A language policy for the country

There need be no rivalry in the matter of languages, and no chauvinism. Instead, they should be considered as vehicles that open the doors to wider horizons of mutual understanding, of intellectual and cultural enrichment

We are a multilingual and multicultural country. Language is a tool of communication and learning as well as an important element of cultural identity. We don’t have any local ethnic language because Mauritius did not have a native population. But we were colonized by the French and the British, with the result that French and English became a significant part of our language landscape, with English being used – to this day – mainly in administration as the official language, and French being favoured in the workplace. But both of them are, increasingly, spoken in families as well, alongside a heritage language as the case may be, and also along with the lingua franca derived from French, Creole. As such, Creole is spoken by all Mauritians from a young age, but it is also the mother tongue of the Creole population. On the other hand, about 68% of Mauritians are of Indian origin, and they have to a variable degree of literacy and fluency preserved their heritage languages, which are their mother tongues, namely Bhojpuri, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Marathi, and to a lesser extent Gujarati and Sindhi. There is increasing interest in Sanskrit, which has been promoted for nearly 50 years and therefore has a significant number of adherents. To this mix has been added Urdu. There are also people of Chinese descent, so Chinese too is present in the language landscape. Further, along with the heritage languages, Arabic has been introduced in the public education system. However, many Mauritians have travelled to study abroad, in East European countries and latterly in mainland China, and have expanded their language repertoire, even though they may not converse on a daily basis in these additional languages they have learnt when they return to the country.

Is there a national language policy?

Not an overt, thought through one, as has been the case in the two countries with which we have similarities in this respect: Seychelles, and Singapore which we ambition to emulate but mostly in theory so far. If we are to go by a paper by Allison Miller titledKreol in Mauritian Schools: Mother Tongue Language Education and Public Opinion’ which was ‘submitted to the faculty of the Department of Linguistics in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Bachelor of Arts, Yale University, April 15th, 2015’, the closest we have come to a formal national language policy goes back to…1957. Thus, ‘The lack of clarity in general language planning in Mauritius also extends to the education system. Again, policy regarding languages of instruction is minimal, with the most recent decree on this topic coming from 1957, eleven years before Mauritius became an independent nation. The Education Ordinance of 1957 states: In the lower classes of Government and aided primary schools up to and including Standard III, any one language may be employed as the language of instruction, being a language which in the opinion of the Minister is most suitable for the pupils. In Standards IV, V, and VI of the Government and aided primary schools the medium of instruction shall be English, and conversation between teacher and pupils shall be carried on in English; provided that lessons in any other language taught in the school shall be carried on through the medium of that instruction.’ The same paper notes that Kreol was introduced in primary schools in 2012, and after making a comparison with the situation in Seychelles, where Seselwa has been used for a longer period, it makes a case for the use of Kreol in the lower grades of primary school. It argues that this would facilitate learning a second language, (English in Seychelles), which could be progressively introduced so that by the time the students reach secondary school they will have achieved sufficient proficiency in English to learn other subjects (science, maths) in that language, with Seselwa from then on being used only for ‘arts and political education’. French is introduced as a subject at secondary school level. Those who have interacted with Seychellois must have no doubt appreciated their much better (than ours) level of good spoken English. However, it also points to the complexity of the language landscape in Mauritius, and here we have to learn from Singapore, whose bilingual policy ‘aims at cultivating amongst its citizens a bilingual proficiency in the English language and a mother tongue that is officially assigned to the specific ethnic communities’. English is recognised as ‘an official language for practical reasons such as  ensuring socio-economic mobility. This is because the ethnically neutral status of English helps to ensure that the distribution of economic advantages is not seen as unduly privileging or benefiting a specific ethnic group, which would otherwise raise the danger of inter-ethnic tension. Additionally, the English language represents the idea of “modernity” and its association with progress, science, technology and capitalism’. Our official statistics show that there is a high failure rate in English, and I remember a physics teacher telling me that many a student failed in physics because of a weakness of English language proficiency. On the other hand, early on Singapore recognized that ‘English is the international lingua franca.  It was no longer viewed as a colonial language but rather an an international language permitting universal communication, and the economic rewards of being proficient in English was emphasized’. Further, ‘besides government administrative domains where English is widely practised, English has been deeply integrated into the local linguistic landscape of Singapore’. There is also a ‘Speak Good English Movement’ which is a government-initiated campaign which aims ‘to encourage Singaporeans to speak grammatically correct English that is universally understood’ which is ‘prized as a linguistic resource in a world of global economic competition’.

What next?

It would seem that we need to craft a more structured and comprehensive language policy than has been the case to date. It is true that the heritage languages have been introduced in the public school system for many years, and Speaking Unions and Cultural Centres established – though more for political expediency than out of genuine linguistic interest. In my humble layman’s opinion, a realistic policy would include the following:

  • Get rid of, or over, the mindset of colonisé/colonisateur vis-à-vis English and French, and consider them as tools for socio-economic mobility. But leave the field open for those who want to access them for cultural reasons – this is already the case anyway.
  • Be proactive in acquiring greater proficiency in spoken and written English. For this purpose, we should consider employing native English teachers to enhance oral English. For example, although Malaysians are more fluent in English than Mauritians, the Malaysian authorities nevertheless at one time had an MoU with Bristol University whereby teachers came from there to train Malaysians and improve further their English speaking and writing skills.
  • Be as pragmatic as the Seychelles to use Creole in the lower grades of primary school so as to facilitate English language learning, but as an option because of our language diversity.
  • Give free rein to the promotion of Creole as a language of identity, for example, the development of arts and literature in Creole – or Kreol, as the orthography becomes more familiar, which is not the case at present.

On this issue of orthography, vide ‘Ecriture’ by Gerard de Fleuriot in l’express of June 20, 2018, wherein he observes that ‘La graphie du kreol reste incompréhensible pour le Mauricien moyen’, as well as an earlier article by Raymond d’Unienville; on the same page, under ‘Langue’, Solange Jauffret comments as follows: ‘L’orthographie d’une langue servirait de paravent au débat réel: il ne s’agirait pas de linguistique mais de politique’.

  • By the same token, think very carefully before yielding to the demand for introducing Kreol in Parliament – think linguistically and not politically.
  • Study meticulously the Singapore model and make use of the aspects relevant to our context, but remembering that Singapore constantly revisits the model, and we should do the same.
  • As in the case of Singapore, lay emphasis on the acquisition of the heritage languages, which tend to get short-shrifted. Here, the respective Cultural Centres and Speaking Unions have to be more dynamic and proactive than they seem to have been, and make more effective use of the resources put at their disposal.

Finally, there need be no rivalry in the matter of languages, and no chauvinism. Instead, they should be considered as vehicles that open the doors to wider horizons of mutual understanding, of intellectual and cultural enrichment. We are sitting on a treasure of multilingualism, and what we should do is to see how best we can use it for both personal and national advancement, rather than exploit it to gain political mileage. It is in this perspective and vision that we must work out our language policy, and leave something that the coming generations will be thankful to us for.

* Published in print edition on 28 September 2018

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