Let’s Honestly Face It!

Language teaching and learning must be reformed if we intend to put an end to the massive waste of material and intellectual resources.

We cannot go on “teaching the unknown through the unknown”. We cannot ask children to walk before they can stand, to run before they can walk. We cannot go on pretending that language learning and mastering literacy are one and the same thing. We need a new language policy in formal education not to confuse with the demands of general social and political needs. Concurrently we must strike a balance between Grammar-Translation and Direct method.

To master completely a foreign language, we must acquire four skills: listening, speaking, reading and writing. Grammar-Translation is suitable to teach reading and writing and Direct Method is excellent to develop listening and speaking skills in the foreign language.

Moreover we must not confuse native with foreign language. In Mauritius the main native language is Morisien, the first language or mother tongue of almost 90% of the population; next in line is Bhojpuri and French. For all intents and purposes all other languages taught in Mauritius are foreign languages. Even French is a foreign language for over 96% of the population. A native language is the first language acquired by children who eventually develop a good level of oral skills (listening and speaking) in it by the time they go to school. If the native language is the medium of instruction [1] (as in England, France, Sweden, Finland, Japan, etc.), language learning involves knowledge of formal grammar, vocabulary building, writing of grammatically correct sentences and coherent texts, mastering punctuation conventions, studies of literature in that language, etc.

We have in Mauritius a very complex, frustrating, counterproductive and absurd situation. Formal education is in the throes of a massive bundle of contradictory and ill-digested knowledge and a constant flow of misunderstandings which prevent the adoption of any constructive and corrective measures to steer it in the right direction. Consequently reform proposals are flawed at the very moment of conception for we fail to see the wood for the trees.

a)     Authorities, parents and teachers cannot distinguish between the acquisition of literacy skills and learning of ancestral/identity/prestige languages which are, from a strictly theoretical point of view, foreign or second languages in so far as they are not languages used in ordinary daily intercourse.

b)     The native language which is the essential tool for teaching and mastering literacy skills i.e. reading and writing, is simply ignored and the consequence is that in spite of massive investment in pre-primary, primary, secondary and tertiary education over 60% of the population of the Republic are either non-literate or semi-literate or only basically literate and therefore do not possess functional literacy which is the vital tool for modern living and development.

c)      Language learning targets are not clearly set or defined. If we are training hotel workers to communicate with, say, German or Japanese tourists we only have to focus on some limited oral work-competencies but if we are training learners to become translators or teachers all four skills must be taught.

d)     A majority of Mauritian academics think that the learning process of a second/foreign language is similar to that of learning a first language/mother tongue and so we have a policy of “one size fits all”. Scholars who have researched this field agree that this is not the case and they propose different pedagogical approaches.

e)     Terms and expressions used to describe a language situation are not clearly defined. Words such as ‘patois’, ‘dialect’, ‘medium’, ‘mother tongue’, or ‘grammar’ are so loosely used that communication collapses. How often do we hear that “creole has no grammar” and investigation has shown that people confuse the word ‘grammar’ with inflection, spelling, punctuation and do not know that Morisien is an isolating language with very strict syntactic rules.

f)      Debates on language very often become outbursts of gut feelings or get bogged down in a quagmire of hysterical fits. People then start to hurl insults.

For all these reasons it seems highly improbable that in the foreseeable future we will have the much needed changes to move our country to a higher level of learning and development. But dramatic ecological perturbations may force us to leave our comfort zone and boldly face the challenges to come for there will be no room for petty vested interests.

Major reforms in our formal education sector are what we need, not gimmick, gadget and gizmos.

[1] Language used to learn to read and write; to learn science, maths, history etc.; to take exams.


* Published in print edition on 21 March 2014

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