The LSA Member Spotlight highlights the interests and accomplishments of a different LSA member each month. If you would like to recommend an LSA member (including yourself) for a future Member Spotlight, please contact Brice Russ, LSA Director of Communications.

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Michel DeGraff, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

DeGraff photo

Michel DeGraff is a Professor of Linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His research focuses on creoles and creole formation, syntax and morphology. He is also the co-founder of the MIT-Haiti Initiative. Prof. DeGraff has been a Life Member of the LSA since 1999.

Q: When did you first join the LSA?

I first joined the LSA as a student from the University of Pennsylvania when I attended the meeting of the Society of Pidgin & Creole Linguistics (SPCL) held jointly with the LSA Annual Meeting in January 1991 in Chicago.

This meeting was one of the most important events in my life as a linguist. There I gave my first public talk in the United States, and there I met two colleagues, Salikoko Mufwene and Flore Zéphir, who subsequently had a tremendous influence on my research and academic career, and on my personal life as well. They’ve since become lifelong friends and part of my extended family in the U.S.

Q: Can you briefly describe your involvement with the LSA during the time you’ve been a member?

My involvement with LSA has been mostly through participation in annual meetings whenever I could make it.  I’ve also served on the Committee on Ethnic Diversity from 1997 to 1999.  In 2005, I taught at the LSA Linguistic Institute at MIT and Harvard in Cambridge Massachusetts.

More recently, starting in 2012 I’ve represented the LSA to the Science and Human Rights coalition at the American Association for the Advancement of the Sciences.  Recently I received an invitation to be part of the faculty for the 2015 LSA Linguistic Institute in Chicago.  So if this can be taken as a trend, it looks like I’ll be part of LSA Summer Institutes every decade. I am hoping that the Linguistic Institute in 2025 will be in the Caribbean!

Q: What is the MIT-Haiti Initiative and how are you involved in it?

In 2006 my dear friend and colleague, and the unofficial dean of Haitian linguists, Professor Yves Dejean, wrote a book entitled An upside down school in an upside down country (in Kreyòl: Yon lekòl tèt anba nan yon peyi tèt anba).  There he argues that there’s a fundamental “upside-down” characteristic of Haitian schools, namely that most of them use French for teaching and exams even though most Haitians are fluent in only Haitian Creole (aka “Kreyòl”).  

The MIT-Haiti Initiative is part of larger international and cross-disciplinary efforts to put Haitian schools “upside up” so that the country can at last liberate itself from its mental and societal chains (a legacy of colonialism and slavery) and gain  the fundamentals to flourish.  The Initiative came out of the challenges and opportunities that arose from the earthquake of January 12, 2010, in Haiti. One silver lining in the dark cloud left by this earthquake is the unique opportunity for Haiti to move beyond its colonial and neo-colonial elitist past, and create a high-quality education system that is accessible to all in their native Kreyòl and that will produce a smarter Haiti.  The MIT-Haiti Initiative is helping turn this opportunity into reality.

This Initiative was launched in collaboration between myself (a professor of Linguistics at MIT) and Dr. M. S. Vijay Kumar, Senior Strategic Advisor for MIT’s Office of Digital Learning and Director of MIT’s Office of Educational Innovation & Technology. One of the Initiative’s main goals is to develop technology-enhanced tools and Open Education Resources in Haitian Creole (“Kreyòl”) for active learning of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (“STEM”) in order to build a solid basis for faculty and curriculum development in Haiti.  The MIT-Haiti Initiative has recently grown to include a leadership and management, thanks to the MIT Sloan Executive Education.

Through the MIT-Haiti website and through a series of workshops in Haiti, the Initiative is making STEM and leadership materials available to greater numbers of Haitians, beyond linguistic and geographical divides.  One corollary of this Initiative is to show by concrete examples that Haitian Creole is indeed a “normal” language on a par with international European languages like French.

This MIT-Haiti Initiative is a massively interdisciplinary and international effort with contributions from linguists, scientists, mathematicians, education experts, etc., both from the U.S. and Haiti.  This effort has benefited from collaboration with educators and administrators in Haiti and at MIT, and from support from MIT, the Wade Fund, the Foundation for Knowledge and Liberty (FOKAL) in Port-au-Prince, the Open Society Foundations, the National Science Foundation and the Haitian government. With my educator and musician colleague Molly Ruggles at MIT, I also had the opportunity to write an op-ed discussing the MIT-Haiti Initiative for The New York Times earlier this year.

Q: Is there anything else you'd like to say to the LSA membership as a whole?

Because language is indeed a fundamental aspect of the social world, we linguists have much to contribute to solving global challenges such as poverty and social injustice.  For example, chronic poverty in many communities is often linked to low levels of education in these communities.  In turn, such low levels of education are often related to the non-use or mis-use of the local communal languages spoken in these communities—such communal languages (for example, Kreyòl in Haiti or Amerindian languages in South America) are often excluded from the classroom and from other venues where power and cultural capital are created or transmitted.

One deeply flawed argument to exclude Creoles in the classroom is that they are extraordinarily simple languages which are not structurally adequate to do science, mathematics, etc.  Yet the exclusion of Creoles (and other local languages) from the classroom is one root for the academic failure of large numbers of their speakers throughout the world.  We linguists have access to the expertise and intellectual capital that can help undermine such mis-uses of language, and we can help create a level playing field by enlisting our theoretical insights for real-world problem solving, including the social and economic development of communities where local languages are spoken and where the former colonial languages—a foreign language for many in these communities— are still being imposed as the sole valid medium of instruction.