HAITI- “Do you know Dorthy?” a Haitian high school student asked me as we sat together in the back of a crowded tap tap. He then added, “Dorthy from Michigan?” just to make sure I knew which one he was talking about.
I had to admit that I did not know Dorthy from Michigan.
We had been talking in English for the better part of 20 minutes as waited for the pickup truck to fill with passengers. The student had a high command of the English language, which is something that I found many Haitians possess.
“Dorthy is my English teacher in school,” he then added.
“Well, next time you see her, tell her that she is doing a good job. You speak English very well.”
The youth became a little shy and thanked me, though my words were the truth.
The English language proficiency of Haitians is very high relative to the rest of the non-native English speaking world. I wondered why this was, how could people from one of the least developed countries on the planet speak English better than people from Japan, provincial France, any country in Latin America, or many other places that pump thousands of dollars into the English education of its citizenry?
One response is that there are a lot of DPs — Haitians deported from the USA — in Haiti. But this does not explain it, as I have met many Latinos who have also lived and worked for extended amounts of time north of the border who could hardly say anything in English. In fact, relatively few people in Latin America can communicate in English at all.
I met many people who once lived in the USA in Haiti, and most of them could speak English with near fluency, but I also met many who never stepped foot onto the soil of an English speaking country who also were able to communicate with me in my native tongue. The conversations were not always very in depth, but I found that I could communicate with English in Haiti better than in 90% of the countries that I have traveled in.
I wondered about this until one day while walking through the village of Labadee I heard a women speaking in slow Spanish to a group of children sitting outside near a little river after bathing. I then heard children repeating her words admist seas of laughter. This was a language lesson — I am sure they have them in English as well.
I am sure that the schools and foreign sponsored educational institutes in Haiti offer instruction in English, but the ability that the Haitians have for being able to use it in real time is impressive. Every time during my short stay in Haiti where I needed to communicate — ask a question, find an answer — I was easily able to find a person who spoke either English or Spanish.
The Haitian propensity for acquiring and using foreign languages is impressive. It takes work to learn a foreign language — a lot of work and a lot of time, concentration, effort. But it also takes ability. Haitians have this ability to a degree that I have only rarely observed before.
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