The Sorry State of Affairs on the Language Front

Digging our Own Grave

By Chafeekh Jeeroburkhan

We, Mauritians (rulers and the ruled combined), do not need much convincing about the increasingly precarious and dangerous nature of the world we are living in. We may also readily agree on how fast (and possibly how irreversibly) we are losing our grip on day-to-day reality. But we end up being very reluctant in conceding that this sorry state of affairs is much of our own making.

In what follows, I will try to examine how language policy and practice have, since Independence in 1968, contributed to this situation. At the same time, I will consider successively the harm done to the emergence of the Mauritian personality (which should have marked the accession of the Mauritian nation to “adulthood”), the parallel “ghettoization” of Mauritian society in an environment of growing radical mistrust and the decline of what used to be a distinctive feature of the Mauritian citizen, namely, his multilingual faculty, stemming initially from exposure to the main languages in this part of the globe and the world over[i]. Additionally, I will also mention possible remedies, if any, to this sorry situation.

The Slow Death of the Mauritian Personality?

The struggle for independence in itself brought about such a divide in Mauritian society that the government that came out of the 1967 elections not only could not heal the deep wound we had had inflicted ourselves but only proceeded with patching up things as best as it could. The radical challenge posed by the CEM (Club des Etudiants Militants) and subsequently the MMM in the post-independence context seemed to herald something totally new, asserting the need precisely to forge the Mauritian personality over and above the political and social hostilities that, left to their own, may have seen the undoing of the “Star and Key of the Indian Ocean” in 1968. But very soon, the hopes of an “adult” Mauritius were dashed as the quest for quick power gained the upper hand and successive governments went surfing on the divisive undercurrents mentioned. The deeply grounded divisions saw to it that only political alliances, bringing together “des frères ennemis”, could hope to reach for and secure political power. Even the MMM which, at the beginning, had made a voluntary supra-communal stance its own, laying stress on and appealing to the unifying factors in the Mauritian context, subsequently went adrift, drawn by these apparently irresistible undercurrents. Since then, it has featured repeatedly as just one of the parties in the alliance game.

Surprisingly at the time, most Mauritians did not realise that “Morisyin”[ii], our language, was one of the most potent factors that could buttress the Mauritian personality and enhance social cohesion. Soon, however, the main audience of the CEM, that is the youth and the working class people, who knew that their struggle meant overcoming the radical mistrust mentioned, espoused the cause of Morisyin, recognising the extent to which it accounted for the originality and integrity of our psychological and cultural setup. They started laying the foundations of a new public space for open debate in a language that had the virtue of being all inclusive and that was likely to usher in a new era of political, social and cultural emancipation. The idea was to define a new equilibrium among the various languages present in the Mauritian context, making it clear that while there was no denying the importance of English and French (they provided the lifeline of our connection with the outside world) as well as that of the ancestral languages[iii], (they enabled the younger generations born in Mauritius to relate to the country to which their grandparents and great grandparents belonged), Morisyin stood out as the sole identifying factor of the Mauritian citizen, the distinctive component of the Mauritian psyche, the privileged means of internal communication, and the cement of the Mauritian nation.

Unfortunately, as the MMM departed from its initial political stance (stepping into the shoes of the PMSD, in particular after the internal division which gave birth to the MSM in 1983), it downplayed the language issue to such an extent that new claims making of Morisyin yet another “ancestral” language from the ‘90s onwards crippled it altogether as a determinant of the Mauritian personality and a common denominator of the Mauritian citizen. The loss of focus, or worse, the emergence of new and amplified divisive focuses meant that Morisyin has receded from its universal common denominator position to that of sectarian ancestral determinant, thereby undermining its overall social cohesion building capability.

Further, the irony of the situation is that the Government’s recent decision to introduce Morisyin (officially termed ‘kreol Morisien’, in line with the demands of those who lobbied for same) in the primary curriculum has been paralleled by no less than a phonological, grammatical and stylistic perversion of the language by those pretending to be giving it the place it deserves in formal contexts[iv]. This is largely so because those manipulating the language (officials, journalists, pedagogues, etc.) consider that Morisyin needs to be made more respectable by being dressed in French attire. The idea is not to resist change but to monitor it judiciously. If we look at the main aspects of any language, namely phonology, grammar, syntax and semantics, it is clear that what is bound to evolve fastest is its semantics (we simply have to consider the massive terminological changes brought about by computing and networking in English and French). Giving up rapidly in the other areas amounts to giving up the language altogether.

This is what we notice when, proceeding as they normally do, “from the known” (French and English – which they have studied formally) to the unknown (Morisyin – which they have not had the opportunity of studying formally), contrary to the supposedly self-evident truth, these people constantly inflict such mutilations on the language that it ends up losing its distinctive features altogether. At the same time, those fighting academic failure claim that they achieve extraordinary results using “Morisyin” as the medium of instruction. What they fail to specify is that the known/unknown rationale is not as they claim but as stated above. Besides, their textbooks being bilingual, English is conveniently made to step in where loopholes exist in Morisyin!

On top of that, if we take into account the inferiority complex these people display in the French dominated context characterising present day Mauritius, the chances of Morisyin and the Mauritian personality surviving such ill treatment are indeed very remote.

As far as formal communication is concerned, I have suggested earlier that part of the remedy when conducting debates, may consist in a protocol being adopted and a moderator appointed to instil some discipline in the related proceedings. For this to work properly, all Mauritians must be made to study their language formally to be able to do justice to the various languages they are brought to handle in the local context. As I have argued elsewhere, only an institution such as the MIE can be entrusted with preparing the appropriate curriculum and the associated tools as well as dispensing the proper training to those likely to be in charge of the corresponding classes. Will the Ministry of Education be consistent in its attempt to promote Morisyin as it avers or will it only be content with not rubbing those concerned up the wrong way?

Mauritian Society and the Threat of “Ghettoization”

Contrary to expectations, several decades after Independence, disruptive centrifugal forces seem to have gained the upper hand on cohesive centripetal ones. Social and political fragmentation along ethnic lines is crippling us in facing the powerful challenges of the 21st Century. The bid for language-bound social advantage in the ‘90s[v] and the new attempts at shifting from democracy based on supra-ethnic power-switching to democracy based on ethnic power-sharing instead has ended up with Morisyin losing its original positive social cohesion and psychological self-appreciation potential. The growing power-sharing tendency of Mauritian democracy has been marked by the struggle for sectarian ancestral recognition at the expense of universal national enhancement. The launching of the various cultural centres at the beginning of the 21st Century, coupled with that of the language unions this decade has devitalised the commitment to nationhood (despite assertions as to the contrary) as much as it has sharpened the appetite for sectarian affirmation. Besides, it is hard to understand the dissociation between culture and language as embodied in the respective centres and unions and the rationale behind this duplication, the more so as the State is directly involved in the running of these institutions.

Numerous studies have attempted to grasp the factors that have given rise to this situation or amplified already existing mistrust. [vi] As far as the Afro-Mauritian segment of the population is concerned, having isolated itself in fighting against independence and never having come forward to acknowledge this mishap, it sank into what has come to be known as the “malaise créole” in the ‘90s. Deserted as it was by the middle class elements of the general population in the context of Independence and by the upper classes of the same political group, it developed a powerful thrust for self-appreciation which culminated with a redefinition of its identity in terms of “Kreol” (Morisyin in my terminology) language and culture.

Paradoxically, no attempt was made to fill this ancestral language vacuum although it is widely accepted that the Afro-Mauritian segment of the local population can reasonably look to Madagascar, Mozambique and East and West Africa if it really wants to trace back its ancestral roots. Nor did the other segments of the Mauritian population object to this appropriation of the language all had contributed to build (and are still building!). On the contrary, a sub-segment of the Indo-Mauritian part of the population seemed quite happy giving up Morisyin and engaging in a headlong attempt at securing parallel recognition for Bhojpuri! Not that Bhojpuri is not worthy of recognition (my own “dadi” spoke nothing else but Bhojpuri and when she came to stay with us when my mother died, we very quickly picked up the language as we already knew Urdu which we were learning both at school and in the “maktab”), but fighting for such recognition in no way entailed giving up Morisyin as the legacy of the Afro-Mauritian segment of the population!

The energy deployed in securing Bhojpuri recognition has been such that when we map community segments against language, we come up with the paradoxical situation where Hindi appears as a language not tied to any local community at all! But its prestige and outreach is such that the promoters have foregone the opportunity of an independent Bhojpuri class, preferring to be housed within the precincts of Hindi to avoid losing both on the Bhojpuri and Hindi fronts. On top of that, the community/language mapping makes it difficult for a Mauritian child to study anything else than his ancestral language, especially if that language is religion-tied. It is hard for Mauritians to consider situations prevailing in Kerala today for example, where Malayalam is spoken by Malayalis belonging to religions as varied as Hinduism, Islam, Christianity and Buddhism.

Apart from social and economic segregation which sometimes translate into geographical and spatial segregation, communities tend to live in closed circuits, people mixing only for professional, business and administrative purposes. And now, with the growing pressure of economic liberalism and accelerated change in a globalised world, there is both a drive to ensure survival in two apparently diametrically opposed directions: riding with the wave of unpredictable change and sheltering behind the inertia of tradition and religion, be it in a modern guise. But we must be careful not to confuse religious and/or linguistic alignment with actual knowledge of religion and/or language.

Mauritians know intuitively that their social existence draws its substance from the reference to some ancestral legacy on the one hand and to social achievements in the local context on the other. In the competition pitting ethnic groups one against the other, the novel feature is the emergence of vocal socio-cultural organisations which tend to overstep their original scope as opposed to what used to be the case during the pre-independence period. How far people are ready to embark on the adventures they propose remain to be seen.

Our Declining Multilingual Faculty

As close observers of Mauritian society know, the peopling of the country went hand in hand with the introduction of the languages of the various segments of the population that came and settled in the island from the 18th century onwards. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the social and economic structure was responsible for “peaceful” but separate existence of the various ethnic groups on the Island. The main event that was to modify the configuration of Mauritian society was the British takeover at the beginning of the 19th century. It resulted in the abolition of slavery and the influx of Indian immigrants that fundamentally changed the balance of the population at the turn of the 20th century. At language level, this translated itself into limited command of little more than one’s ancestral language, exception being made for those who acted as interface among the various groups. But as the struggle for political emancipation created new political space, Morisyin gained ground but Hindi started playing a growing emancipatory role, especially following Mahatma Gandhi’s visit and that of Manilall Doctor. English and French were unavoidable as all administrative and judicial matters were conducted using these two European languages. This meant that the political struggle was led by middle class elements who had gained access to education and in certain cases to higher education.

The central thrust of the political struggle which culminated in Independence in 1968 was that of political rights and social and economic welfare. Indeed, the main aspect of the fallout for the working class was the setting up of the welfare state Mauritian style and social mobility based on the acquisition of education and training. As more and more children of the working class gained access to education, associated command of language developed leading to the local brand of bilingualism and in certain cases multilingualism. Social and cultural organisations that had grown on their own accounted for enhanced ancestral language command and the fact that only those children capable of academic performance attended secondary school, they thereby acquired command of the academic and administrative languages. As political struggle during the second half of the 20th century channelled energies for or against Independence, it was only once Independence had been achieved that the divide mentioned at the beginning and the bid for ethnic recognition and power-sharing appeared and language command configuration went through redefinition.

Formerly, the contours of multilingualism in Mauritius were as follows: spoken command of Morisyin, combined with spoken and written command of English and/or French and working knowledge of one’s ancestral language. Nowadays, greater care is required when handling terms like bilingualism and multilingualism. What strikes any visitor today is the outright dominance of French and the quasi disappearance of English (at least in the spoken form). This is conflated by the decline in the use and command of the ancestral languages. The average Mauritian will nowadays display relative spoken and written command of French, combined, if he has attended or is attending school, with written command of English and just a smattering of his ancestral language.

The most astounding feature concerns what is termed the “mother tongue”. At one time, there seemed to be a consensus as to Morisyin being the “mother tongue”. Now people hesitate between 1, 2 and 3 “mother tongues”, and of course one excluding the others. As far as Morisyin is concerned, it is permanently being altered phonetically, grammatically and stylistically to bring it closer to French (the latter being the high profile reference, likely to draw respect and admiration) to the extent of blurring the Morisyin/French distinction. The more universal use of spoken Morisyin is matched only by the impossibility of identifying it as such. The varieties of the spoken form of the language contrast with the standardised form the various “owners” of the language had come to after years of wrangling. Given the grammatical twists Morisyin is being subjected to (radio or TV news bulletins are surely written in French first and then translated into Morisyin for broadcast), soon not much will be left of Morisyin. What I dread above all is the outcome of such Morisyin practice will have over children who spontaneously absorb what is available in their environment. Before the recent measures taken to extend the use of Morisyin to formal communication, the child could still distinguish one language from the other. The way things are going, he will soon be unable to do so any more to the detriment of both Morisyin and French. To make matters worse, many parents think they can provide their child an advantage by addressing him directly in French. The price paid here is the depersonalisation of the child. He will end up being neither here nor there. Am I exaggerating when I talk of digging our own grave?

Given such a backdrop, only if we are reckless will we be able to call Mauritians bilingual or multilingual. In the meantime, let me repeat that children are born multilingual. Specialisation comes as a result of the context in which they grow up and not because of an “essential” characteristic of their “mother tongue”. Instead of confining them to monolingual psychological development and access to knowledge, every attempt should be made to mobilise their language potential, giving them the opportunity to study the main languages in the local context in parallel. Accordingly, attention must be given to early language learning by providing the appropriate environment for the oral acquisition of English for example instead of removing the latter from the primary curriculum (or delaying its introduction) because according to some “experts”, it is an obstacle to knowledge acquisition and therefore a factor, if not THE factor, accounting for academic failure.

In this context, it is clear that the Ministry of Education should be involved, via the MIE, in addressing problems from the outset at kindergarten level. It should not leave child development to the Ministry of the Family and Child Development alone and step in only after the harm is done. Much talk is being made of “Empowerment” these days. To me the only genuine empowerment consists in helping a child in his early days. Had our pedagogues delved into Cognitive Science, they would need less convincing.

In this connection, an English academy coupled with a dedicated English TV channel and BBC world Service broadcast on FM (as is the case with RFI) should be set up as a priority. As far as TV service providers are concerned, I would ask them to consider including Singapore based Channel News Asia in their “bouquet”. As regards French; I fail to understand (apart if it is a matter of money) why a radio channel like France Culture and a TV channel like Arte are not made available locally. Aux intéressés d’y répondre!


At the beginning, I mentioned that the sorry state of affairs described in this article is much of our own making. Do we still need convincing to stop digging?

[i] See The Politics of Language Equilibrium in a Multilingual Society: Mauritius – William F.S. Miles – Comparative Politics, Vol. 32, No. 2. (Jan., 2000), pp. 215-230.

[ii] “Morisyin” is the only language that grew out of the interaction of the first permanent settlers in the island and that subsequently developed into the full-fledged language it now is with the successive waves of immigration. I am sticking to this designation as it underlines the most important characteristic of the language, that of being the only common denominator, making of us all Mauritians.

[iii] In the Mauritian context, which was uninhabited until the arrival and settlement, at different periods in the history of the island, of the various population groups identifiable today, ancestral language refers to the language which accompanied these groups upon their arrival and which have been maintained more or less successfully over time.

People do not seem to realise that French too is an ancestral language in the Mauritian context! It is spared such a characterisation essentially because of its academic and social status. Incidentally, only English can avoid being branded ancestral as no English settlement followed in the wake of the British takeover of the island at the beginning of the 19th century.

[iv] For developments, cf my article “Coming to terms with our Mauritian self: Three proposals concerning the status, form and use of “Morisyen”” in the Mauritius Times dated 10 March 2009.

[v] See Report of the Select Committee on the Certificate of Primary Education/Oriental Languages (Port Louis: Government House. 1993)

[vi] See Toni Arno and Claude Orian, Ile Maurice: Une Société Multiraciale (Paris: L’Harmattan, (1986);

* Published in print edition on 8 March 2013

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