By Honita C.
Point out the incorrect pronunciation of their words or wave your eyebrows trying to decipher the recurring ‘tc’ or ‘btw’ in their text messages and they will grimace angrily or display with indignant nonchalance the ‘who cares’ attitude which now marks the approach of us Mauritians towards languages – spoken or written. Throughout the process that had us transiting from the size of pixies to 5-foot tall adults, us, Mauritians have — at home, at school, in the social milieu, at work and in public — assimilated and exercised the practice of at least two languages: French and English. However much we have winced and ripped our hair while learning the rolling of the ‘r’s, the grammatical conjunctions in French or the use of nouns, pronouns and tenses in English, it remains that this linguistic package we have earned is today an asset. One which gives Mauritius and its citizens leverage in the international job market, in attracting foreign investment and in wielding international negotiations.
Nevertheless, it seems, the current generation is not tending this inherited asset as well as it should. Be it in academic terms, in the professional field or in plain everyday speech, the levels of French and English have taken a sudden dip. There is a saddening proliferation of ‘zis’, ‘zat’ and ‘zose’, an astounding display of limited vocabulary, a jaw-dropping process of vulgar linguistic distortion and a disorientating trend of incomprehensible sms abbreviations!
Over the decades of Mauritian acquisition of French and English, the languages have, as expected, been somewhat vernacularised. In other words, they have been made to match our country’s exoticism, multi-culturality, general context and ideoscape. For instance, the known colloquial way to start a conversation ‘to koner…’ in Kreol is transliterated and used in similar fashion in English ‘you know…’ and in French ‘Tu sais…’. Though, in the original usage of these respective languages, these formulae are not popular.
Similarly, another re-constructive process which English and French have undergone in Mauritius is that of ‘chutnification’ – a term coined by Salman Rushdie which refers to the intermixing of languages in a spoken or written pattern in a fashion that still makes complete sense while exuding a comprehensive acknowledgement of situations of linguistic diversity.
Hybrid linguistic concoction
In the case of Mauritius, this alludes to a hybrid linguistic concoction of French, English and Creole, with sometimes an additional Hindi/Tamil/Urdu interjection increasingly used by Mauritians to communicate with fellow citizens. Phrases such as ‘Nu mange burger quand nu alle la maison’ are not unknown to our ears and, and for some of us, to our mouths.
But while both these patterns of linguistic adaptation have proved their communicative and informative worth and soundness of comprehension, there are certain new alterations to our languages that demand our sustained attention and vigorous action. While these vernaculars and chutnified forms of speech and writing have made a place in our land and hearts, the sad thing is that, as individuals, we have not been able to retain correctness and accuracy in our personal use of each of the languages, especially English.
The emerging distortion of the current Mauritian use of French is only a symbolic minimalistic sample of the grand degradation being experienced by English on our land. The language of polite conversation in office corridors, of telephonic conversations, of mall-shopping, of restaurants and classrooms and most importantly, of daily newspapers and news telecasts, our French has started to dwindle to colloquialisms. This is mostly as a result of the socio-economic phenomenon of the middle class upliftment – the birth of the new demographic slice: the ‘nouveau riche’ or the ‘wanna-be’.
In an attempt to publicize their upward mobility closer to the gentility, they make of the French language an instrument of status enhancement. There is a concerted attempt to mimick the ‘been-there-and-will-remain-there’ upper class. Stuttering toddlers are addressed by their ‘mamans’ in broken French around the house, with obvious omissions of grammatical conjunctions and in wrong tenses; accents are like never heard before — Quatre Bornes becomes Qaetre Burnes – in a coup of accented baptization. In short, a French that would make Sarkozy’s citizens cringe or giggle.
But the case of English is much worse! The apparent official language of the country — the language in which the laws are written, the Constitution is enshrined, the language of international communications and agreements, the language in which mathematics, geography and all the rest of the academic subjects are taught (of course with the exception of other languages and their subsidiaries), the language in which you email your boss, text your girlfriend, conduct business transactions, sing your national anthem – what about the future of that language?
Should it come as a surprise that the subject in which most of our Form Five School Certificate level students fail is English? Is it normal that the average mark for the performance in Oral English exams is 45 over 100? Reports of the year 2008 reveal that only 354 students of 17861 (1.9%) got 1 unit in English. Most of the Form Five students that year got 6 units in English. Similarly, in CPE exams, English registers the lowest number of student passes. As for the Higher School Certificate exams 2008, 55.7% of students were marked D and E in English Literature.
Does this scenario match our government’s aspirations for a world class education? Does it respond to our need for a English-fluent hotel staff to be at the service of our international clientele? Does it cater for a call-centre workforce that needs not only fluency in English but also a command of the different accents of English pertinent to different parts of the world?
Jin Fei and Neotown are only the first innings of the inflow of investment from China and India which is going to flood Mauritius in the coming years – and the reason behind this initiative is no old cultural camaraderie – but more because of our strategic positioning connecting us to the grand old African continent, geographically and linguistically.
The fact that Africa is a package of mixed Anglophone and Francophone countries requires investors not at ease with the language to locate a mediator. And who better than Mauritius! We not only boast of speaking and writing these two tongues fluently but also hold an economic and political upper-hand in the guise of our growth, development and democratic stability. However, do the above mentioned academic results arm us to deal with these international investors and negotiators who march in our offices with delectable proposals every day? Simply put, no, it does not!
At a time when, through the much celebrated globalization and liberalization, Mauritius has unrestrained access to daily doses of BBC, CNN, NDTV, internet and all, it is rather astonishing that our English is so poor. Part of the problem is the perception we nurture of English. Too often, speaking English is associated to pretence, as it is a language which is not comprehensively accessible. Though most Mauritians know basic English, the lack of practice denies us an extensive vocabulary and makes it impossible for us to undertake an engaging conversation in that language. Hence, it becomes a vicious circle. The root cause here is the lack of encouragement from parents and teachers to children to read and creatively write in English.
English is even taught through French or Creole in our schools which is why at a later stage we notice that students think in French or Creol and then translate the phrases into English when writing an essay. Obviously, here the syntax goes all wrong and we get a messy and incomprehensible English. The key is to get children to learn English through English – just as is done with French and other languages. Furthermore, the phenomenon of text messages has only amplified this downfall of proper English.
The affordability of mobile phones makes them an accessible gadget to school-goers and their limited text formats push the users to save on alphabets — and consequently, on phone credits — by abbreviating every single word they know. The sad reality is that this new SMS language gets so ingrained in our everyday life that we get to adopt it as the understood and accepted form of English – even giving ourselves and each other the liberty to apply such forms of inscriptions in our daily emails and homework!
Zese are, sorry, these are the idiosyncrasies of the Mauritian English which is increasingly becoming the standard of our linguistic capabilities. However much we want to deny it, the fact remains that English (and possibly very soon French too) has reached the zenith of incomprehensibility – to the extent that our written pieces of work and communication might shortly gain the status of hieroglyphs! Now, it is up to us to decide whether to sink into the illusion of coolness exuding from this new trend of linguistic galimatias and perpetual shorthand or to step back to reassert the worth of learning and practicing proper English and French — and in so doing, enhance our chances of securing a bright internationally competitive future.
* Published in print edition on 17 June 2010