Christian Science Monitor
(April 15, 2003)
From the islands to the classroom and back
The Creole language of Cape Verde found reinforcement from an unexpected
source – the bilingual-education law in Massachusetts. Now,
that law has been repealed.
By Cheryl de Jong-Lambert
Language is one of the deepest legacies of colonialism. In most
countries that gained independence from foreign rule, the language
of the colonizer persists in schools and government offices.
Yet for the business of everyday life – raising families,
bargaining at the market, and chatting with friends – people
usually speak something else, be it an ancient indigenous language,
or a creole or pidgin that blends the colonizer’s tongue with
This dual-language situation gives rise to the question: What language
should a nation officially call its own? In the arid Cape Verde
islands, 380 miles off the coast of West Africa, this query is rising
with new urgency thanks to interjection by an unlikely contingent:
expatriates now living in Massachusetts.
speakers there were required by a state law to be taught in their
first language. The Cape Verde immigrants in the US faced an unusual
obstacle: Their language was primarily oral, not written, so suitable
textbooks did not exist. As educators in Massachusetts began to
design a curriculum to teach Creole, their counterparts in Cape
Verde saw an opportunity.
If they could use these teaching materials in their own classes,
the hope of making Creole an official language, together with Portuguese,
might be realized.
Now, however, that window of opportunity may be closing. The 30-year-old
Massachusetts bilingual-education law is being scrapped at the end
of this school year. The statute was overturned by a 68 percent
vote in last fall’s elections.
“Bilingual education forced Cape Verdeans [in Massachusetts]
to develop the written language,” says Gunga Tavares, cultural
attaché for the Consulate General of Cape Verde in Boston.
“There is now a whole range of experience from here that can
be used [in Cape Verde]. Why reinvent the wheel?”
Too obscure a language?
Since Cape Verde won independence in 1975, sporadic efforts were
made to use Creole – a mix of several African languages and
Portuguese – in official situations. But Mr. Tavares says
the enormous task of developing and installing written Creole in
schools, courts, and ministry offices thwarted officials. “When
you say you’re going to have school be in Creole [in Massachusetts],
it is much easier than doing it for the whole country [in Cape Verde].”
But with fewer than 1 million Cape Verdean Creole speakers globally,
opponents argue that students would be better off continuing to
learn in Portuguese, a widely spoken language.
Cape Verde is home to about 430,000 people, and an estimated 350,000
immigrants and subsequent-generation Cape Verdeans live in New England,
where their ancestors migrated in droves on whaling ships in the
1800s. Cape Verdean communities also dot Europe, South America,
Because children on the islands are not exposed to Portuguese until
they enter school at age 6, they spend a lot of time learning it
– much the way immigrant students in an English-only classroom
would do in the United States. “When you go to school in Portuguese
[in Cape Verde], you spend five years learning how to say chair
or table,” Tavares explains, adding that students cannot express
themselves or learn new material as quickly or as well in Portuguese.
About five years ago, the council of ministers in Cape Verde agreed
to put the Massachusetts-developed Creole writing system on trial
in schools and government offices, says Manuel Gonçalves,
a bilingual guidance counselor who just published “Pa Nu Papia
Kriolu” (Let’s Speak Creole), a book on Creole language
In 1999, Cape Verde’s minister of education visited several
Boston schools to watch bilingual education in action and to start
an exchange between schools in Massachusetts and Cape Verde, Tavares
says. Cape Verde’s Constitution was also revised that year
to endorse the idea of bringing Creole into “every segment
Indigenous languages like Creole would then used for elementary
education, lower courts, hospitals, and many radio broadcasts, says
Eyamba Bokamba, a professor of linguistics and African languages
at the University of Illinois.
At the elementary level, students study an international language
– such as Portuguese – as a subject in school, and then
go on to secondary school in that language to acquire fluency. South
Africa, Tanzania, Rwanda, Kenya, and Nigeria are among the few African
countries that have two official languages, he says.
“Most African countries have language policies that advocate
use of the colonial language in education and government, and in
most instances more than 80 percent of the population is not conversant
in that language,” Professor Bokamba says. “But there
is a sizable population that needs to be served.”
Massachusetts, which in 1971 was the first state to pass a bilingual-education
law, has decided to replace bilingual education with a one-year
English-immersion program for immigrants. Voters in California and
Arizona also overturned bilingual-education laws in recent years.
In a bilingual-education program, students who speak little or no
English could spend up to three years taking subjects like math
and science in their first language while receiving supplementary
English-language instruction. The idea was to bring students up
to speed in English while still advancing their knowledge in other
Opponents charged that too many students languished in bilingual
classes in every language, ultimately graduating from an American
high school without the ability to speak, read, or write in English.
In immersion programs, students focus on learning English for one
year before being ushered into all their subject classes in English.
Tavares and Gonçalves, who are recognized on both sides of
the Atlantic as leaders in the Creole bilingual movement, agree
that the demise of bilingual education is a setback for the Creole-education
effort in Cape Verde – and for continued cultural development
in the US. With low per capita income, according to the embassy
website, and no universities, Cape Verde lacks the resident linguists
needed to develop the written language and the funds to pay them.
“The seed is there,” Gonçalves says. “I
just hope that individuals who have the knowledge will transmit
it. It will be harder with no institution to guide them, but I don’t
think it will die.”
Missing a connection
In the past few years, the movement’s momentum has included
the Creole publication of some dozen books on language, poetry,
and fiction. There are also many instructional materials from Massachusetts
that could be used in Cape Verdean classrooms. But still, supporters
say, something is lost.
“It’s one thing to look at a pile of books, and another
to have an exchange with a live classroom,” Tavares says.
People also need to learn the writing system in order to read the
materials in it, says Gonçalves, who has taught Creole classes
to adults at the University of Massachusetts, Boston University,
and Rhode Island College.
As education officials in Cape Verde continue to consider schools
for a Creole pilot program, the Ministry of Education has supported
first-language instruction through a radio program on the station
RTC. Every afternoon students can tune in to have all their subjects
explained in Creole…
In the absence of video coverage – since television is a luxury
– the program does not advance the effort of making written
Creole widely available, but she says it does enable students to
catch information they may have missed or misunderstood in the Portuguese
However, given Creole’s obscurity and the fact that there
are scores of dialects scattered about the islands, some educators
feel that it is politically and logistically difficult to use Creole
in the classroom. For these reasons, Rhode Island teaches its large
Cape Verdean student population in Portuguese rather than in Creole.
“When students come from Cape Verde, many speak Portuguese
very well,” says Maria Lindia, a bilingual-education coordin-ator
in Rhode Island. “Since there are problems in spoken and written
Creole, our students participate in a Portuguese bilingual program.”
Those who arrive in Rhode Island without any schooling go into an
English as a Second Language program, she says.
With more than 120 language groups to cater to in the system, schools
would have a tough time implementing bilingual programs, Ms. Lindia
says. “Often we don’t have enough students – or
the qualified teachers – for a bilingual class.”
Forced homogeneity is what Creole supporters and bilingual advocates
in other languages are fighting against. “Language identifies
us as a separate group,” Tavares says. “Otherwise we
are identified as Portuguese. Using Creole is not only to learn
better, but to have an identity.”
Just as agreeing on a language to use in class can be a prickly
issue, capturing the language in writing can be similarly challenging.
Like indigenous languages around the world, a written form for Cape
Verdean Creole was devised in the 19th century when missionaries
and colonial officials needed a basic written language to carry
out their work.
These early writing systems generally used letters and accents from
the colonizing language, which linguists are trying to expunge today.
As such, the modern alphabets are usually phonetically based, with
one letter representing only one sound and representing that sound
For this reason, there is no “C” in the Massachusetts-developed
Creole. “C” does exist in Portuguese, but Gonçalves
says it is superfluous because, as in English, its soft sound can
be made by the “s” (like “cyber”) and its
hard sound by the “k” (as in “cafe”).
And with that, the name of the country changes from Cabo Verde in
Portuguese to Kaboverde in Creole, a difference so dramatic even
supporters like Tavares challenge it. “The argument against
it is more emotional than scientific,” she says. “It
is strange to see Cape Verde spelled with a ‘K’. I’m
sure it makes sense from a linguistic point of view, but ordinary
people like me don’t like it or understand it.”
Gonçalves says that the spelling difference is the essence
of the language distinction. Beyond the loss of funding for curriculum
development to aid the Creole movement in Cape Verde, educators
in Massachusetts are worried about how the demise of bilingual education
will affect students.
Without a gentler transition through Creole, Gonçalves and
Tavares say that culture shock – as well as catching up academically
– may be harder for both new immigrants and students who are
born into Creole-speaking homes here. “It is a disaster,”
Gonçalves says. “Kids were able to learn in their own
language and culture. We sent thousands of kids to college through