Is Speaking Pidgin Detrimental in the Classroom? Bridging SLA and Creoles

James Wang, Kanda University of International Studies, Japan

Wang, J. (2019). Is speaking pidgin detrimental in the classroom?  Bridging SLA and creoles. Relay Journal, 2(1), 201-211.

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Studies in second language acquisition (SLA) maintain that circumstantial L2 learning involves situations where members of a language minority must learn the majority language for reasons which they have little choice and which are typically associated to larger-scale world events, such as immigration, economic hardship, post-colonialism, war or occupation (Ortega, 2014). Unfortunately, the attitudes towards HCE being viewed as the “Pidgin problem”, especially in the school setting, where it was frowned upon and kept out of the classroom, has not been given considerate recognition. These contexts and incidents motivated the author to investigate about the myths and beliefs towards the nature of Pidgin, and concerns that underlie these questions asked by many educators and linguists on opposite sides of the spectrum: Is speaking a pidgin (or “nonstandard” English) detrimental in the classroom? Is standard English the best language? In this paper, the author attempts to answer these questions by presenting: key terms, a brief history of pidgin and creoles, beliefs towards pidgin, introduce educational programs and concerns of pidgin in the classroom, and research in SLA that have become beneficial and supportive of pidgin in the classroom.


For people who were born and raised in Hawai‘i, speaking Pidgin is as integral as aloha shirts, lei, Spam musubi and throwing shakas – it is a part of their local identity. Being born and raised on the islands myself, I have been endowed with this language variety called Hawai‘i Creole (HC) or Hawai‘i Creole English (HCE) by advocates, linguists and researchers. In school, kumu (Hawaiian word for ‘teacher’) have taught us that Pidgin has a lineage which traces back to the lingua franca formed on Hawai‘i’s plantations.

With my current studies in second language acquisition (SLA), I’ve maintained that circumstantial L2 learning involves situations where members of a language minority must learn the majority language for reasons which they have little choice and which are typically associated to larger-scale world events, such as immigration, economic hardship, post-colonialism, war or occupation (Ortega, 2014). To my surprise, I was unaware of the attitudes towards HC being viewed as the “Pidgin problem”, especially in the school setting, where it was frowned upon and kept out of the classroom. These contexts and incidents motivated me to learn more about the myths and beliefs towards the nature of Pidgin, and concerns that underlie these questions asked by many educators and linguists on opposite sides of the spectrum: Is speaking a pidgin (or “nonstandard” English) detrimental in the classroom? Is standard English the best language? In this paper, I attempt to answer these questions by presenting: key terms, a brief history of pidgin and creoles, beliefs towards pidgin, introduce educational programs and concerns of pidgin in the classroom, and research in SLA that have become beneficial and supportive of pidgin in the classroom. Please note that this paper will mainly mirror the defense of HC, but will also magnify research, studies, and contributions not exclusive to HC.

Languages, terms, and names

Pidgin is an abbreviation of the term “Pidgin English”, which is how English speakers first referred to the form of speech that emerged in Hawai‘i. Nowadays, in the field of linguistics, research groups like Da Pidgin Coup (2008) define a pidgin as a new language which is developed out of situations where speakers of different languages need to communicate but do not share a common language. The vocabulary (or lexicon) of a pidgin derives mainly from one particular language, also known as the “lexifier”. The term creole is reserved for the lingua franca created by children living in a multilingual context, typically where a pidginized variety pre-exists for purposes of rudimentary intergroup communication among members of the community who have different native languages (Sato, 1988).

A creole is a distinct language that has taken most of its vocabulary from a particular lexifier (Siegel, 2008), and like any other “normal” language, it is rule-governed (Sato, 1988) with its own unique grammatical rules. The “Pidgin” spoken in Hawai‘i is actually a creole, and is just one of many creole languages around the world. For example, speakers of Jamaican Creole call their language “Patwa” which is used and recognized in the lyrics of reggae music. Other creoles include Gullah (which is spoken on the islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia), Guyanese Creole (spoken in Guyana located in northern South America) and Kriol (spoken in northern Australia), which have English as their lexifier language. Refer to Sakoda and Siegel (2003) for additional examples.

Creoles are one of two non-prescriptive characterizations of what Sato (1988) calls “nonstandard” varieties of language, with the other known as dialects (p. 143). Halliday (1945, as cited in Sato, 1988) defines a dialect as “the variety you speak because you ‘belong to’ (come from or have been chosen to move into) a particular region, social class, caste, generation, age group, sex group, or other relevant grouping within the community” (p. 143).

However, Charlene Sato further points out that it can be difficult in forming a divide between dialects and creoles. Sato (1988) provides an example with North American Black English Vernacular (BEV), which is commonly considered as a dialect, but is known to originate as a creole. Hudson (1980) suggests the best cover term for both dialects and creoles (and any other way of speaking shared and spoken by a social group) is variety, which may be defined as “a set of linguistic items with similar social distribution” (p. 24).

On the other side of the language spectrum, we have standard languages or varieties. Hudson (1980, p. 32) observes these “are the result of a direct and deliberate intervention by society, in that they are selected for special functions”, and “imbued by a society with greater prestige”.  Standard English (SE) has been seen by Trudgill and Hannah (1982, as cited in Sato, 1988) and by many scholars as the variety “normally employed in writing and normally spoken by educated speakers of the language” (p. 145). A similar consideration is stated by Strevens (1985, as cited in Sato, 1988) where he considers SE to be “a particular dialect of English, being the only non-localized dialect, of global currency without significant variation, universally accepted as the appropriate educational target in teaching English, which may be spoken with an unrestricted choice of accent” (p. 145).

These considerations delineate a concord that SE is not tied to any particular accent, and that is generally associated with written discourse. The very knowledge of this concord has important consequences in the classroom when it set as measures in evaluating student performance which will be discussed later in this paper.

Brief history of pidgins and creoles

Research on the emergence of creoles has persistently revealed sociohistorical information over the past two decades which benefit towards the differential evolution of newly created vernaculars. Mufwene (2010) states that much of this research has to do with changing rates of economic development, varying patterns of population growth, variation in colonization styles, and changing interaction patterns between Europeans and non-Europeans (i.e., pidgins served as reduced lingua francas for minimal, occasional purposes). During homestead phases of the New World and Indian Ocean colonies, Europeans depended on the Africans to survive in new, tropical ecologies, regardless of the discrimination against them (2010, p. 372). The Africans were generally integrated minorities and due to living in close proximity with the Europeans, it was hard not to interact regularly with them. In 1778, Captain Cook and his crew were the first Europeans to make contact with Hawai‘i (Sakoda and Siegel, 2003). Hawai‘i quickly became colonized and stationed as a crucial stopover for ships involved with fur trade between China and the West Coast of North America, followed by whaling and sandalwood trading with Asia (Da Pidgin Coup, 2008). The foreign population in Hawai‘i increased while the indigenous population decreased due to being introduced to diseases. Whalers and traders learned some of the Hawaiian language to communicate with the locals. According to Sakoda and Siegel (2003), no actual pidgin language had developed yet, and instead, various features of other English pidgins were used in communication. Some of these features include plenty used to mean ‘a lot of’, by and by to indicate the future, no used before words to make them negative, and got (or get) meaning ‘have’ (p. 4).

With the sugarcane industry expanding rapidly after its inception in 1835, thousands of laborers from various countries immigrated to work on the sugar plantations (2008, p. 31). In Hawai‘i, Pidgin (with a capital P) was first developed as a relatively simple pidgin language by people from Hawai‘i, China, Portugal, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and many others. Hawaiian, Cantonese, and Portuguese spoken by the first Chinese and Portuguese groups who came to work on the sugar plantations alongside Native Hawaiians, had the most influence on the development of the structure of Pidgin (Sakoda & Tamura, 2008). When the plantation era began, the Hawaiians were still in control of their islands. Many white plantation overseers and Chinese laborers did not learn Hawaiian fully and so a new form of language was used for communication among whites, Chinese, and Hawaiians – Pidgin Hawaiian. This newly developed pidgin (and actually the first real pidgin in Hawaiʻi) differed from the previously dominant Hawaiian in many ways (e.g., the ʻokina ( ʻ) or phonemic glottal stop in Hawaiian, was not used in some words) (Sakoda and Siegel, 2003). For example, the Hawaiian expression pi ʻi mai, originally meaning ‘to climb in this direction’ was pronounced pi mai, meaning “to come” in Pidgin Hawaiian. Some words in Pidgin Hawaiian have changed their meaning (e.g., makana ‘to give’ was originally ‘gift’), some changed their form (e.g., hana hana ‘work’, from hana) and others derived from English and Chinese (e.g., pihi ‘fish’ from English but with Hawaiian pronunciation; and kaukau ‘food, eat’ from Chinese Pidgin English chow chow) (p. 5). When the Reciprocity Treaty with the United States was signed in 1875, it permitted free trade and a greater influx of Americans, setting off a decrease in the number of pre-dominant Hawaiian schools to a dramatic increase in the number of English-medium schools (2003, p. 6). English gradually replaced the language of the plantations, with the development of Hawai‘i Pidgin English (or HPE), an English-lexified pidgin. The use of HPE became so common that it began to replace the child’s mother tongue for many families living on the plantations, and as practice and opportunities to communicate continued to flourish, HPE became the language commonly spoken and recognized as Hawai‘i Creole. As these families increased in numbers, so did the numbers of Hawai‘i Creole speakers (Yokota, 2008).

Beliefs toward Pidgin and Creoles

In the early 20th century, when children from Hawai‘i’s plantation entering schools brought with them a language that sounded “odd”, “incorrect”, and even “broken”, speech behavior became a critical issue in Hawai‘i (Yokota, 2008). By the 1920s, several publications were labelling Pidgin with negative terms such as “lazy”, “sloppy”, “slothful”, and “ugly” (Da Pidgin Coup, 2008). Shortly after this “Pidgin problem’ was acknowledged, many of Hawai‘i’s teachers and educational leaders assembled together to curb the use of HC within the classroom, and have aggressively sought ways to stop the “broken-English” language that predominated in the community from being spoken (Tamura, 1996).

What is the reason for these beliefs and attitudes? Siegel (2008) and Sato (1988) provide two reasons for the attitudes toward Pidgin: (1) Pidgin and standard English are considered to be the same language, and (2) there is a misconception that it has no grammatical rules. As mentioned previously, there appears to be a consensus that SE is not tied to any particular accent,  and that is generally associated with written discourse. When different words are put together in patterns that differ from those of the standard, these are deemed not as mere differences, but as inaccuracies or “bad English” (Siegel, 2008, p. 56). It is interesting and ambivalent that such negative attitudes towards differences seem to reserved specifically for vernaculars such as Pidgin, when there are standard dialects such as British English that also have features that are “incorrect” in standard American English. For example, it has unacceptable expressions (i.e., I haven’t a book instead of I don’t have a book), substitute words (i.e., rubber instead of eraser) and tends to leave out sounds similar to “broken” vernaculars (i.e., British English leaves out the ‘’r’ sound in words like park) (Siegel, 2008). Therefore, what is viewed to be standard English does, in fact, vary among various native speakers. It is a widespread misconception that we should speak the way we write, but in fact, no one does. In other words, spoken and written language varieties are different: they have different purposes, patterns, conventions, and constructions (Da Pidgin Coup, 2008).

Since the 1960s, sociolinguists have been showing that creoles such as Pidgin are legitimate, rule-governed languages that differ in systematic ways from the language from which most of their vocabulary is derived (Siegel, 2008). To help illustrate that Pidgin and Hawai‘i Creole have their own grammatical rules different from those of English, we will refer to materials and explanations run by Kent Sakoda and Eileen H. Tamura (2008) and Sakoda and Siegel (2003). According to Sakoda and Tamura, a unique feature of Hawai‘i Creole, is its sounds. For example, basilectal Pidgin, or heavy pidgin, does not include the “th” sound and speakers use the “t” or “d” sound instead: as in tink instead of “think”, dis instead of “this”, and mada and fada instead of “mother” and “father” (2008, p. 42). Another unique phonological example is intonation, the change in pitch in a sentence. In American English, we start with an intermediate pitch and finish with a high pitch, whereas in Pidgin, we start with a high pitch and drop to a low pitch at the end of a sentence. For example, we begin at an intermediate pitch and ascend into a higher pitch when we say “Are you a lifeguard?” in English. In Pidgin, we would say “’E, yu wan laif gad?”, where we start high and end low (Sakoda & Tamura, 2008).

Sakoda and Siegel (2003) explain that in Pidgin, negation is possible by using one of four negative markers: nat, no, neva and nomo. In using negation, Pidgin is more complex than English, which uses only “not” or the contracted form “n’t”.

The guy isn’t brown.                                       Da baga nat braun.

I won’t tell anybody.                                      Ai no goin tel nobadi.

They weren’t listening.                                   De neva ste lisin.

There isn’t any food in the house.                  Nomo fud in da haus.

                                                                                    (Sakoda and Siegel, 2003)

Therefore, Pidgin is not haphazard; it has its own grammatical rules, different from the rules in English. Hawai‘i Creole is not a form of English, but a language that is structurally different from English.

Educational Programs and concerns of Pidgin in the classroom

There is a communal-level concern regarding how Pidgin would be used in the education system. Siegel (2008) describes three types of educational programs (instrumental, accommodational, and awareness) which utilize vernacular varieties such as Pidgin and clarify which types are being advocated for Hawai‘i to promote and preserve Pidgin. Instrumental programs use a vernacular as a medium of instruction to teach initial literacy and sometimes content subjects (i.e., mathematics, science, and health). Instrumental programs are similar to bilingual programs where the the children’s home language (the vernacular) is used at first while they are learning an L2 (e.g., standard English). Such programs currently exist for speakers of creoles in Australia, Papua New Guinea, the Seychelles, and Haiti (2008, p. 58). However, this particular programs has not been advocated for Hawai‘i. In accommodation programs, students’ vernacular varieties are not used for instruction, but are accepted in the classroom. The standard language remains the medium of instruction and the only subject of study. And finally, in awareness programs, the standard language still remains the medium of instruction, but students’ vernacular varieties are seen as a resource to be utilized for learning the standard and for learning in general (2008, p. 58). The first of programs with awareness components in Hawai‘i was the Hawai‘i English Program (HEP) (Yokota, 2008) which included lessons dealing with language varieties and language choice, as well as exercises designed to contrast features of Pidgin and English (Siegel, 2008). Even though many teacher and administrators realize the nature of educational programs that are being proposed, they still have concerns about the possible effects that using Pidgin in the classroom would have on their students (Yokota, 2008).

A major concern is that the Pidgin will interfere with students’ acquisition of the standard. Ortega (2014) defines ‘interference’, or ‘negative transfer’ as the inappropriate use features of the first language (L1), here Pidgin, when speaking or writing the second language (L2), here standard English. Over the last twenty-five years, SLA research has concentrated on the factors that promote or inhibit transfer (Siegel, 2008), and one of these is “language distance”, or the degree of typological similarity or difference between the L1 and the L2. What this means is that the more similar the varieties are, the more like it is that transfer (and thus interference) will occur. This is the case when creoles are similar to the standard variety. Rynkofs (1993 as cited in Siegel, 2008) presents an ethnographic study of one teacher’s accommodation program involving writing workshops Pidgin-speaking second graders. Students were permitted to write in any variety, and early versions of their work included many Pidgin grammar and features. Unexpectedly, through a process of modeling and using recasts, rather than correction, the students became more proficient in writing standard English (2008, p. 60). This study demonstrates that despite the occurrence of interference with similar varieties of language, there is not much evidence proving that using a creole vernacular will exacerbate the problem.

Furthermore, there has been strong evidence in research that children commencing schooling from a second language type of environment learn more readily if the initial teaching and learning is done in their first, or home language. The approach is even considered necessary, if the cognitive development of the children is not to be stifled before they acquire enough competence to start learning in the school language (Corson, 1990).

Conclusion and Future Implications

In this paper, I have presented the historical conditions that influenced the emergence of what is modern day HCE, and how changing rates of economic development, varying patterns of population growth, and plantation life conceived a newly structured language within the community. Like many other varieties, the earliest days of HCE had carried a double burden (Léglise & Migge, 2007), having emerged from colonial contact situations and showing a certain degree of similarity to its prestigious European standard language. Hawai‘i is one of many places in the world that are home to Creole communities. Léglise & Migge (2007) share histories of how persons in Haiti who are monolingual or dominant in their Creole continue to live in a socially disadvantaged position, in particular, their access to modern technology, higher levels of education, and their success rate at all levels of education continue to be seriously curtailed.

Hawai‘i creole posed as a”language deficiency” towards teachers and educators, as well as getting the attention of researchers to provide merit that it is a unique language with its own grammatical rules. We have seen that current educational beliefs and attitudes towards vernaculars such as Pidgin, are generally looked down on and not allowed in the classroom. Reasons behind these practices shows that they are not justified and students would be excluded and left out potential benefits that would be gained from using their own vernacular in their educational endeavor. These particular benefits of using creoles could promote greater cognitive development, increased motivation and self-esteem, and ability to separate codes and notice differences (Siegel, 2008). Siegel arguably believes that excelling in accommodation and awareness programs would enable students to express themselves in their own varieties, and better facilitate cognitive development. Ortega (2014) proposes that affective variables of learner motivation, attitudes, self-confidence, and anxiety have some effect on L2 attainment. Sakoda and Siegel (2003) stress that these factors are especially important with regard to speakers of creoles, who have a negative self-image and high anxiety caused by denigration of their speech and culture. Instead, by utilizing and promoting the use of creole in a formal education setting may result in positive values towards these variables with regard to learning SE (Siegel, 2008). Further prospect for using a creole such as Pidgin in educational programs may trigger learners awareness of differences between it and the standard language they may not otherwise notice (Siegel, 2008). Allow me to turn to second language acquisition theory. According to Schmidt’s ‘noticing hypothesis’ (1993), attention to target language (TL) forms is necessary for acquisition, and these forms will not be acquired unless they are noticed. Recent research from Duff and Kobayashi (2010) expressed and advocated a language socialization approach, which examines not only language use and developmental processes, but also how those processes affect learners’ participation and status in their communities. This approach contributes to the notion of ‘sociocognition’ which refers to the complex and dynamic interrelationship and interaction between psychological and sociocultural processes that could possibly shape second language learners’ engagement in variety of activities and associated learning processes and outcomes (2010, p. 76).

The “Pidgin problem” as Yokota (2008) explains, continued to frustrate and confound educators and administrators of Hawai‘i. Despite having different reasons for believing that education could not abolish it, they all came to agree on one thing: the “Pidgin problem” was deeply connected to the nature of Hawai‘i’s society and identity of the local language community. Delpit (1990, as cited in Siegel, 2008) explains how the children often have the covert skills of using the the creole vernacular as a marker of socio-cultural group and choose “ to identify with their community rather than with the school” (p. 62). Future research and implications have gradually become abridged with methods required for investigating the intersection between identity positions and language learning (Norton & Toohey, 2011). Although it is a complex approach, the methods that identity researchers use must seek what many researchers (as cited in Norton & Toohey, 2011) maintain is a better understanding of how political and economic issues interact (or clash) with language learning. The aforementioned approach as advocated by Norton and Toohey (2011) encourages language education researchers and educators to “pay close attention to how a selective group of individuals are placed by common societal practices, and how they situate themselves by engaging in societal practices in innovative ways” (p. 427).

As teachers, educational administrators, and even parents and members of a language community, we can investigate and uncover more research in both linguistics and education, and base our classroom policies, beliefs and principles on facts, rather than preconceptions, prior practices or even current ideologies. Being born and raised on Hawai‘i, I hope to play my part in advocating and promoting Pidgin not only as a language, but as an identity We need to accept our learners’ identities as potential, and to promote meaning learning that does not lock them in a finalized from of identity. Tanks (thanks) and aloha!


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Duff, P., & Kobayashi, M. (2010). The intersection of social, cognitive, and cultural processes in language learning: A second language socialization approach. Sociocognitive perspectives on language use and language learning (pp. 75-93). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

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Léglise, I. & Migge, B (2007). Language and colonialism. Applied linguistics in the context of creole communities. In M. Hellinger and A. Pauwels (Eds.), Language and communication: Diversity and change. Handbook of applied linguistics (pp. 297-338). Berlin, Germany: Mouton de Gruyter.

Mufwene, S. S. (2010). SLA and the emergence of creoles. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 32, 359-400.

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Ortega, L. (2008). Understanding second language acquisition. London, UK: Hodder Education.

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Sakoda, K., & Tamura, E. H. (2008). Kent Sakoda discusses pidgin grammar. Educational Perspectives, 41(1, 2), 40-43.

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2 thoughts on “Is Speaking Pidgin Detrimental in the Classroom? Bridging SLA and Creoles”

  1. I very much enjoyed reading this article. It was informative, clearly written and the author’s argument was compelling. As I read it, I was reminded of the complex processes underlying the evolution of languages and how rich and fascinating they are.

    I also recalled news from a few years ago the US Census Bureau has added Hawaiian Pidgin as an official language in the State of Hawaii. I am curious if the author believes that this official recognition has or will likely have any impact on educational policy or wider attitudes toward it.

    I thought the last section (Conclusion and Future Implications) effectively summarizes the key points made in the paper. One thing I would like to learn a bit more about are some specifics about what a greater acceptance of this variety would look like in schools and classrooms. What impact might a broader acceptance of it by educators have on the way teachers conduct their classes? As both a teacher and someone with experience as a student in this context, your thoughts on this would be very interesting!

    Again, thank you for an informative and enjoyable read!

  2. Aloha Professor Myskow!
    We have seen each other at the KUIS office on a number occasions but have never formally met or spoken to each other. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment on my article. This us an article I keep close to my heart, where it serves as a reminder that Pidgin is something more than a creole or “bad English”, but as a prime example that language is tied to identity. It was very nostalgic hearing about pidgin becoming an official language of Hawaii.

    For many locals, like myself, we are to code switch. This language is esoteric, rich and a part of my roots growing up.

    I hope to see you tomorrow at the KUIS graduation!


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