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Op-Ed: The Case for Virgin Islands Dialects in Academia

“Cow cow ah yo, cow cow ah yo, yo tell she meh name Granny Solongo, Bom Bom Terio.” I have heard this story about Granny Solongo and how the crab got the crack on his back only once in my life from the late and great Auntie Janice. It was probably more than 10 years ago and to this day, I still remember most, if not all of it.

You see, Auntie Janice was a master storyteller—she would weave pictures into your mind with just her words as if they were the colorful yarn she would later teach us to make pom poms with. Not once would she dilute her accent or dialect. In fact, those were as much a part of her stories as the characters themselves.

She would teach you how to use your imagination and how to understand subtext, she would use literary devices all throughout and with audiences which could vary from kindergarten students to those who have long retired from the workforce, she found a way to captivate and teach all. It was through my reflecting on her storytelling that I realized that a case needs to be made for our accents, dialects, and storytelling (however those stories may come) as teaching tools of literature. 

As Virgin Islanders, we love a good story. Melee can be captivating; it can have you on the edge of your seat. Who doesn’t want to hear about how “Mabel have one child for Ludy and three for Victor but Ludy and Victor is bruddah?” Have we not all sat in a courtyard in school and heard someone recount the latest scrapping among your fellow students? “Well patna say ‘ah bet you’n gon do me nuttin’ and dih other patna say ‘watch ah gon do yo something just now’ and all of a sudden ‘HEETEEP, BOOTOOP, BRAM, BRAGGADAM!’?”

My, the excitement of it all! In that last sentence alone with the recounting of that fight, there were euphemisms, onomatopoeia, and alliteration. Imagine a teacher having a student tell such a story than having the other students identify the various literary devices in it. Granted, one can argue that this introduces elements of violence in the classroom. My counterargument? Well, have you read Macbeth? Or Beowulf? The point is that you have an accessible means to engage students in a way that is meaningful to them, so why not use it? 

As a writer, I understand the need for “the classics” to be taught in the classroom. There will always be room for Shakespeare and Hughes and Dickinson and Wright. Our Virgin Islands students need to know how to speak, write and comprehend Standard English. They need to explore the world and its cultures and its history and much of that is done through written works.

But teachers are fighting against shortening attention spans in a fast-moving world and the need to find innovative ways to engage their students and keep their attention is increasing. Supplementing a literary device lesson from “Invisible Man” or “Romeo and Juliet” with one in which they use stories told in their own dialects will allow for some level of relatability when they eventually dive in to a classic novel or play with language that is well, not very relatable (as it pertains to the language used, not the themes). 

There is another benefit to allowing the usage of our dialects into the classroom, however. The legitimacy of the dialects of our territory is constantly challenged. We commonly refer to it as broken English, but how can something broken be so beautiful? When we get hurt in a relationship, we don’t just call it a broken heart. No, it has to be something stronger, something which adequately describes the pain we feel. It has to be a “buss chest.”

The descriptiveness of our dialect is made to tell stories, not to be referred to as the discount version of a second language. Using our dialect in an academic setting allows for the legitimization of it as almost another language of its own, which has its own set of grammatical rules which has to be followed for it to be spoken correctly (For example, you cannot use the word “are” after the word “ahyo,’ because the subject and verb do not agree. Try it and see.). If your means of communicating as a people is seen as illegitimate and not worthy of the academic sphere, then what would that mean of the people who use it? 

It is worth mentioning that the Virgin Islands has had its attempts to integrate elements of our culture into our classrooms. Take for instance, the Division of Virgin Islands Cultural Education Cultural Showcase and Competition. Students were tasked with performing cultural artistic pieces before an audience at UVI and did so beautifully. VI History Month is also packed with cultural activities as is displayed in this 2013 article.

When I was a second-grader at Pearl B. Larsen Elementary School, we had a quadrille group and three years later, I was a part of the VI History Quiz Bowl Team. Cultural integration into the classroom exists, but it is important to note that these things usually occur for either just a small portion of the school year, or is limited sometimes to (and I acknowledge that this is a controversial statement) Honor/GT/Magnet students.

Still, what I am calling for is not simply bringing cultural programs into the classroom. I call for the side-by-side usage of both our dialect(s) and Standard English as a means of normalizing and legitimizing the way we naturally speak as a valid way of communicating in an academic sphere. This also allows for us to teach our students to apply academic concepts in literature to the language they already use, so that they may extrapolate said concepts to works written and spoken in Standard English. 

I am not an educator. I have not been taught best practice for teaching a class full of students. I recognize that the education system of the Virgin Islands has many issues facing it, most of which I have endured as a former student of it. But as a lover of language and its usage, and of the freedom that comes with being able to express oneself clearly, I imagine that connecting literature and its teaching to the everyday lives of students who might be showing less and less interest in it, might be a way of bringing excitement back into the English classroom.

We can teach them to be proud of the way they speak while also teaching them how to communicate with the rest of the world effectively so that they may one day join the ranks of the many important Caribbean writers and speakers to whom we owe a great deal because of their mastery of language and their contributions to social thought. Here, I rest my case, though it goes without saying that I welcome feedback, both negative and positive, from our teachers! 

As Auntie Janice would say: 

Wheel bend, and dih story end.