The Literacy Challenge in Chinidad and Chobago

Illiteracy is a growing epidemic in Trinidad and Tobago. Only thing is that no Minister of Health has openly addressed it.

The symptoms are everywhere. One such indicator is the terrible spelling of simple everyday words on commercial establishments. One sign at a roti shop read, ”potatoe roti $8.50”. There are two issues that prevailed upon me; the spelling of ‘potato’ and the tremendously high price for a complex carbohydrate wrapped in a peas filled flour wrap. Then again if the spelling was wrong maybe it was not a potato roti. Maybe it was Something Resembling Potato. After all during the chick peas shortage in 1989 pigeon peas were substituted for channa and the signage never reflected the temporary change.

Recently at a roadside stall in La Romaine a sign read “pilllows for sale”. This vendor inadvertently sought to add more comfort to what were obviously very cheap pillows. I suspect that the additional “L” may not have worked. The pillows were part of an unrelated diversification strategy and the fruits and vegetables that carried no signs were sold without any sort of persuasive tactic.

Another poorly worded sign outside a gym said. “Loose weight here”. Maybe excess pounds and fat were stored at that gym for sale. The market segment to which that sign was meant to appeal remains undefined.

Comprehension is supposedly addressed in our primary school system. This is focused on getting our children ready for the world in which they will work. But the challenges in comprehending simple written instructions are real. A young man was asked to complete a personal data form at an institution where I once worked. He was asked to fill in the field with his address. He confidently wrote that he lived at “the 4th lamp pole on the right hand side”. He may have been correct once lamp poles were not replaced and increased by the utility companies. The dilemma is of course that the location of each of those four lamp poles and by extension, his residence, remains a mystery.

At a cadet camp many years ago a young man assigned to kitchen duty was asked by the Master Cook to wash the pot in order for the next meal to be prepared. In defence of the young kitchen assistant the instruction was, “Pass this pot under the pipe”. Dutifully, the young man did as he was told the victim of well-intended but innocuously used verb which carried a different meaning in the colloquial context than its formal understanding. Without turning on the pipe, he passed the pot in consecutive sweeping motions under the pipe with a diligent and satisfied look on his face.

Even as we smile let us consider that National Literacy Surveys conducted in 1995 by the University of the West Indies and even before that in 1994 by the Adult Literacy Tutors Association show that 22 to 23% of our people aged 15 and over, are unable to cope with everyday reading and writing. That translates to almost one in four citizens of Trinidad and Tobago who were not considered literate.

It is truly a dire state of affairs. But the problem does not rear its head only in atrocious spelling or in displays of functional illiteracy. It is also quite evident in how we pronounce words and how our pronunciation conveys or encodes different meanings.

Many citizens of this twin island Republic say “Chinidad” instead of Trinidad. This pronunciation is often accepted without correction which leads me to believe that the other island should really be ‘Chobago’.

Very often when we have a query for which an apparent answer is not available we say “Can I axe a question?” This line of approach is evidently destructive and may lead to the sudden demise of the intended question leaving the query unanswered. “I axed that question before” extends the thought and maybe can imply a confession of a heinous crime.

Having lived in Princes Town since 1995 I was aghast in my early days of commuting when a taxi driver said to me “You going Priness Town?” Despite my obvious difficulty in keeping a straight face I nodded. My recollection of the Book of Exodus and the forty years in the wilderness made me look out the window for obvious landmarks that signaled my entry into Princes Town.

There are stark similarities in the way in which we deliciously roll off the second syllable in names of places such as Pleasantville and Londonville. Pleasantville becomes Pler-ant-ville and Londonville becomes Lon-un-ville. Now if this was a classroom lesson I would then go into the psychomotor aspect and ask to you to say both words as quickly as you can. Having done that, now jump into your car and pull up on Busy Corner in Chaguanas and say Lon-un-ville while pointing east. If you are driving a Nissan Tiida keep your windows down so that you give the apparent look of legitimately plying your private car for hire.

I have a friend who has demonstrated wholehearted devotion to the renowned singer Teddy Pendergrass except that he thinks that Teddy’s surname is Pendergraff which puts his devotion into perspective.

In many instances the perpetrators of these acts of sabotage are unwitting participants. Maybe they have gotten by without reprimand, admonishment or correction. This is hardly an excuse. Maybe many have grown accustomed to saying “drops” when we refer to one ‘coconut drop’; or “jaunders” to mean ‘jaundice’; or “cokes” to refer to ‘coca cola’. The colloquial expressions cloud our lexicon and maybe at times we are well intentioned however we may just miss our mark.

At an Indian wedding a friend of mine was happily eating the talkari (pronounced Taal-Kah-Ree) which referred to the curried vegetables and sauce on offer. The hostess asked him if he wished to have more but in her normal manner of speaking she said “tokarree”. My friend had consumed quite a bit already and not wishing to offend he said, “Yes, put it in a brown bag for me”.

Although he replied in the affirmative and got what he expected, her question was not correctly interpreted as her phonetical application was inaccurate.

Now consider if she had asked him if he wanted fish broth.


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