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Jamaica - Speaking the Language

Languages In Jamaica

The official language of Jamaica is English. However, most of the Jamaican population speak a Creole version of English known as Jamaican Patois.

Why Do Jamaicans Speak A Creole Language?

Jamaica was a Spanish colony until 1655. The British then forcibly took it over to run agricultural plantations, with an emphasis on sugar plantations. They imported West African slaves to work on the plantations under very harsh conditions. In 1807, the British Parliament abolished the slave trade, although it took another 27 years to abolish slavery itself and a further four years to emancipate every slave in the British Empire. Workers now had to be paid, but amounts were low and many people survived on subsistence levels of income.

The British rulers and masters insisted on English being spoken by their slaves and workers, whose origins lay in different and distinct West African ethnic groups. However, Jamaica is 4,561 miles away from London, and conversation between natural British citizens and the Jamaican labourers would have been limited. Moreover, many of the slaves wanted to use as little English as possible as a quiet form of resistance against their unjust situation. As a result, enslaved West African people and their descendants naturally developed a unique version of English within their community.

A distinct accent formed, along with grammatical quirks and new vocabulary. Patois is predominantly a verbal language for local people to communicate with each other informally.

Jamaica gained independence in 1962. It chose to remain as a Commonwealth Country with Queen Elizabeth II as the Monarch and English as the official language.

As more Jamaican people became literate and a local market developed for written advertising, songs and poetry, Patois increasingly developed a presence in the written word. Patois words are free of the silent letters and complicated irregular vowel sounds that continuously crop up in standard English

Do All Jamaicans Speak English?

Any Jamaican person who has grown up on the island will speak English. However, most of the population will speak Jamaican Patois most of the time.

Unfortunately for Jamaican school children, the education system demands the use of standard English. Patois is not even given the recognition of being an official language in Jamaica; that honour solely belongs to standard English.

Travellers can struggle to understand some of the Patois terms while they adjust to the sound and rhythm of the language. However, it will not take very long to get used to it.

If you are having problems understanding someone, politely explain that you haven’t understood and ask them to please repeat what they said. As long as you are respectful and don’t have an attitude of superiority, this will not cause a problem.

Do People Speak Spanish In Jamaica?

Children in Jamaica’s private schools will often be taught Spanish, but it has little presence in public schools.

There are a number of Spanish speaking countries close to Jamaica, which means Spanish speakers have long come to Jamaica to live and work. In the past, some Spanish words have been incorporated into Jamaican Patois. Today, small communities exist of people who speak Spanish at home.

In 2017, Spain's Secretary for International Cooperation, Fernando Garcia Casas, even went as far as suggesting Spanish should become the second language of Jamaica as this would open up the tourism market. Far from having its intended effect, the suggestion instead prompted a number of Jamaican newspapers to question why Jamaican Patois doesn’t have recognition as the official language in a country where it is the dominant means of communication.

This means that few people in Jamaica can understand Spanish speakers unless they also speak English.

Jamaican Radio

At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, Jamaican resident John Grinan handed his personal radio equipment over to the government in accordance with wartime regulations. However, in an interesting twist, he persuaded officials to use his equipment to start a public broadcasting service

The radio service was privatised under license in 1949, and the first commercial broadcast delivered in 1950, with advertisement slots funding the service. Some 200 wireless sets were distributed to meeting places in rural areas to ensure all areas of the island could benefit from radio broadcasts. Music started to form the backbone of radio shows in the 1960s and continues to do so today.

Radio broadcasts in Jamaica are produced in both English and Jamaican Patois.

TV In Jamaica

A wide range of TV stations and broadcasts can be accessed in Jamaica. Some are made on the island, while others are produced elsewhere in the Caribbean for widespread consumption.

Viewers can obtain cable and satellite broadcasts to enjoy programmes from all over the world, and large numbers of households subscribe to these services.

Netflix is available in 190 countries around the world and Jamaica is one of them. Unfortunately, there are complicated licensing and cost issues which means that the catalogue of TV content is not the same as in the UK. Netflix is trying to address this issue, which formed the impetus for the Netflix studio productions, but it will be some time before parity is obtained.

Being a religious society with a highly active church membership, it is not surprising that Jamaica receives a lot of religious programming. Love TV, for example, is a TV channel whose entire output is centred on Christianity and worship.

Most TV programmes in Jamaica are in English or Jamaican Patois, but with cable and satellite services, it is also easy to access a huge number of Spanish shows.

Many Jamaicans enjoy using YouTube and a number of young people have made a name for themselves creating their own online content. While it is difficult to make a living from YouTube on an island of less than three million people, the YouTubers do give a voice to young Jamaicans whose presence is largely ignored by the world’s media.

Newspapers In Jamaica

A number of daily newspapers are in circulation in Jamaica, and they also have an online presence.

You will notice that articles are written in standard English, but the online comments made by members of the public are almost always in Jamaican Patois.

The Gleaner was established in Jamaica in 1834, making it the country’s oldest newspaper.

The Jamaica Observer is another popular source of news, entertainment and local information.

Generally, the press in Jamaica acts independently. They do not have some of the freedom rights to report on specific areas of government activity that journalists in other countries can enjoy, but neither are they controlled by the state. There are plenty of degrees in communication and journalism in the country, ensuring that Jamaica produces fresh generations of well-trained journalists.

Read more about this country

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