CLAS: Center for Latin American Studies

News and Highlights


April 6, 2012

This article was written by Jill Ulrich, a UM alumnus who completed her bachelor’s degree in 2011 in International Studies with minors in Microbiology and Chemistry.  She is fluent in Spanish and has a working knowledge of Portuguese, Haitian Creole, and German.  Her interests include parasitology, environmental science, disease control and public health. She intends to pursue malaria research in Germany and to complete her Ph.D. in parasitology.

Haitian Creole has been a heritage language of Miami and the surrounding areas since the first waves of Haitian immigrants appeared on Florida’s shores in the 1950’s. These first immigrants sought to escape the political oppression and economic hardship felt under the regime of President Duvalier (“Papa Doc”). Haitians seeking political asylum and economic opportunities have continued to arrive in Miami since then, forming a strong community that some have estimated to exceed 200,000 individuals. The growing neighborhood of Little Haiti is rich with cultural influences from the island with Haitian restaurants, bookstores, grocery stores, and botanicas to name a few. In many senses, this community is isolated economically and socially from the greater Miami, making it an interesting case study of immigrant social problems, economic mobility, and cultural transition. The language barrier, however, continues to be one of greatest determinants of the Haitian immigrant community’s struggles. Several community organizations, hospitals, and public institutions have responded by incorporating Haitian Creole speakers in their operations.

While Haitian Creole is growing steadily in its importance at home, the relief and development efforts on the island following the earthquake of January 2010 have been an even greater cause for expanded interest in the language. Many non-governmental organizations have been working non-stop since the crisis to rebuild Haiti, facing deep-rooted issues such as social inequalities and lack of infrastructure with arduously slow progress. Some of these agencies recognize the significance of collaboration with the Haitian people in their efforts, but communication is difficult with few Haitian Creole speakers on site and even fewer translators who are versed in Haitian culture. The lack of understanding between the non-governmental organizations and the people whom they to intend to help has led to frustrated efforts, waste of resources, and waning interest in Haiti’s future.

A shift of focus from aiding Haitians to empowering them, whether they be in Haiti or in Miami, could be the key to future development. Fundamental to this shift is the Creole language itself. Currently Creole is a language spoken by Haitians inside the household with family or on the street corner with neighbors, but it is not a language which signifies political participation. For a role in society, Haitians must know French or English, languages which most Haitians are not likely to master given the inadequate education systems of both Haiti and South Florida. Allocating Haitian Creole a greater place in political and educational matters would place the future of the Haitian people in their own hands. Participation is argued by development experts to be one of the most vital elements to the advancement of any community; yet up until now, this right has been denied to the Haitian people due to the lack of recognition of their native language.  Haitian Creole must become a priority for those interested in the well-being of Haitians. Aid without participation has been shown to be unsuccessful; therefore, it is time to consider a new approach with Haitian Creole at its heart.

Many students come to the University of Miami with ambitions of making a difference in their local and global communities. The university has excelled in providing these students with the tools to solve real-world problems such as those facing the Haitian community. These tools include courses on international development theory and global public health, spring-break and summer excursions to developing nations, and faculty- and student-led research projects related to the causes of poverty. While these elements have been essential in students’ development as conscientious change-makers, the elements of language and culture in community participation had been mostly neglected until the appearance of the Haitian Creole language program at UM.

The Haitian Creole language program educates future leaders and agents of public service to communicate effectively and respectfully with Haitians while making an effort to understand the many intricacies of their culture and the complexities of their history. The linguistic approach starts with an emphasis on pronunciation. Students’ proficiency in pronunciation serves as the base for future activities in reading, writing, listening, and speaking. All activities relate to the Haitian culture itself, and as students advance through the course, they learn to discuss complex topics such as social inequalities, cultural perceptions, and human rights in Haitian Creole. This course differs from other language courses in that it emphasizes the use of language not only to communicate but to create large-scale and long-lasting change. Students learn how Haitian Creole can be used as a tool in Haiti’s reconstruction and in the local Haitian community by encouraging the political participation of Haitians. The University of Miami, which through its extensive relief efforts and key location has a special relationship with Haiti, should be proud to sponsor this forward-thinking program.

I started learning Haitian Creole during its first semester at the University of Miami and was so pleased by my progress and intrigued by the Haitian culture that I enrolled in Creole II and Creole III. I had taken other foreign language courses before, but the Creole classes at UM were structured like none of these. The course content was shaped to the individual interests of the students, with some of us more interested in medical relief and others in politics and legal matters. I noticed that other students at the university were also intrigued by Haitian Creole, but many did not even know that it was offered. Haiti's predicament has been weighing on many students' minds since the earthquake in January 2010. Many students whom I know wish to engage in humanitarian service or become involved in international development, but they often choose to travel to Spanish-speaking countries because of their familiarity with the language. I believe that the Haitian Creole program at UM offers these students a great opportunity to become more intimately involved with Haiti and its reconstruction. Students in the course also learn that true progress is about involving the Haitian people in the building of their own future. This is a great chance for the university to show the community its concern with Haiti and its investment in training conscientious future leaders. Over the three semesters I studied Haitian Creole, I believe that my understanding of the world was made richer, and I'm truly grateful to my professor and to those who support the continuation of this program. 

To learn more about Haitian Creole instruction this coming Fall 2012 at UM, click here