Haitian Prime Minister visits MIT
Agreement to ‘teach in a language everyone can understand’
On Wednesday, the Prime Minister of Haiti, Laurent Lamothe, came to MIT to sign a letter of agreement with the Institute regarding a collaboration to develop STEM teaching materials in Creole, the language spoken by a majority of Haiti’s citizens.
MIT Linguistics Professor Michel DeGraff, who is natively Haitian, leads the MIT Haiti Initiative, with Vijay Kumar, the director of the MIT Office of Educational Innovation and Technology. With the support of a National Science Foundation grant from 2012, MIT professors have been helping develop new resources, especially electronic ones, in the Creole (Kreyòl) language. Currently, the vast majority of science, math, and technology teaching in Haiti is done in French, even though the language is only spoken by three percent of the population.
Professor Haynes R. Miller contributed from the Mathematics Department, working with translators since the fall. He said that he relayed information to a translator for materials and “mathlet” applications to demonstrate concepts graphically, and these were later translated back to English to check for accuracy. Many times, he said, it was necessary to invent new terms in Creole when the language did not have a word for a certain mathematical concept. Peter Dourmashkin also participated in the collaboration on behalf of the Physics Department.
Michel DeGraff said that the project at MIT reached out to the Haitian government because they knew the government would have to be involved for the program to succeed in Haiti. According to DeGraff, “If each professor uses it with their own students and disseminates [the materials], the growth will be exponential.”
Vijay Kumar said that the materials developed in the collaboration are meant to maximize learning gains for students. “We are replacing rote memorization with new techniques. We are generating new scientific terms where there were none before.”
DeGraff predicted that students who speak only Creole will be actively engaged in their learning within ten years.
During the ceremony on Wednesday, several people, including DeGraff and Prime Minister Lamothe, shared remarks about the collaboration. Lamothe remarked that in a country where 97 percent of the population speaks Creole, “we should embrace the language our people speak” and “teach in a language where everyone can understand.”
Lamothe said, “This administration has made education its top priority,” pointing out that new surcharges have been added to phone calls and money transfers to Haiti to raise money for public education. According to Lamothe, private school fees in Haiti are about $220, but most families make less than $800, meaning public education is of great importance.
“Haiti is moving forward,” concluded the Prime Minister. The dignitaries and members of the MIT-Haiti Initiative signed a letter of agreement in English, French, and Creole to mark the event following a lunch with other MIT administrators and faculty.