PIDGIN: Help or Hindrance?

 “Every time we close the door on pidgin, we close the door on culture.”               ~Lois-Ann Yamanaka, Hawaii Author

Pidgin, or Hawaii Creole English as experts call it, began as a form of communication used between non-English speaking immigrants who came to work on the plantations, and the Hawaiian and English speaking residents.  Pidgin has been influenced by the many languages of settlers in Hawai’i which included Portuguese, Cantonese (Chinese), Japanese, Filipino and Korean, as well as Spanish, Mexican and Puerto Rican.

Pidgin started to be used outside the plantation between ethnic groups in the community, and school children learned pidgin from their classmates. Eventually it replaced their original languages and became the primary verbal communication of most of the people in Hawai’i.

Hawaiian Creole English borrows vocabulary and syntax from Hawaiian.  Most place names are retained from Hawaiian, as are some names for plants or animals.  For example, tuna fish are often called ahi.   Some expressions, such as brah and da kine, have found their way to other places.  Syntax often follows that of Hawaiian.  Certain words can be dropped if their meaning is implicit.  For example, instead of saying “It is hot today, isn’t it?,” a pidgin speaker is likely to say simply “stay hot, ah?” Grammatically, pidgin follows an English translation of the Hawaiian language.

In the classroom however there was intolerance of pidgin by Hawai’i’s teachers and administrators as it was considered to be a hindrance to learning standard English.

But in the 1970s, linguists studying the varieties of Creole English throughout the world came to consider these dialects to be languages in their own right and advocated their use in the classroom as a means of reaching pidgin-speaking students who could not understand the teachers.

Many Hawai’i children grew up speaking standard English in the classroom and at home, then switching to pidgin, or Hawaii Creole English,  in the playground and neighborhood. Those who can switch between two languages have an added skill and are known as ‘code switchers.’

“They have a clear advantage in that they can negotiate in different situations,” says Walter Wolfram, a North Carolina State University linguist.  In a 2004 study published in the journal Psychology and Aging, researchers determined that bilingual speakers are better able to deal with distractions, and that may help offset age-related declines in mental performance.

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