French in Haiti: Is It Time for a Change?

With the recent natural disaster and assassination of the country’s president in July, Haiti is in the middle of major political, economic, and social upheaval. Amidst the turmoil, some commentators believe now might be the right time for Haitians to take up a revolutionary linguistic policy: adopting Haitian Creole as the primary governing language. Benjamin Hebblethwaite, a Haitian Creolist and assistant professor at the University of Florida, recently published an op-ed in Foreign Policy about the necessity for a new, more equitable language policy in Haiti. “People ask me why Haitians struggle economically and politically, with conditions worsening since the approval of Haiti’s new constitution in 1987,” writes Hebblethwaite. “There are lots of reasons for Haitians’ struggles, but language policy represents an underlying condition.”
While French and Haitian Creole both serve as official languages in the country, French is spoken by a very slim minority (most sources estimate between 5% and 10% of Haitians speak French fluently and use it regularly in their day-to-day lives). Still, the language has a pretty major hold on the country—for example, most Haitian elementary school students are educated in French, even though the vast majority of teachers and students alike speak the language with low proficiency. When Haiti first gained its independence from France, most of the elite survivors of the Haitian Revolution were French speakers—as such, legislation was conducted exclusively in French, despite the fact that the entire country spoke Haitian Creole as its primary language. French remains strongly associated with the country’s elite; however, even many of the country’s wealthiest citizens use Haitian Creole as their main language. Historically, Haitian Creole was seen by many of the country’s elites as a sort of misspoken, error-ridden form of the French language (most of the language’s vocabulary is derived from French, though the grammar is significantly different). It wasn’t until 1987 that the country officially recognized Haitian Creole alongside French, rather than treating it as a bastardized version of French.
The use of French in government and education has significantly limited social mobility—if only a small minority of the country’s population speaks French, using French in legislation and education shuts out the masses from engaging with and truly understanding the government, Hebblethwaite argues. Andrew Warner


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