Haiti—Where Theory Meets Reality (by Caroline Riches)

Haiti, it seems, is not a common destination, as people express an element of surprise and curiosity when I share that I have visited there. I have the privilege of being part of a project that involves research and professional development work with in-service English as a Foreign Language (EFL) teachers in Haiti. The story of how I got to be involved with this work in Haiti will have to be told another time, but suffice it to say that it has exposed me to a completely other world.

When asked how a trip went, or what it was like, the answer is complicated as Haiti is a complicated place. There are issues of poverty and inadequate infrastructure, politics and corruption, education and language, and to top it off, the devastating effects of natural disasters.

For me to even begin to understand Haiti, I needed to understand a least a little of Haiti’s history which is ‘complex and interwoven with tragedy’ (Avalos & Augustin, 2018, p. 38) and which has profound and lasting effects on all aspects of Haitian life. Haiti was the first Caribbean nation to gain independence from its colonial power—France—in 1804.

This came at a price, however, the effects of which linger to this day. At the time Haiti, as a major producer of coffee and sugar, was fueling France’s economy, and France threatened to reinvade. In exchange for recognizing Haiti’s independence, France demanded reparation payments – some say the equivalent of 21 billion dollars today (Sperling, 2017) – a ‘debt’ that was only paid off recently (1947). Along with this burden, Haiti has also been controlled by a small elite, who have promoted French as the language of politics, power, opportunity and education. Political dynasties, such as the notorious Duvaliers, continued a legacy of corruption, oppression and incurred debt. Knowing and considering this helped me to understand the poverty and oppression as well as the legacy of France and French in Haiti.

As a sociolinguist and teacher educator, I am familiar with theories of diglossia and pidgin and creole languages. I have taught  ‘Sociolinguistics and L2 Education’ many times, and presented Haitian Creole (Kreyòl) as an example of a creole language, and Haiti as an example of a diglossic (French/Kreyòl) situation. Simply put, pidgin languages develop as a means of communication between two or more language groups who do not share a common language; creoles are pidgin languages that are learned as the mother tongue, and develop into complete and fully formed languages (Holmes, 2014). (Haitian) Kreyòl is a prime example of this process of language evolution. In his seminal work, Ferguson (1959) discussed Haiti as an example of diglossia. Classic diglossia is defined as a multi-lingual context where two varieties of a language are used by the population for different purposes—one for more formal situations, such as politics, government and education (referred to as the High language), and another language (referred to as the Low language) for informal day-to-day interactions with family and friends. Sounds positive, right? Haiti is a place where the theoretical meets reality, and while Haiti might fit this description at a surface level, the actual situation is far more complex than can be explained by any standard definition.

The vast majority of Haitians are not bilingual; rather, most, if not all, Haitians speak Kreyòl as their mother tongue, while only 5% – 10% of Haitians are proficient in French (DeGraff, 2010B; Dejean, 1983). So while it is true that French is used for more formal situations such as politics, government and education, given the fact that the vast majority of Haitians do not speak French, the balance of power is held by only a few. Stemming from Haiti’s colonial past and neocolonial present, French is viewed as the language of power and opportunity and remains the language of instruction in most schools, despite the less than adequate French proficiency of teachers and students. Instruction in the mother tongue, particularly at the elementary school level, has proven to be effective and imperative for school success. Despite efforts at educational reform (e.g the Bernard Reform [DeJean, 2010]), mother tongue instruction (MTI) has not been well received. Furthermore, the majority of schools in Haiti are private—restricting access to only those who can afford it. The infrastructure of public education is insufficient for the remainder of the population (Dejean, 2010).

Less than 50% of Haitian children attend elementary school, secondary school graduation rates are below 25%, and the literacy rate is the lowest in the Western hemisphere (Prou, 2009). Finally, most teachers in Haiti do not have formal teacher education (80 % according to USAID [2015]), and do not have access to adequate teaching resources and materials.

Education is the point of entry into Haiti for our research project. We follow a ‘train the trainers’ model and our goal is to empower local teachers by providing democratic and sustainable professional development. We collaborate with in-service EFL teachers to build a professional learning community (PLC) and to co-create tri-lingual (English/French/Kreyòl) materials (Baker, Riches & Parks, 2018).

Our two research sites include schools where MTI is part of the curriculum.

We work alongside our Haitian colleagues to support them to learn, grow and develop as educators. They learn from us, and go on to share what they have learned with their colleagues. I am humbled and inspired by their spirit, their dedication, and their commitment to their students and their country. I have learned even more from them and seen first-hand the power of education in changing the world.

‘When you give, you receive back. In this case, I encourage everyone of us to never stop sharing.’

Haitian Teacher and PLC member


Avalos, M. & Augustine, J. (2018). Haiti’s language-in-education policy: Conflicting discourses at the local level (pp. 37-54). In A. Fuad Selvi & N. Rudolph (Eds.), Conceptual shifts and contextualized practices in education for glocal interaction: Issues and implications. Singapore: Springer.

Baker, B., Riches, C. & Parks, P. (2018). Sustainable and democratic professional development with Haitian teachers. Canadian Society for the Study of Education (Canadian Association for Teacher Education) Annual Conference, University of Regina, Regina, SK.

DeGraff, M. (2010b). Michel DeGraff on Haitian Kreyòl. Society for Linguistic Anthropology. Retrieved from http://linguisticanthropology.org/blog/2010/09/01/michel-degraff-on-haitian-Kreyòl/.

Dejean, Y. (1983). Diglossia revisited: French and Creole in Haiti. SWord, 34(3), 189-204.

Dejean, Y. (2010). Creole and education in Haiti. In A. K. Spears & C. M. B. Joseph (Eds.), The Haitian Creole language: History, structure, use, and education (pp. 199-216). Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Ferguson, C. A. (1996 [1959]). Diglossia. Word, 15, 325-340.

Holmes, J. (2014). An introduction to sociolinguistics, 4e. Routledge: UK.

Prou, M. (2009). Attempts at reforming Haiti’s education system: The challenges of mending the tapestry, 1979-2004. Journal of Haitian Studies, 15(1), 29-69.

Sperling, D. (Dec 6, 2017). In 1825, Haiti Paid France $21 Billion To Preserve Its Independence—Time For France To Pay It Back. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2017/12/06/in-1825-haiti-gained-independence-from-france-for-21-billion-its-time-for-france-to-pay-it-back/#60ad9b4a312b

USAID /HAITI Website. (2015) “Haiti Education”. https://www.usaid.gov/haiti/education


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