August 2011

Issue Home >>



The search for another tongue

Professor Ian Robertson discusses the careful use of language

By Serah Acham

“You need to understand how language is learnt ... what languages the students bring into the classroom. You need to understand how ... you can help them move from what they’ve brought in to what you’d like them to use.”

Professor Ian Robertson’s foray into the field of Linguistics began with a deep interest in the English language, which he began to fulfil with an undergraduate degree in Literature at The UWI’s Mona Campus. Following its completion in 1969, he returned to his home in Guyana and began teaching English at a secondary school. It was this experience that propelled him to pursue Linguistics, he explained.

“It just struck me that my degree in Literature was not really helping me to deal with the issues that would come up in the classroom. I didn’t understand them in a way that would help me to teach and that led me towards the two things I love – Education and Linguistics ... I needed the one to teach properly and I needed the other one to understand what I was supposed to be doing.”

Two years after his graduation from The University, he returned to its St. Augustine Campus where he began a Master’s degree with a focus on students’ problems learning English. “It had to do with trying to understand whether it was a problem of knowledge or whether it was just a problem with their ability or willingness to use English structures.”

In 1973 he returned to Guyana, and became a teacher of Linguistics at the University of Guyana. “When that happened,” he said, “I had just been reading on the Creole languages and ... I had just completed my field work in the schools and I abandoned it to go to look for something that people said did not exist – because I didn’t believe that it didn’t exist ... a Dutch Lexicon Creole.” Six months later, he had proof of “not just one, but two Creole languages based on Dutch, spoken in Guyana” – Berbice Dutch and Skepi Dutch.

Thus began his journey into the history of the Caribbean’s languages. “Actually, that was my PhD study eventually. I gave up the education side of it and spent the next three years doing a description of the Berbice language and much of my academic work in linguistics has been attached to those Creole languages and their significance to languages in general – the Creole languages in the Caribbean area.” This, he reflects, is “my single contribution to Linguistics ... If you pick up a book ... a paper ... you’re not going to find too many things written about Berbice Dutch without my name being included in it.”

In 1983, Professor Robertson returned to The UWI, St. Augustine where he continued teaching at the School of Education. “I was responsible for training teachers of language education,” he says, and in 1989, he became the Head of the School, a post which he held until 1994 when he switched to Linguistics, “my home discipline.” In 2000, he was appointed Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Education (FHE).

Having spent much of his career in Education at The UWI, St. Augustine Campus, Professor Robertson has seen the development of teaching over the years. “For one thing,” he begins, “the classes are so much larger now. They’re frighteningly large which means that you have to have a whole set of different skills and approaches.” The number of Linguistics courses taught at The University has also significantly increased, he says.

Another major development “is that the Ministry of Education has now acknowledged the significance of linguistics for the teaching of English.” He explains that, “for a long time, we couldn’t convince the Ministry of Education of the need for teachers to understand the nature of language.” But, he elaborates, in order to teach effectively, “You need to understand how language is learnt ... what languages the students bring into the classroom. You need to understand how ... you can help them move from what they’ve brought in to what you’d like them to use.” He concludes that this “is probably the most significant change.”

But Linguistics isn’t the only area on the Campus that has seen improvements. When Professor Robertson became the Dean of the FHE, he noticed that “there was a need for the Faculty to believe in itself ... I don’t think it had a positive self-concept.” At the time, he says, “I don’t think people believed that the Faculty could do things,” so as the Dean, “one of the things I found it necessary to do was to stand up for the Faculty – to encourage people to begin to believe in themselves.” To achieve this, he set about making the FHE “the first major step upwards in technology,” for The University. “In 2000,” he says, “no lecturer had a computer in his office,” but by the end of his first year as the Dean, seeing to this was only a part of the solution. He had all the classrooms refurbished, the furniture changed, drop-down screens added and ensured that everyone in the Faculty had access to “a large television screen, a DVD player and a VHS player so that people could view things,” as well as, “a number of cameras.” Today, he says, “you can go into one of those classrooms and deliver a lecture via videoconferencing to anyplace.”

The Faculty’s new building is another product of his endeavours. “I remember speaking to the Deputy Dean in my first year as Dean,” about the open space between the old FHE building and the cafeteria, and wondering “why can’t we put up a building here that would be real state of the art?” Thus the Faculty gained a new space, “and now it is a landmark,” he proclaims, referring to the clock at the top of the building.

What needs to be done now, he declares, is “to develop a much more robust foreign language profile,” to allow us to better “interface with the wider world.” We need to recognise the potential of our location, he stresses.

“I mean here we are boasting that we are the meeting place of all these different trade routes. We’re sitting in the middle of Latin America, how many of us have good control of Spanish? We have French neighbours ... how many of us are fluent in French?” He attests that the Centre for Language Learning “is doing an excellent job to my mind, but on a smaller scale.” What we need, he says, is “to develop a greater consciousness of the role of language in our day-to-day operations so we begin to use language the way that it should be used.”