Languages in Mauritius

Ever since settlement took place in Mauritius, starting with the Dutch (which however was not a permanent one), the various colonisers have left the imprint of their languages.

With the slave trade prevalent during the plantation economy, the slaves brought from principally Madagascar, Senegal, Mozambique and other regions including India, unfortunately could not preserve their distinct cultures and languages. That loss of a voice from the entrails has marked the descendants of the slaves for good despite the development of a new language concocted principally from French, which was the language of the masters.

The abolition of slavery led to the introduction of the Indenture System from different parts of India; this gave rise to the introduction of a number of Indian languages. The Indian artisans and free workers brought in during the time of Mahe de Labourdonnais from the French comptoirs in India could not preserve their language or religion due to the prevalence of the dreaded Code Noir.

With the coming of the Girmitiyas as from 2nd November 1834, Indian languages gained a grip in Mauritius. coming in bulk from the Bhojpuri belt of the then Presidency of Bihar, Awadh, Bengal and Orissa were a determining factor in the maintenance of their language known then as Calcuttia, as they came from the port of Calcutta, which was the capital of Brtish India, and port of transaction of the flourishing Indenture System.

Later this language came to be known as Bhojpuri. It absorbed a wide range of dialects such as Magahi, Maithili, Awadhi, Kashiki as well as Bengali, the Oria dialects, the hill tribes’ dialects such as Oraon and many other smaller dialects. Thus, a Mauritian Bhojpuri slowly took shape and, due to its resilience, it absorbed not only phrases and vocabulary from other Indian languages/dialects mentioned above but also words from Tamil, Telugu and Marathi as well as from Creole.

For that matter Bhojpuri has not only borrowed from Creole and integrated these terms and words but also given many words and phrases to embellish Creole. It became the predominant lingua franca of the country together with Creole. The Estate Manager as well as the corner Chinese shopkeeper had to use Bhojpuri in their dealings with the “gaonke log”.

Other languages that were also introduced by Indian traders included Gujarati and Tamil. With the development of the Arya Samaj in Mauritius as early as 1911, Hindi became the language of esteem, prestige known as Bhasha and Bhojpuri was considered as Motiaboli among the Bhojpuri speakers.

Resilience of Bhojpuri

Nonetheless Bhojpuri has resisted “tant bien que mal” all forces to lower, relegate and minimize its worth as well as inferiorize it not only in the eyes of the speakers themselves but among outsiders as a language of “tablissement”, “la campagne” or as “langaz”. But it continues to survive, through its cultural manifestations and strong words of symbology. Younger generations shy away from it due to the stigma it carries in their “memoire” of their ancestors’ dominated position, and also to be considered socially correct and acceptable.

Hindi and other Indian languages were gradually introduced in the educational system – through the Baithkas and later in formal schooling through long decades of struggles, andolans (movements) from generation to generation despite negative resistance and pressures from some quarters.

Today, the Indian languages have come to stay, not only through pioneering efforts of several individuals as well as institutions such as the Hindi Pracharini Sabha and the Arya Sabha, but also succeeding governments and politicians who in their wisdom, farsightedness and vision gave force to the teaching and promotion of all languages spoken, used and written in Mauritius.

Speaking Unions

With the establishment of the English Speaking Union in 1993, other moves were made to create the Hindi Speaking Union (1993) and Urdu Speaking Union (2003). To date there are ten Speaking Unions including Chinese, Bhojpuri and the Creole Speaking Unions. All these Speaking Unions passed by Acts of Parliaments are duly gazetted. However, the meagre budgets allocated to these Speaking Unions make the carefully and judiciously written-out aims and functions contained in their Acts of Parliament an uphill task and quasi impossible to execute what with the recurrent and other expenditures incurred. It would be however praiseworthy to note that Mauritius is the only country in the world which has created these Speaking Unions and given validity to the different languages on its soil.

Various embassies and friendly countries do give a financial and other logistic support to maintain these languages which are now part of the Mauritian linguistic landscape. The English Speaking Union originated from the British English Speaking Union based in London, UK, and does commendable work in upgrading the level of English language amongst students with support from CSR sponsors.

The setting up of the Mahatma Gandhi Institute in the 1970s gave Indian languages as well as other Asian languages such as Mandarin a firm equilibrium and a secure base for the development of their curriculum, teacher training and text books.

Central Institute of Indian Languages

The reputed Central Institute of Indian languages (CIIL) an Indian research and teaching Institute based in Mysore as part of the Language Bureau of the Ministry of Human Resource Development of Indian Government, founded in 1969, has been a cornerstone in the setting up of a Language Resource Centre at the Indian Studies Department at the Mahatma Gandhi Institute with the signing up of an MOU in 2005. This Language Resource Centre at the MGI has given a strong anchorage to the training of teachers, preparation of textbook materials, curriculum development and making teaching – learning transition to E-Technology and E-learning a smooth adaptation.

Some 10 solid projects have been undertaken with this joint venture according to Mrs Soorya Gayan, Director General of the MGI, including capacity building, building competencies and development of teaching skills.

The Central Institute of Indian languages (CIIL) with the support of the Indian High Commissioner, Shri Abhay Thakur remitted recently a cheque of INR 1.5 million (MUR 750,000 approximately) at a ceremony at the MGI on Thursday 13th April last.

Need for Research

In his address, the Director General of CIIL D.G. Rao, however did not mince his words to remark that if the MGI wants to gain the status of an independent degree awarding institute which it can, it has to revisit its operation so far undertaken to gear to a fast speed tract as well as encourage and enforce the spirit of research. The lack of research, he underscored, is one of the weakest links in the good work undertaken so far by the MGI. The MGI is well placed to develop a viable Translation Unit also and train young people, given the status of Mauritius as not only an English-French bilingual country but a multilingual hub too.

It is a pity and matter of concern that the University of Mauritius does not have a Faculty of Indian Studies as such so far. When the nearby University of Reunion Island has a Language Centre which includes subjects such as English, French, Tamil, Hindi, Arabic, Malagasy and Japanese. Hindi has been on the Faculty of the University of Reunion for decades.

Mauritius as the venue for the 11th World Hindi Conference in 2018 is well placed to reinforce its language policies. Not only locally but in the diasporic countries especially the Caribbean countries, as well as nearby Reunion Island which already has Hindi on its Faculty. The Mahatma Gandhi Institute could with this new MOU signed with CIIL revisit its language dissemination policy, pose as an outreach Centre of Indian Language Learning and Training for countries such as Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago where language loss is much decried.

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