Benefits and Challenges in Implementing

Literacy in Creole in Multilingual Mauritius

While educators and other stakeholders are agreed on the need for a mother tongue-based system that provides a bridge to acquiring literacy in languages of wider communication, implementing such a system is not without challenges

There exists a consensus among linguists that appropriate language-in-education policies that enable teachers to instruct in the language a child speaks most at home and understands well enough to learn academic content through their mother tongue, as they learn a different language, improve pupils’ critical engagement with content, foster an environment of mutual learning and improve inclusion. However, a number of challenges need to be addressed for an effective use of L1 literacy in the education system.

Most supporters of mother tongue-based learning or LI literacy agree that a child’s home language can effectively be used as a language of instruction in the early years of their schooling as a bridge to learning a second/foreign language. I will therefore limit myself to analysing the benefits and challenges of implementing LI literacy in multilingual settings where official languages are not the main languages spoken at home.

The motivation for this analysis is directly linked to linguists like Spolsky’s assertion that ‘It must be obvious to all that incomprehensible education is immoral’. The quotation stresses the importance of pupils understanding what they are learning. So what kind of language in education policy will facilitate the learning process for pupils so that they acquire knowledge of various subjects as well as proficiency in both their mother tongue (Mauritian Creole or Bhojpuri in our case) and the international language of wider communication (English in Mauritius)? What role should the mother tongue play in their formal education?

In evaluating the arguments for or against the use of the mother tongue in formal education, proponents of either perspective have recourse to different linguistic/cognitive constructs. However, given that these arguments are usually posed in a multilingual context, the debate is often polarized as either promoting a case for mother tongue or for an international language of wider communication.

It is important to note that proponents of mother tongue education do not argue for the sole use of the mother tongue. It is not very useful polarising the role of Mauritian Creole versus English in Mauritius. Both are useful and needed. The pull of the force of globalization in the twenty-first century makes it almost impossible for any country to even contemplate any isolationist policy of ignoring global influences and ‘going it alone’, as it were.

Twin-pronged approach

In linguistic terms, such isolationist policies would mean a case for local languages like Creole or Bhojpuri in Mauritius at the expense of international languages of wider communication. However, it would be more sensible to go for a twin-pronged approach – guaranteeing access to local languages as well as guaranteeing access to an international language of wider communication.

Skutnabb-Kangas, a world renowned scholar and a staunch advocate of mother tongue education, the author of ‘linguistic genocide’, has stated quite categorically:

“…There are no serious proposals anywhere in the world which suggest that children at school in the 21st century can do without substantive access to a language of power, usually one of the big international languages… There is, quite simply, no other choice than to proceed with strong additive bilingual and multilingual options.”

The term ‘additive bilingualism’ is used to refer to a situation where a second language (L2) is acquired without any loss of the first language. ‘Subtractive bilingualism’, on the other hand, refers to a situation where the LI is gradually (but often, not so gradually) replaced by a more prestigious language. This usually happens in situations where the mother tongue is not a dominant language and has a low status. Pupils from Mauritius would fall into this category as they usually have to learn in their second language, while their mother tongue is rarely acknowledged, despite the introduction of Creole in the primary schools since January 2012.

Both additive and subtractive bilingualism are outcomes of particular approaches to language in education, but they are outcomes which are heavily influenced by contextual factors such as the status of the mother tongue, power relations in that society with regard to speakers of different languages, the quality of teaching, and the availability of resources such as reading materials in particular languages.

The term ‘semilingualism’ has been used to describe what can be referred to as the ‘negative consequences of bilingualism’ or when a minimum level of competence has not been reached in either the first or the second language, as outlined in the threshold hypothesis. The central concern, according to Cummins, a Canadian researcher, is:

“why does a home-school language switch result in high levels of functional bilingualism and academic achievement in middle class majority language children (i.e. children who speak mainstream and prestigious languages)… yet lead to inadequate command of both first (L1) and second (L2) languages and poor academic achievement in many minority language children (i.e. children who speak a language of low status)?”

A pedagogical implication of the above would be that teachers would need to explicitly encourage students to transfer knowledge and skills across languages, instead of forbidding them to use their L1s, as is often the case, including Mauritius.


Given the powerful arguments for mother tongue literacy, what then are the main obstacles that prevent it from being implemented in schools?

There are several educational barriers preventing the effective implementation of a mother tongue-based system in postcolonial settings like Mauritius. I will, however, focus on two such challenges, namely (a) language-in-education policy and planning, and (b) political challenges.

A mother tongue-based education system, assuming that there exist a sufficient number of well-trained teachers and adequate instructional materials, cannot successfully be implemented if the language in education policy is weak or ill thought-out. Policy-makers assume that all they have to do is spell out how language is to be used in education, and heads of schools, teachers and learners shall toe the line. All that has happened, however, is that the process has increased tensions between policy-makers’ intentions and the actual outcomes, practices and effects of policy in education. Language planning is a constant negotiation process of the interests of various social groups and their changing priorities and should therefore consider language practices first before writing policy. A top-down imposition fails to take into account the capacity of education departments to communicate the requirements of the policy.

The language policy of Mauritius is weakened by its assumption that language is a discrete entity whose use can be manipulated. For instance, it states a child’s home language be used only until Standard III, teachers and learners will make the switch without any residual tensions, yet language cannot be bound to territories and neat categories. In Mauritius, the following directive from the Education Ordinance of 1957 still holds true:

“In the lower classes of Government and aided primary schools up to and including Standard III, any one language may be employed as the language of instruction, being a language which in the opinion of the Minister is the most suitable for the public.

“In Standards IV, V and VI of the Government and aided primary schools the medium of instruction shall be English and conversation between teacher and pupils shall be carried on in English, provided that lessons in any other language taught in the school shall be carried on through the medium of the instruction.”

The point is that when policy lays down strict limits on how language can be used, it neglects the everyday reality of usage between teachers and students and largely becomes irrelevant to them and unresponsive to their needs.

This rigid stance also fails to take into account the kind of language that has emerged as a result of communities’ interactions. Canagarajah, Professor of Linguistics in New York, notes that communities negotiate the mix of languages, literacies and discourse and interests rather than strictly abide by those government policy directives. Current approaches to language planning and policy are becoming more cognizant of the fact that the language used by teachers and students does not exist neatly in discrete categories, especially since language is itself a fluid, dynamic construction.

Local strategies such as code-switching (e.g. English/French/Creole), where teachers and students use different languages to facilitate communication, have the potential to be successfully developed for better content understanding, but are hardly considered in traditional policy models and are thus not accommodated.

Political challenges

I will now discuss some of the political challenges that prevent the effective implementation of an L1-based policy. They are under two main subheadings: (a) nation-building, and (b) language status.

Most educators recognize the advantages of a mother-tongue-based system over a submersion system, and the right of diverse groups to receive an education that meets their demands, but they also fear that such recognition disrupts the construction of a nation. This is what has been called the “pluralist dilemma”, where policy-makers struggle to reconcile the claims of the nation-state. Various policy-makers have argued that an L2-based language in education policy is the best way to prevent ethnic division and contribute to the construction of a nation-state, but the reality is that it has excluded a majority of the population and worked to the benefit of a minority elite, thus increasing inequality, political instability and disaffection.

On the issue of nation-building through linguistic ideologies, it would be interesting to refer to the works of Patrick Eisenlohr, Professor of Cultural Anthropoloy, whose publications include ‘Little India: Diaspora, Time, and Ethnolinguistic Belonging in Hindu Mauritius’. Professor Eisenlohr has researched extensively on Mauritian notions of cultural citizenship, and has dwelled on the conflicting visions of Mauritian nationhood. He finds that the ideology of institutionalizing Creole as an emblem of Mauritian nationhood is pitted against ideologies of ancestral languages which articulate a form of citizenship that emphasizes the primacy of diasporic “ancestral cultures”. This might explain, according to him, the failure of the Mauritian Creole nationalist campaign in March 1983 under the slogan of ‘ene sel lepep, enn sel nasion’, led by the MMM. Will a putative Labour-MMM coalition reconcile these two visions of nationhood? Time will tell.

Secondly, inclusive language policies work best if people ascribe value to the local language. The language policy in Mauritius faces tremendous challenges as regards language attitudes, with literacy in English (and French, for that matter) being the mark of being educated and those with literacy only in local languages like Creole viewed as being in the ‘bottom of the pile’.

Although there is a strong tendency for scholars and linguists in postcolonial nations to be keen to raise the status of local languages vis-à-vis the language(s) of the former colonisers, the general public may not share the same enthusiasm towards this cultural issue, aiming rather to acquire the international languages, which facilitate socioeconomic success.

In most language attitude surveys done in Mauritius, respondents are strongly opposed to mother tongue literacy. Those who are against it argue that Mauritian youth should spend time on learning international languages, which could open up the world to them, rather than insular Creole. Many also feel that Creole, which is naturally acquired through everyday interaction by most Mauritian children, would not require a place in formal education. Some even believe that Creole, as the language of the disempowered, is being used by the dominant group as a political tool to prevent the general public from making socioeconomic progress, whereas their own offspring, who speak English and French at home, would continue to enjoy the prestige of dominating society.

So while educators and other stakeholders are agreed on the need for a mother tongue-based system that provides a bridge to acquiring literacy in languages of wider communication, implementing such a system is not without challenges.

* Published in print edition on 8 August 2014

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