Creole English Dialects

English-Based Creole Languages

Even clinicians sensitive to multilingual issues may have trouble identifying a speaker of a Creole dialect of English.  The reasons for this are many, most notably that Creole speakers generally self-identify as English speakers and the qualities of their speech and language may easily be mistaken for disorder, rather than difference.  SLPs are likely to meet Creole speakers if they work with populations from Hawaii, the Caribbean, the South Pacific, certain areas of Latin America (especially Belize, Guyana and Suriname) and West Africa.  Less commonly, they may encounter Creole speakers from other regions, such as remote areas of the American south. 

African American Vernacular English (AAVE) shares some characteristics with Creole languages and so it is briefly mentioned here.  However, SLPs are advised to consult other sources for more comprehensive information. 

Hatian Creole is French-based, rather than English-based.

Creole Languages: The Basics 

Simply speaking, a Creole is a language formed through long-term contact between a dominant language group (usually English, Spanish or French) and speakers of one or more indigenous tongues.  By definition, Creoles incorporate elements of phonetic and/or structural aspects of both languages.  Creole languages which are mutually-intelligible with English are also considered dialects of English so they are here referred to as “languages,” “dialects” or simply “Creoles."  Unfortunately, a discussion of how Creoles develop is beyond the scope of this article. 

Phonology

English Creoles will typically have a smaller phonetic inventory than Standard American English (SAE), however, phonemes may be borrowed from indigenous languages.  For instance, Sranan, a Creole spoken in Suriname eliminates most English fricatives and affricates but includes the non-English /y/ (not /j/), /ty/, /dy/, /sy/, /ny/ and the velar /x/ which are part of the phonetic inventory of the languages local to the region.

Common phonological features include final consonant or syllable deletions and stopping of fricatives and affricates.  Substitution of /d/ for English “th” sounds is especially common in Creoles.  This distinction may be immediately apparent when speakers use the definite article “the.”  

Because stopping of fricatives is considered a strong indicator of disorder, Creole-speaking children are at high risk of being overidentified as needing speech therapy services.

 

Morphosyntax

Most Creole languages do away with the third person singular –s at the end of present tense verbs and some extend this to other English morphology such as the past-tense –ed ending.  These languages may, however, have complex systems independent of English.  These can include rule-based systems of tense and/or aspect markers which are not easily recognizable to speakers of standard dialects.  Consider the a used to mark continuous actions in Guyanese Creole which could easily be mistaken for a pause in speech:

 we you a go wid bondl

Where are you going with that bundle

 evribadi a wach…

Everybody was watching…

Some Creoles even make distinctions that Standard English does not.  An example is a differentiation between temporary/permanent and short term/long term:

Guyanese Creole:

he sick

He is (permanently/chronically) ill

 he de sick

He is sick (with a temporary illness)

AAVE:

She bin married

She has been married.

 She BIN married(note stress)

She has been married for a long time.

 

Vocabulary

English Creole languages generally include words from the less-dominant (indigenous) language in addition to Standard English vocabulary.  For instance, the word aloha, familiar but foreign to speakers of standard English, may be mixed in with English by speakers of Hawaiian Creole.  Additionally, speakers may create novel word combinations to create new vocabulary such as Sranan’s agu-meti (pig-meat, ‘pork’) dungru-oso (dark-house, ‘prison’) and mofo-neti (mouth-night, ‘early evening’). 

Lexical ambiguity tends to be minimal to non-existent in most Creole languages, and it is rare for a content word to have two separate meanings.  Unusual word substitutions may be noted.  For instance, in Guyanese Creole, “side” refers to place in the question word wassaid (which-side ‘where’).  As a result, the directional label “side” (as in a road side) is referred to as a “corner” (road corner).  Sometimes words will have more inclusive definitions than in English, such as how “foot” may refer to any part of the leg below the knee.   

This is, of course, crucial to understand when working with patients with suspected lexical recall issues. The types of substitutions above are often considered a hallmark of aphasia subtypes.  

Social/Pragmatic Elements

Creole dialects are often considered “low status” languages.  Even native speakers of these dialects may consider themselves to be speaking the “wrong” way or feel that such speech is only appropriate in certain environments.  However, many Creoles also have a “covert prestige,” meaning that speakers take pride in the use of the dialect and consider members of their culture who do not use it to be purposefully denying their roots.  As an example, consider how AAVE has covert prestige as a hip, urban slang but middle and upper class African Americans use it less frequently.  It is important not to assume a person who comes from a Creole-speaking area will be a Creole speaker.

Creole speakers may be concerned that professionals will consider them less intelligent than Standard English speakers.  Or, they may worry that it will be considered rude or inappropriate for their dialect to be used at medical appointments or IEP meetings. 

Working With Creole Speakers

First and foremost, as with any client, show respect.  Make it clear that you know that you both speak “good English.”  This is especially important when speaking with Creole-speaking parents who may have been told that using their dialect is causing their children to be delayed.  Emphasize that children need to hear as much language as possible even if it’s not exactly the same as what is used in school.  In medical settings, it may be worth mentioning that the jargon used is confusing to most people, and that it's normal and acceptable to ask doctors to clarify things in simpler language.  

When working with parents of children with suspected speech and/or language delays, ask them to compare their child’s development to siblings or other family members, not English-speaking peers.  Questions may include, “Did your son seem different from his older brother when he was learning to talk?” or “Is your daughter harder to understand than her cousins?”  Listen carefully to the way the parents and siblings talk to assess whether the child’s “errors” may be expected substitutions.  If a child consistently misses specific target phonemes, ask the parents whether that sound is used in their dialect.  Remember that standardized tests are generally not normed on children who Creole dialects so these scores lack validity.

Because few books are written using Creole dialects, storybook activities may not be appropriate for children from dominant Creole households.  Determining family literacy levels is important but a clinician should approach this issue carefully so as not to cause families embarrassment if they have low literacy skills.  It may be helpful to start by asking if the child has shown an interest in books and see if they volunteer any additional information.  Another approach is to ask a more open-ended question where reading is only one option such as asking, “At home, does your family like to tell stories or read books or magazines together?”  If you sense that the conversation is making anyone in the family uncomfortable––move on.  

Close family members will generally be the clinician’s best resource when providing therapy to adults with brain injuries.  In cases of suspected aphasia, it is advisable to have a family member present for any lexical recall task (such as the Boston Naming Test) in order to confirm whether the patient’s responses are considered acceptable.  Family members should also be encouraged to tell the clinician if any items are not culturally relevant; items like the trellis, oxen yoke and compass on the BNT are likely to be unfamiliar to some patients.  If the patient speaks multiple dialects (as is common in certain parts of Africa), ask whether the speaker is using one dialect or switching between them in ways that would seem inappropriate.  If administering any standardized test, remember that Creole speakers were probably not included in the norming sample. 

Consulting family members is also useful when assessing possible motor speech disorders, such as by asking, “Does your grandfather sound different since his stroke?” or “Does your mother sometimes say the same word in different ways?”  It may also be helpful to ask a patient’s spouse or sibling how they would pronounce a word themselves before asking the patient. 

Additional Information

Information on qualities of specific Creole languages is difficult to find outside of academic texts. Clinicians who see Creole-speaking populations regularly are advised to explore the external links and references to get more in-depth information.  

 

Original Contributor: Julia Fernandez, Winter 2013

Resources and References