Written By Maco Monthervil
I was 9 years old when my mother spoke her salutations, well wishes, and her request for Creole schoolbooks into a cassette tape recorder that was to be sent to my uncle, with the cassette still inside.
“Bon, m-pa konn si se maten ou aprèmidi w-ap jwen mesaj sa-a, Jean. Bonjou, bonswa…tout bagay! Timoun yo byen? Jean, tranpri—gade pou-w wè si-w te ka fè-m jwenn kèk ‘Ti Malice’ oubyen ‘Je Lis et Je Parle Avec Plaisir’, pou timoun yo.”
The books arrived from Haiti, and with that, my love affair with Haitian Creole began. With these books also came the introduction of many rules: at home, my sister and I were to speak French, but at church and around the community, we had to speak Creole—that’s what Mom wanted.
English was an afterthought, because “se Ameriken nou ye—n-ap pale Anglè kanmenm”. Also, whichever language we were addressed in was the language in which we had to respond. This meant that sometimes, Mom could decide that we could only speak to her in Creole, even if we were at home. My mom would also organize competitions: “whoever spends the entire day without speaking English gets $5”. My sister and I always won, even when we lost—Mom rewarded effort. On school days, once we had finished our homework, we’d have our French and Creole lessons, complete with the occasional pop quiz or spelling test.
It should come as no surprise that I hated these lessons—I hated them with as much passion as I loved the things I enjoyed. The languages themselves, I loved. Speaking French required a lot more work (there were many more rules), and the adults seemed more impressed with it, but Creole is where I found myself most at home. Creole is where I felt free.
I loved how harsh the words sounded, how I could make someone feel I’ve cursed them out without having used a single expletive, and, I loved how expressive and specific the language is. I didn’t like that many adults implied, with their attitudes, that Creole was inferior to French—I still don’t.
As she had been about many things, Mom was right when she told us that speaking other languages would prove beneficial. Doors have opened simply because I speak something other than English (and I suppose some have also closed for that very reason, but that’s for another discussion).
For now, I will say that I understand that our parents exposed us to—or kept us from—our language and various aspects of our culture in an effort to do what they thought was best for us. I’m grateful mine did what they felt was best for me.