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Lisa VanArsdale - Patois in Jamaica

Brenda and I

As a recent college graduate, I decided that after completing my “institutional” learning it was time to do some learning for my own personal growth. I decided that one of the things I wanted to learn was how to speak Jamaican Patois, the creole-type language that is spoken by Jamaicans. As someone who already had strong ties in Jamaica and cultural understanding that only comes with experience, I knew I needed to find a programme in Jamaica that would be foreigner-friendly, but still let me have freedom to do my own thing.

I started searching online for a programme that would allow me to be in the country I love for several weeks, allow me to expand my Patois skills and have some freedom to travel. This is when I found Projects Abroad. There are dozens of ‘volunteer-abroad-have-a-good-experience programmes’ out there and many of them had opportunities in Jamaica. But after extensive search, I found that what makes Projects Abroad special is that they are the only programme to offer formal Patois lessons.

I then found out that I was the first person to ever take them up on their offer of Patois lessons. To the best of my knowledge, I am the only foreigner to ever come to Jamaica and formally learn Patois outside of the Peace Corps. It’s nice to feel special, but I want other people such as myself, who have strong ties in Jamaica and plan to spend much of their life there, to be aware that this opportunity is out there.

Living in Mandeville, Jamaica

Friendly people in Jamaica

First off, I want to speak to the value of having Projects Abroad headquarters in a place like Mandeville. Mandeville is one of the major cities in Jamaica and it is completely lacking in tourist appeal. If you are looking to have an authentic Jamaican experience, outside of the lovely beaches and all of that, Mandeville will give you a look at what life is like for the average Jamaican living in an urban area.

It is located in Manchester, the only area in Jamaica that doesn’t have a beach. This is not much of a selling point, but that is what your weekends are for! On the weekends, you can travel to touristy areas like Ocho Rios and Negril and Montego Bay. When the time comes to leave for you weekend trip, you’ll be glad you’re starting in Mandeville because Mandeville is a highly functional hub of transportation to the entire island. You have multiple options for easy public transportation to anywhere in Jamaica, all from within walking distance of the Projects Abroad office.

I was able to make more obscure day-trips in the afternoon, such as the largely unknown Treasure Beach, or to Rasta camps. If you’re hoping for an authentic Jamaican experience during the work week, and to be able to see the finer things on the weekend, Mandeville is an ideal setting.

Learning Patois

Volunteering in Jamaica

As the first person to take these lessons, I was the guinea pig because it was my teacher’s first time teaching Patois. Her name was Brenda and she was a wonderful person who I cherished spending several hours with each day. On the first day, she asked me questions to determine my level of comprehension and concluded that I was slightly above the beginner’s level.

She taught me some basic phrases that people use in everyday conversation, answered my questions about Patois that could only be answered by a professional, instead of a common native speaker, and we laid a foundation for what would be useful for me to learn in the coming weeks.

With my lessons being one-on-one, I really got to know Brenda and count her as the closest friend I made during my time in Mandeville. She went above and beyond the call of duty. She would take me around to speak to locals, in the marketplaces and visiting her friends who work nearby. Several visits were made to visit a friend, where I sat in her office and listened to them speak, eavesdropping to build my listening skills and contributing to the conversation with friendly people who wouldn’t cater to my English-speaking habits. This was such a unique and hands-on way to learn the language.

While we were in the classroom, things were more conventional – she would write lessons on the board I would ask questions, practice speaking and take notes. My notes from this class are still useful for me to look back on. She would have me write a summary of where I travelled on the weekend and correct my mistakes. We would watch YouTube videos of Jamaican plays, TV shows and interviews to build my listening skills and my favourite lessons involved watching Reggae music videos and interpreting the lyrics!

We would read poems and short stories written in Patois and she would have me call my (Jamaican) boyfriend on the phone and critique me speaking in Patois to someone in my everyday life back home. She even helped me to write love letters to him! My favourite learning experience within the classroom involved reading a limited-edition Patois translation of the New Testament. To make sure that I was maintaining what I was learning, Brenda would also give me print-outs of vocabulary and a test each week on the new material.

I am proud to say that because of my lessons with Brenda through Projects Abroad, I am now able to eavesdrop on my Jamaican neighbours, carry on a conversation and know what is going on both grammatically and conversationally. And to me, that is invaluable! I travel to Jamaica often and love being able to use my refined Patois skills both at home and while in Jamaica.

Lisa VanArsdale

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