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Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part series about whether there’s a place for Pidgin in Hawaii schools. Read Part 1: Fo Teach Pidgin o Not Fo Teach Pidgin — Das Da Question.
The poem’s lines complete the sentence. Some examples:
be one doctor . . .
go mainland school . . .
work customer service . . .
write a ‘proper’ sentence. . .
“Ho, from reading dis poem look like you pretty much useless, good fo’ nahting den, if you talk Pidgin,” writes Tonouchi, the self-proclaimed “Pidgin Guerrilla.” “Destined for be da kine deadweight to society.”
The poem is the result of an exercise Tonouchi did with his students in which he asked, “Try tell me all da tings dat people told you ova da years dat you CAN-NOT do wit Pidgin.”
Like it or not, Pidgin — the local creole language that traces back to Hawaii’s plantation era — has no place in the professional world, critics say. They argue that students need to speak English to get by in life.
“Our education system should be shooting to help our kids to be well-informed, well-educated people who can go into the community” and get good jobs, said former Hawaii Gov. Ben Cayetano, who has repeatedly said that Pidgin should be eradicated from Hawaii classrooms.
Teachers who allow classroom Pidgin aren’t doing enough to ensure their students realize their fullest potential, he said. Cayetano grew up in Kalihi and graduated from Farrington High School.
But Pidgin advocates like Tonouchi — who got his master’s in English from UH — say that belief is nothing but a product of deep-seated discrimination. And the emphasis on so-called “standard English,” they say, disregards Hawaii’s cultural diversity.
“To say you should only have one language is restrictive,” said Ermile Hargrove, a Pidgin advocate and Hawaii Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development executive director. Standard English is “an artificiality that doesn’t even exist.”
Civil Beat consulted several local career development experts to see how Pidgin use affects career readiness.
Pidgin, they said, is a double-edged sword. But all agreed that the ability to speak English is almost always critical for job seekers.
That means that Pidgin speakers who can’t turn their Pidgin off are at the greatest disadvantage when it comes to entering the workforce, they said.
A 1987 Hawaii Supreme Court case even revealed that merely speaking in a local accent — not full-blown Pidgin — could jeopardize a person’s chance at a job.
The case involved two local weathermen who contended they didn’t get promotions because they had a “local accent.” The plaintiffs lost their suit.
“This judgment against me was a judgment against all local people,” plaintiff George Kitazaki said in an interview featured in the documentary Pidgin: The Voice of Hawaii.
Signe Godfrey, president of Olsten Staffing and Professional Services and a Chamber of Commerce Hawaii board member, said one of the most common requests she hears are for employees who speak English — not Pidgin.
Olsten Staffing is an employment agency that helps local companies hire assignment employees for temporary, temp-to-hire and direct-hire positions.
But Godfrey said that Pidgin — and presumably the “local accent” — is more acceptable now than it was in the past. Godfrey, who attended high school in the 1950s, was raised speaking Pidgin. She had to force herself to get rid of it when she got a job at a telephone company.
Godfrey emphasized that, these days, a Pidgin speaker who can turn the creole on and off typically has just as good a shot at a job opportunity as any other English-speaking candidate.
“The ones who just totally speak Pidgin and nothing else are harder to hire,” she said.
Godfrey also pointed out that Pidgin is more acceptable — or even preferred — for certain jobs and in certain parts of the state. Pidgin is often welcomed in blue collar positions or jobs located on the Leeward side, she said.
University of Hawaii career development staff agreed.
Pidgin use can often hurt students pursuing jobs where English is preferred, such as sales or marketing positions, they said.
Norman Stahl, who directs UH Hilo’s Student Development Programs and Career Development Services divisions, said he always encourages students to use English in interviews. But that advice, he said, applies to students everywhere — not just those in Hawaii.
Employers often complain that students don’t use “standard English,” “whether it’s Valley Girl talk or Pidgin,” Stahl said.
“The use of standard English is like dressing conservatively (for an interview),” he said. “You don’t want to behave in any such a way that’s going to put your opportunity to get the job at risk.”
But Pidgin can also work to job-seekers’ advantage, Stahl added, pointing to positions involving outreach to communities where the language is widespread.
UH Manoa Center for Student Services’ Director Myrtle Ching-Rappa said Pidgin use rarely poses a significant issue for students she sees. Most of the campus’s Pidgin speakers can easily switch to English, she said.
Advocates and some education experts say that student achievement and Pidgin aren’t mutually exclusive.
Instead, state Rep. Roy Takumi, House Education Committee chair, stressed that teachers should encourage students’ English proficiency while accommodating other languages, too.
“Students should be equipped [with English],” he said. “Generally speaking, in the world of work, almost everything will be done in English.”
But according to Takumi, that doesn’t mean Pidgin is inferior to English or that teachers should aim to stamp Pidgin out of their classrooms.
UH Hawaiian language teacher Laiana Wong echoed Ching-Rappa’s comments, adding that most students can turn their Pidgin on and off depending on their environment.
“[S]tudents are able to shape their language much better than in the past,” he said. According to Wong, modern Pidgin is often much more diluted than the Pidgin used when he was a student at Iolani School in the 1970s.
But UH Pidgin professor Kent Sakoda said that students still have a hard time distinguishing between Pidgin and English.
“It’s not that [students] don’t know how to use English,” he said. “I think they’re not aware of when they are or aren’t using it.”
That’s because stigmas about Pidgin have discouraged formal knowledge about the language, said Sakoda, who along with Wong helped found the university’s “Pidgin Coup” advocacy group.
That’s where resources like the Pidgin education materials — Pidgin quizzes, history exercises and the like — would come in handy, advocates say. And such lesson plans, they argue, wouldn’t have to be taught at the expense of teaching English.
Meantime, advocates say that efforts to discourage Pidgin in the name of professionalism overlook the real problem: language discrimination.
The very attempt to promote “standard English” disregards the reality that groups across the country speak widely varying forms of the language, they say.
“A language is a dialect with an army and a navy,” said UH College of Education professor Margaret Maaka, quoting a well-known adage about the arbitrary distinctions made between a language and a dialect. “We’re judging our kids based on a standard that doesn’t exist.”
Advocates say they’re not promoting Pidgin-only education, but rather the recognition that Pidgin is a valid language of which speakers should be proud. It’s the tendency to discredit Pidgin that ultimately puts speakers at a disadvantage.
“No language is inherently superior to another language,” Wong said. “People make that happen.”