ON FUNCTIONAL LITERACY

Let’s Honestly Face It!

As 2013 is coming to a close and 2014 will be full of challenges because we will have to face the dire consequences of global warming and climate change and be prepared for the ambitious plan of the Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance to forge ahead to make of The Maritime Republic of Mauritius a high income economy, we should define the terms we use as clearly as possible and ensure that pre-conceived ideas, bias and faulty assumptions do nor mar clear thinking and blind us to reality.

As we move through this century it is highly probable that our land-based economy will slowly shift to a sea-based one and so new skills, knowledge and expertise will have to be developed. (By the way, is it normal that on a small island a high percentage of the population cannot swim?) Some known land-based economic activities will have to be phased out or reduced in importance while new sea-based ones will be developed and enhanced. This will inevitably impact the educational system and lifelong learning will have to be mainstreamed. Universal functional literacy will be a MUST.

WHAT IS LITERACY?

Literacy is commonly defined as the ability to read and write any language and is often confused with language learning but in a given context it has to be precisely defined. In The Maritime Republic of Mauritius where the official language is English and where French has a semi-official status, literacy MUST be defined as the ability to read and write these two languages. Even this is inadequate. What does ‘reading and writing’ mean? Reading a name? Writing one’s name? Writing a few random words? Must we not insist that the citizen should be able to write a grammatically correct sentence in idiomatic English and/or French? Would that be enough? CERTAINLY NOT!

There are THREE levels of literacy: FUNCTIONAL, ADVANCED and CREATIVE. In this paper we will focus on functional literacy only.

UNESCO defines functional literacy as the ability of citizens to “engage in all those activities in which literacy is required for effective functioning of [their] group and community and also for enabling [them] to continue to use reading, writing and calculation for [their] own and the community’s development.” Individual and collective development, be it physical, material and spiritual, cannot take place in the absence of well-mastered functional literacy skills.

What is the present situation in The Maritime Republic of Mauritius? Official figures are misleading for TWO reasons:

1.     They confuse semi-literacy (the scribbling of names and random words) with functional literacy;

2.     They confuse schooling with literacy. Thousands of school children remain non-literate after six years at primary school. PREVOK CLASSES (not to confuse with PREVOKBEK CLASSES) do not improve the situation at all.

What does empirical evidence reveal? Let us study these round off figures. SEE TABLE

What do they tell us?

In 1984, 26,000 children sat for CPE, 5 years later 6,000 obtained an SC certificate, and 2 years after SC 2,500 obtained an HSC certificate.

In 2004, i.e. 20 years later, 27,000 took CPE; in 2009 13,500 passed SC; in 2011 8,000 passed HSC.

It is reasonable to assume that in the present modern world a good SC (not a borderline pass) and an average HSC certificate are indicators of FUNCTIONAL LITERACY. So we could safely say that, at present, thanks to innovative measures such as free schooling and free transport, inter alia, the level of functional literacy has risen from approximately 20% to reach approximately 40%.

We are here only looking at adolescents (15-20 years old). The level of literacy of the whole population must be much lower.

This is why we can safely say that over 60% of citizens of The Maritime Republic of Mauritius are either semi-literate or simply non-literate.

Why is the literacy rate so low when schooling at primary and secondary levels is free and compulsory up to the age of 16? There are of course several reasons but the main cause is a crazy language policy. We are the only place in the world where literacy starts in THREE foreign languages at ONE and the SAME time while the FIRST LANGUAGE (mother-tongue) is totally ignored. When it should be the medium to master the 3 R’s (reading, writing and arithmetic), it is only used as a support language (a stopgap) when communication in class breaks down.

TWO types of confusion blind most Mauritians and Rodriguans and prevent them from understanding the nature of their predicament.

1.     People think that the main function of formal schooling is to learn new languages. Hence there is a common belief that there is no point to learn their first language since they can already speak it. They must be helped to understand that the acquisition of literacy is the main function of primary education. Who will teach them this when most political and social leaders cannot tell the difference between language learning and the acquisition of literacy skills?

2.     Most people in the education sector, from the top to the bottom, cannot distinguish between a medium of instruction and a support language. Who has the authority to tell them that a medium of instruction has three functions?

a)     It is the language used to teach literacy (and numeracy).

b)     It is the language used to master other subjects such as science, maths, history, geography, economics, etc.

c)      It is the language in which examination papers are set and candidates are obliged to answer in that language.

Because of this confusion we’ve had to witness recently the ludicrous suggestion to introduce a cacophonous dual instruction medium to reduce failure rate.

WHAT IS TO BE DONE?

The nine-year schooling project is a most welcome initiative to drive our educational system into the modern age provided that we do not repeat the same mistakes. If we remain clear-sighted and have the political will, our Republic can become a model for Africa.

Here is a suggestion for brainstorming sessions:

Nine-Year Schooling – A Draft Proposal by Dev Virahsawmy

Note that at the beginning of year 6 there is a medium shift from mother tongue to English. Why English? There are 3 reasons:

1.     English is the official language of the Maritime Republic of Mauritius and there is NO reason to change that.

2.     English is a creole language and at the level of syntax the similarities will facilitate learners’ acquisition of the language. For more details please consult my book ‘UBFL’ published by MGI (2013) and The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language by Professor David Crystal.

3.     English is the most important language of South Africa, India and China, three BRICS countries with which we will have to develop strong links for our development.

Since this is the last 2013 issue, allow me to wish the staff and readers of Mauritius Times a good and not too rough 2014.

 


* Published in print edition on 27 December 2013

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