Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Peace Corps and me

This posting was triggered by the recent passing of Sargent Shriver, the first Director of the Peace Corps, and attempts to show in a little more detail the effect being a Peace Corps Volunteer had on me.

Carriacou is a part of the West Indian state of Grenada, Carriacou, and Petite Martinique, located in the southeastern Caribbean just north of Trinidad and Tobago.  I first saw this little (12 square mile) island in July of 1971 as a Peace Corps Volunteer in training. Of course, I had never heard of Carriacou before the Peace Corps folks told me that's where I would be going when we linked up in Philadelphia a few weeks earlier.  There followed teacher training and orientation at Lincoln University, outside Philly, and then our trip to the Caribbean for further training and visits to our field sites.

My first impression of Carriacou was that it looked like a desert; it was incredibly brown and dry, the result of an extended drought. Water was scarce, and on top of that many people were mourning the loss of relatives and friends in the recent sinking of the schooner City of St. George on a trip between Grenada and Carriacou. But folks were friendly and welcoming, and I thought I could handle it.

(The photo at right shows me sitting on a colonial-era cannon at the Hospital, 2003.)

Six weeks later, I began teaching Spanish in the newly-opened Junior Secondary School.  The school was intended specifically for those children who reached the age of 12 years and were unable to attend high school, for either academic or financial reasons.  Previously, these children had to remain in their primary schools, often sitting in classes with much younger children.  The hope, at the time, was that they would be better served in a separate junior secondary with less emphasis on academics and more "practical" work, such as cooking, woodworking, and the like.

Although children at the Junior Secondary were considered for the most part less scholastically capable than those who entered secondary school, I was soon very impressed with their quickness in learning Spanish.  I had taught for a year at a prestigious private boys' school in the States, where the students were highly selected for and expected to be college material.  I saw no difference between their capacity to learn and that of my new charges.  Of course, there were big differences in the materials at our disposal.  In Carriacou there was no language lab, and there were no textbooks; everything had to be improvised.  I eventually produced little text booklets for the children on the school's mimeograph machine.  Despite these shortcomings, the children were enthusiastic about Spanish and over the years several became Spanish teachers themselves.

During time spent in the teachers' lounge, I was at first puzzled by the complaints of teachers in other subjects who talked of the children's "backwardness" in such things as history, language arts, mathematics, and science.  In some cases, the very same children who were doing fine in Spanish were failing these other subjects.  Perhaps because I was a language teacher, I soon began to feel the glimmerings of a possible solution to this paradox.  Although Peace Corps had offered no serious insight into the language(s) of Carriacou, I began to realize that the language the children and others in Carriacou spoke was very different from the English I had grown up with.  I began to see patterns in both phonology and grammar, and although I did not realize it at the time I began unconsciously internalizing a good deal of Carriacou Creole English.

At the same time, I was aware that my method of teaching Spanish, the "direct" method, made as little use as possible of any language other than the target.  Objects, drawings on the chalkboard, and in-class situations served to get the meaning across rather than lengthy explanations in English.  Of course, in the children's other classes, this was not the case:  there English was the medium through which the children were expected to learn.  I began to feel that this was one of the major stumbling blocks to the children's in-school learning, although at the time I did not have the knowledge of linguistics and anthropology to  understand the situation fully.

I stayed in Carriacou, teaching Spanish to children and adults, until December 1974. My wife and I had gotten married in August, but Peace Corps was not providing any extra living allowance so Willy and I decided to come to the states, where I worked for several years as a social services coordinator for the public housing agency in my home town of Hagerstown, Maryland.  But I began to feel the call of graduate school.

I applied to programs in Latin American Studies at Miami University of Ohio and the University of Florida.  Florida was the first to respond; the then director of the Center for Latin American Studies, Terry McCoy, called me up and said I could have a Title VI fellowship if I agreed to study either Portuguese or Aymara.  I asked, what's Aymara, and he explained that it's a Native American language spoken in the central Andes.  Being already pretty fluent in Spanish, and never one to take the easy way out, I chose Aymara.  This would end up being one of the handful of best choices I've ever made, because the director of the Aymara Language Program at Florida was M.J. Hardman, a linguistic anthropologist.  I immediately began taking, besides Aymara, other courses in linguistics and anthropology, but it was Professor Hardman's courses in particular that gave me the information I needed to explain that paradox I first encountered in the junior secondary school:  Why did Carriacou children learn Spanish just fine, but have so much trouble in their other subjects?  I like to say that a light bulb flashed on in my head during nearly every class...

During a course on peasant societies and cultures, the professor loaned me a copy of Don Hill's ethnography of Carriacou, which I read almost in one sitting.  This planted the seed of an idea: could I do research on Carriacou?  Then during a linguistics course, while looking for a book to review, I discovered in the library Bernadette Farquhar's grammar of Antiguan Creole.  Reading this, I recognized some patterns as similar to those I remembered for Carriacou Speech, while others seemed very different.  I thought, I should do this on Carriacou!  I received a grant from the Inter-American Foundation to return to Carriacou in the summer of 1979 to carry out linguistic fieldwork, mostly in the same school I had taught in a few years earlier.  I took our son, then four years old, along with me so that Willy could begin her own studies.  The result was my 1980 MA thesis in Latin American Studies, which consisted of a first (and in hindsight highly flawed) description of Carriacou English Creole.

In the course of this work, I found that the differences between Carriacou Creole and English were even greater than I had originally thought.  I developed an applied research plan to test my original notion that the differences between these languages placed a barrier between many Carriacou children and their acquisition of fluent literacy. A second grant from the Inter-American Foundation allowed us, as a family, to spend 1982-83 on Carriacou testing this idea, once again in the very school where I had taught as a PCV.  While I carried out my research Willy taught Spanish for a while at the high school, and our son went through second grade.

The basic idea was to give a group of Carriacou children access to literacy through their native language, using an orthography developed as part of my grammar.  At the same time, the children were periodically tested in English to test the hypothesis that learning to read their own speech would help them in their reading of English.  

This research, first reported in my dissertation (1985) and later in a book (2000), as well as in numerous conference presentations and several published articles (see here), was a direct outgrowth of my experience in the Peace Corps.  So also is my ongoing research documenting French Creole as spoken by some elderly folks on Carriacou.  I can say the same for my career as a professor at the University of North Florida.

And, of course, Peace Corps made it possible for me to meet my wife Willy.  We had our 36th anniversary back in August 2010, and we have two marvelous children and one stupendous grandson. 

So once again, thanks to Sargent Shriver and Peace Corps, for being such an enormous part of my life.


  1. Nice work, Ron! Amazing how life experiences can influence one significantly. I always tell my students how so many of us came to anthropology later in life, through other experiences. When I was first exposed to Wixarika, I did so out of need. Luckily, in my experience, we used Spanish as as bridge language between English and the native Huichol language. I was able to learn Wixarika as they were being taught English. Again, thanks for sharing. If you go to the "about me" link from my profile, you will see our personal experiences aren't all that far apart. --B

  2. It was a pleasure to have you in class and to know you. Both Shumaya and I have lovely memories of our visit to Carriacou to supervise your work. And for me to see those amazing tropical fish in their native habitat, while, as you-all told me, you were yelling at me about a shark? Thanks for being my student and for maintaining contact all these years. A pleasure.

  3. Ron,you have been an inspiration in my life and you were instrumental in some of my achievements through the Spanish language. The ability to speak Spanish has earned me a scholarship to Spain and Cuba through my musical career. The continued usage of Spanish by me, specifically, gives me a sense of knowledge which I think is second to none in this world of multiculturalism. Thanks Ron; Muchas gracias y buenos suete, hasta llego mi amigo.


Comments and feedback are welcome, as long as they conform to normal standards of civility and decency. I will delete comments that do not meet these standards.