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Haitians Speak English

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.

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.

Haitian man in Labadie

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.

Haiti Travelogue Entries — World Culture — Haiti Travel Photos

Filed under: Caribbean, Culture and Society, Haiti, Language

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 88 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3424 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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  • Bob L March 13, 2010, 7:20 pm

    Hee Hee Hee, still caffeinated, but now with a bit of wine……

    DP…. Some of my family were DP’s, although it was Displaced People back then. And some were WOP’s, that is With Out Papers. As I understand it, these tags were put on them at Ellis island, but could be wrong. Both terms were used as insults on the streets.

    I must say, your outlook on life, people and new environments is always refreshing. Too bad you could not get to Port Au Prince. Your take on the situation there would be invaluable. Frankly, it would be a bit of history not normally recorded. Real views of real people, rather than the highly spun crap from the TV. Any chance you could make it there? How long you gonna’ be in Dominican Republic?

    Bob L

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com March 13, 2010, 8:16 pm

      The idea was to spend around 5 days in the north of Haiti and then go to Port au Prince and write about the country as a whole in the face of recent circumstances. But financial circumstances got the best of my reasoning — I dropped a lot of money for accommodation, and, combined with the amount of money that Chaya and Petra needed in the Dominican Republic, I felt that it would be irresponsible to continue the project.

      Our money status is fast approaching the critical level. This is the flip side of the joy of traveling with a family. We should be leaving the Dominican Republic in a couple of days. Going to Guatemala and then El Salvador and then Colombia and then we don’t know. Chaya is looking for teaching jobs, so we could end up anywhere in the world.

      Thanks,

      Wade

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