially books by great writers like Edwidge. That's one thing that teachers and students who are struggling to improve and democratize education in Haiti keep asking for: books, books, and more books in Kreyòl. There was a time when people had doubts as to whether we Haitians could teach science and mathematics in Kreyòl. Now we’ve passed that stage. The truth is now known—well, it’s becoming more known: Kreyòl is a perfectly normal language, and we can indeed do science and math and everything else in Kreyòl. Now, people in Haiti, including the anti-Kreyòl naysayers, have to reckon with the fact that even a world-famous university like MIT is creating high-quality resources for STEM education in Kreyòl—as in our MIT-Haiti Initiative. So it’s now crystal clear, beyond any doubt, that we can indeed produce materials of the highest quality in Kreyòl. And now the teachers and students we work with in Haiti want more materials in Kreyòl.

Talking about Edwidge Danticat: Often her name would come up in discussions about texts in Kreyòl. A couple of years ago, I was at a linguistics conference—in Finland, of all places—and there was a Finnish student [Laura Ekberg], working on her PhD in translation studies, and she was presenting her research on how best to translate Edwidge Danticat's and other Caribbean writers’ books from English to … Finnish! One thing she was looking at is what linguistic devices are needed to correctly translate into Finnish the passages in Edwidge’s book Farming of the bones where there’s code switching among English, Spanish and Kreyòl. She was considering how best to convey the effect of such code-switching into a Finnish translation of Edwidge’s work.

And then the question came up if there was anyone working on translating Edwidge’s work into her native Kreyòl. Sadly the answer, back then, was “no.”


Oh wow. Yeah.


If you think about it, it’s a very sad situation where you have Finnish linguists working on translating Edwidge’s work into Finnish (spoken by less than 6 million Finns) while there isn’t any similar project to translate Edwidge's work in Kreyòl (spoken by some 12 million Haitians!). So, of course, when James asked me if I could help with this translation project, I immediately said yes. And I was even happier when I was able to bring linguist and poet Jacques Pierre into the project—Jacques is such an exquisite writer of Kreyòl and so attuned to the fine nuances of the language. Both Jacques and I thought that this project would help create a larger movement for other books by Edwidge and other great Haitian writers to be translated and published by One Moore Book and other publishers.


I think the only answer is to somehow find a way to deconstruct some of the norms that were imposed on us during colonialism. When I was in Haiti at the beginning of 2016, I went to a few libraries and most of the texts were in French. Few shelves had Kreyòl [books]. But everyone outside was speaking Kreyòl.


It's the weirdest thing. So there is this festival in Haiti called “Livres en folie” (a French title that means “Books gone crazy” in English). I think this title does correctly fit this “crazy” situation of publishing books mostly in French for a population that speaks mostly Kreyòl. So it's really “craziness.” Using an expression from my late colleague Yves Dejean’s book, Haiti is an “upside-down” (in Kreyòl, “tèt an ba”) country. And this festival “Livres en Folie” too is “upside-down” with everybody at the festival speaking Kreyòl while the books they're buying are mostly in French. It's amazing that the people sponsoring this festival, though it’s a beautiful project, do not realize how linguistically and pedagogically incoherent this situation is. Yet the organizers include well-educated and well-meaning progressive intellectuals who certainly understand, in principle, the importance of children’s mother tongues for learning to read in order for them to become competent life-long learners.

But I think this situation is changing for the better. Every year that goes by, the “Livres en folie” festival offers more and more books in Kreyòl, though Kreyòl remains the second-class language at this book fair and in most formal occasions in Haiti, by a huge, very huge ratio. It will take everyone’s participation to bring a sustainable solution to this problem. At MIT we’re doing our part, producing resources for science and mathematics in Kreyòl. We’ve now started to produce a series of books in Kreyòl for science and math. We are bringing the first of these books to the “Livres en Folie” festival this year—in June 2019. Our first MIT-Haiti book, in a projected series of four books in science and mathematics, is a guide for active learning in physics: Gid Fizik MIT-Ayiti, authored by Dr. Paul Belony, Dr. Glenda Stump and myself, and published by Editions JEBCA in Boston.

Meanwhile there should be more pressure on civil society and the government so that books in Kreyòl, in all disciplines and at all levels, be more valorized by the publishers, the public, the government, etc. We still have a long way to go…


You also did Katia's book [Fabiola Goes to School].


I love Katia. I did not translate her book, but I helped her with some of the final editing—somewhat like what Jacques Pierre and I did for Edwidge’s book. Katia is such a beautiful example of Haitian writers in the U.S. who write in English, but who also think of writing in Kreyòl for their Haitian compatriots. As the Haitian saying goes, “Men anpil, chay pa lou” (“Many hands make the load lighter”).




For me it's a betrayal of our mission as intellectuals, if all that we produce of value is written in a language that most of our people cannot read, cannot understand.

And the thing is, many Haitians will tell you we in Haiti can read French. Yes, Haitians can (quote, unquote) “read” French. But I've seen Haitians “read” French, and the way too many Haitians “read” French is by sounding out letters. But then if you ask them questions about what they've read, there’s a good chance their answer will show that they didn't understand what they read. I’ve seen it happen over and over again, and I’ve done research on this issue—published in an article titled “Mother-tongue books in Haiti: The power of Kreyòl in learning to read and in reading to learn.” By the way, this parrot-like way of “reading” French even happens among the best students at the best schools.




One of my colleagues, a dear friend from childhood called Frantz Gourdet who now lives in France, has launched a bold translation project—a collaboration between his publishing company Editions LEVE and the Applied Linguistics Faculty of Haiti’s State University. They are selecting important texts in French and in English, and they have linguistics students translate them in Kreyòl as part of a university-level program in translation.

Earlier this year (2019) Frantz told me a story that’s quite telling. He went into one of the best schools in Haiti to carry out an exercise in translation, as part of introducing his project to the school. He had the students read a text in French, then they had to translate it into Kreyòl on the fly. And what he observed is that some of these students in this prestigious school, when they had to translate from French into Kreyòl, they didn't understand the nuances of what they were reading in French. As they were trying to translate from French into Kreyòl, some of the Kreyòl translation was not accurate at all—with some the meanings in Kreyòl quite far removed from the French original. It was obvious to Frantz that the students were confused by some of what they had read in French. This is yet another indication that, even among the relatively well-educated French-speaking population in Haiti, the use of Kreyòl is the best route to deep understanding—this is also the point of my article on “the power of Kreyòl in learning to read.”


Yes. And then if you're using these works as conduits to inspire a sense of national pride and identity, then what does someone think of their nation or themselves if they're not fully invested in what they're reading?


Absolutely. When I look back at my youth, you know, I went to one of these schools that are considered to be among the very best schools in Haiti. For 13 years from 1st grade to Baccalauréat, I went to this Catholic school run by French brothers: Saint-Louis de Gonzague. When it comes to literature, there’s something that I think about a lot as I look back at my upbringing and my schooling, something that makes me very sad as I remember that our very textbooks, even our manuals about “Haitian Literature,” taught us to despise our language, our culture and who we are.

One of these textbooks, about the history of Haitian literature, is by a French Catholic brother, Raphaël Berrou, and a well-known Haitian linguist and educator, Pradel Pompilus, who was deeply engaged in Haitian education and in linguistics research on Kreyòl. In that book, what we were taught is that Haitians should not be speaking or reading Kreyòl. Frère Raphaël, our teacher of Haitian literature, made us memorize a text by Carl Brouard, one of the best known Haitian poets. In that text Carl Brouard asked what Haiti could ever achieve with Kreyòl. His answer: With Kreyòl, Haiti would not go any further than Gonave Island—a small remote island off the coast of the mainland. So Brouard advocated that children never pick up the “bad habit” of speaking Kreyòl! In that same text, Carl Brouard even asked parents that they avoid speaking Kreyòl to their children. Imagine? In a country where Kreyòl is the one single language that the vast majority of parents speak fluently, parents are asked to not speak Kreyòl—which entails, in effect, to not speak at all to their children! Can you imagine the level of colonial alienation and its impact on Haitian children’s psyche and their sense of self-worth?

Worse yet, this text by Brouard was being quoted by Frère Raphaël Berrou and Prof. Pompilus approvingly. This was one more way that this prestigious French Catholic school, on top of other physical and psychological abuses, was discouraging us from speaking Kreyòl and from valuing our linguistic and cultural identity.

So here’s a book on “Haitian literature,” a book written by a French Catholic Brother (of the so called “Brothers of Christian Education”) and by a Haitian linguist (an “expert” on linguistics and on Kreyòl!) asking us children to throw our native language in the garbage and to adopt French as if it were the only valuable and valid language for expressing our thoughts.

This is just one example among many that show how hard the school tried to convince us that Kreyòl was a non-language, a handicap, a limitation. And that’s the way that most middle-class Haitians of my generation have been brought up—in schools that teach us to look down on our culture, our language and our identity as Kreyòl speakers.

Things have changed quite a bit since then: Now Kreyòl is legally a co-official language with French and is recognized as our sole national language. Now, even at Saint-Louis de Gonzague, kids can now learn how to read and write Kreyòl, though they are not (yet?) taught science, mathematics and other disciplines in Kreyòl. This is a big difference: to be taught a language vs. to be taught IN that language. This difference is especially consequential when it comes to teaching French (a good thing, in principle, since all languages constitute sources of knowledge) vs. teaching IN French (a pedagogical challenge for most teahcers and students in Haiti). Unfortunately most ministries, even the Ministry of Education, still treat French as the sole official language and keep violating the human rights of the population by publishing in French only—as you can easily see if you visit their websites or social-media pages.

That’s why I so praise the work that you, Edwidge, Katia and the other authors of One Moore Book and all those valiant Haitians who are now producing beautiful books in Kreyòl. These books, like Dènye Pye Mapou A, are sending, to Haiti and to the world, a powerful message of hope and pride regained, a message that once again Haitians can provide a heroic model for this long struggle of Black liberation. I hope there’ll be more books like Mapou coming out of One Moore Book.

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