What my (European) Mom taught me about learning Creole

“You talk too much.” I’ve heard it all my life. How then did I come to make such a significant error of silence? Let’s ask my 88-year old mother.

On a recent trip to Winnipeg, Canada to visit Mom, I flounced up the stairs and held it out to her…the holy grail, the crown jewel…my Haitihub All Star Patch. The HASP.

Sylvia’s backpack with her prized HaitiHub All-Star Patch artfully attached by her dear mother.  Also pictured, the new Bradt Travel Guide: Haiti

My mother knows of the HASP. Through a year’s phone calls, she tracked my Haitihub journey from Module One guppy to All Star shark. She certainly dislikes the whiff of boast which rises from me as I hand over the HASP, but avows she’s honoured to affix it to my backpack. (I’m following the Shortcut Instructions which came with the HASP: an excellent plan, as Mom is a tailor, and I use staples to shorten new jeans).

I announce my intention to practice Creole while she sews. Ten minutes pass peacefully before my mother appears. “It’s pretty quiet in here. I thought you were practicing your Creole,” she states. “I am,” I reply, mystified. “Look…Creole.” I flip the laptop to show her. My fierce, 4’10” bilingual, European mother views the screen, eyebrow arched. “You’re reading Creole on a computer?” Her gaze looks tranquil, but I perceive it…Nice Mommy of fluffy mittens and chicken soup is morphing into Disappointed Mommy of low math marks and lost bus passes. I’m deflating in increments.

“I thought you were trying to learn Creole so you could communicate with people when you go back to Haiti.” Is this a statement or a question? I’m uncertain.

“That’s what I’m doing, Mom,” I hiss back. I am awful. Mrs. Wise Brow walks off and reappears with my pack, sporting the perfectly-sewn HASP. “What does it say on this patch?” she queries with a smile.

“It says, ‘Speak Creole.’”

“That’s right. Speak Creole. And you, my girl, are never going to learn to speak Creole just by reading it on a screen, I’m sorry to tell you.”

Mezanmi… face slap! Suddenly my (pompous, arrogant) goal of learning this language in a year mocks me. I likely have this coming, but now my inability to master Creole comprehension becomes a simmering volcano of frustration. The sounds thicken in my ears as the corresponding words becoming line-dancing pheasants before my eyes. My mother’s comments heave it all to the surface. O o! I am going to cry.

My mother came to Canada 57 years ago with a dream, a skill, and not a word of English. Why hasn’t it occurred to me to ask her about the experience of learning a new language from the very bottom up?

Humans learn to speak by imitating what they hear. Long before they have much visual acuity, infant brains are ordering and sorting the world of sound into which they have been immersed. And from this process, they will begin to speak. Adult language learners can take a page from the baby book — reading is a tool we can utilize as adults, but if we’re afraid to speak, we won’t get far.

A photo of Sylvia’s Mom taken shortly after she arrived in Canada (circa 1961)

Like most immigrants, my mother did textbook work to learn English. But from a long conversation her, I gleaned a short answer about language comprehension: she understood native speakers’ words when they were ones she had already learned to say – the ones she spoke out loud as she sought to have others understand her. Day by day, words –which are just sounds with meanings– became familiar. And so language comprehension is built.

It’s no coincidence that two powerful communication tools, language and music, are sound-based. Can it be this simple for me – boost my Creole comprehension by speaking aloud everything that I currently read, on Haitihub and elsewhere, and repeating out loud everything I hear? I don’t know, but I’m about to commit a year to try and find out.

“Are you hungry? Do you want something to eat?” queries my astute, lovely, bilingual, patch-sewing mom. Yes, I’m hungry and I’d like to eat, I reply.

“OK, if you say that in Creole, I’ll get supper going.”

I laugh– I’ve got this.“Wi manman,” I say. “Mwen grangou. M ta renmen manje.”

2017’s the year to do it, Haitihubbers. Ann pale kreyol, zanmi m yo!


Sylvia and her Mom, both foreign language learners! (circa 2017)


Sylvia reading Janjak & Freda in Creole.

Written by Sylvia Elias on January 26, 2017


A Note From HaitiHub HQ: Remember, ALL HaitiHub members are enthusiastically invited to join a HaitiHub Skype team when they begin their studies with the HaitiHub online modules. HaitiHub Skype teams are an excellent way to SPEAK Creole (as Sylvia suggests), to hear Creole spoken, and to interact in real-time with fellow learners and HaitiHub facilitators. Access to a Skype team is not an “upsell” or an “upgrade” — it comes included with the cost of joining HaitiHub. We’re here for you! Please take advantage of this! Konsa nou ka PALE ansanm! As always, see more at www.haitihub.com.


2 thoughts on “What my (European) Mom taught me about learning Creole

  1. Sylvia, I love this! What a wonderful story about your Mom, and a very timely reminder for me to start talking to myself in Creole again! So what if my family thinks I’m nuts?

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