Power Relations between Languages in Mauritius

Multilingualism of Unequals

To know one’s language, whatever that language is, and to add others to it is genuine empowerment. But to know other languages, while being ignorant of one’s own,
is mental slavery

A an Indo-Mauritian, I possess a hyphenated identity which I take pride in, much to the discomfiture of advocates of French-inspired pro-assimilation discourses so prevalent among the opinion leaders in the mainstream written press in Mauritius.

My whole life has been influenced by a colonial education system which has made me acquire a hard-won mastery of the English language (and French, for that matter) at the expense of my ancestral language Hindi, of which I have only a passive understanding, while my Bhojpuri syntax is mangled. My own linguistic background and personal experiences have now prompted in me an interest in the phenomenon of language attrition and language loss among the Indian diaspora in Mauritius.

Some people argue that many languages in a country or in the world can make a house of Babel; they believe that understanding between cultures and among nations can only be brought about by speaking one language. I don’t believe that to be the truth. What is important is for languages to be able to communicate without a few of them dominating others. Languages can become bridges. Let me put it this way – to know one’s language, whatever that language is, and to add others to it is genuine empowerment. But to know other languages, while being ignorant of one’s own, is mental slavery.

The death of any language is the loss of the knowledge contained in that language. The weakening or attrition of any language is the weakening of its knowledge-producing potential. Language is the primary computer with a natural hard drive. Language attrition is the loss of a first or second language or a portion of that language by individuals and a gradual decline in our home language proficiency.

In our case, this applies to a sizeable proportion of the descendants of indentured labourers who have, over the years, replaced the ancestral languages and Bhojpuri by the Creole language. In spite of the teaching of ancestral languages till University level here, our mastery of these languages is still minimal and halting and hardly functional, if by ‘mastery’ we mean being able to use a language effectively and fluently in all circumstances.

Ongoing hegemonic practices

Indentured labour emigration stopped in the beginning of the 20th century, but colonization and ongoing hegemonic practices have continued to have an impact on the social behaviour and preferences of the indentured labourers and their descendants, such as their choice of communication. Emigration causes damage to one’s identity, culture, and language. This is what has happened in the case of Indian communities in the Caribbean and Indian Ocean countries. Indian emigration – especially the labour diaspora to Mauritius, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Fiji — has not only been marked by sorrow but also the unfortunate loss of Indian migrants’ languages, philosophies, and, in many cases, religions.

The languages of the colonial powers such as English and French are associated with modernity and the migrants’ languages with obsolescence. As a consequence of colonization, English and French have become prestigious languages, and the favoured choices in various domains of day-to-day life, such as education, business and media, forcing people to use ancestral languages at a minimal level, resulting in language attrition and loss eventually. It needs worth mentioning that being classified as Hindi-speaking or Urdu-speaking, Tamil-speaking or Telugu-speaking or Marathi-speaking here in Mauritius is not a marker of linguistic proficiency or mastery but a marker of ethnic and cultural identity.

The ideology that dominates the world favours inequality and the factors that create and maintain this inequality. Our society, like most postcolonial countries, has decided social positions of people hierarchically, reflected in our linguistic hierarchy which positions European languages at the top of the hierarchy while the ancestral languages and local vernaculars such as Creole feature at the bottom of the pile. In India itself, people who advocated Hindi-Urdu over English twenty years before are now favouring English over Hindi-Urdu. ‘Investment’ in language through which gaining membership of any society is possible, and thus being multilingual today or knowing another language, mostly one of the dominant languages, has become very important.

Bourdieu, a French sociologist and philosopher, explains that in order for a language to be legitimized, and accepted as ‘capital’ (linguistic and cultural), it needs to be located in the market. Language is not only a communicative tool but it is more importantly an instrument of power (invisible and symbolic). Gaining access to a dominant culture through linguistic power assures participants a position in a social discourse and eventually positions them as dominant.

The idea of acquiring the dominant cultural norm comes from hegemony, which exists in any given society, pushing subordinate groups to the periphery. Thus, if we apply this idea to the Mauritian language situation, the importance of English and French in our society has given birth to a new kind of discrimination, and created two classes, an elite English/French-knowing class and a non-elite non-English/French-knowing class.

 Multilingualism as a problem/right/resource

In order to understand the power relations among the languages existing on our territory, we need to take into account the different attitudes that prevail in our society. Do we consider multilingualism as a problem? Or as a right? Or is multilingualism a resource?

Language as a problem can be seen when a diaspora or children of the diaspora are expected to give up their parents’ language in order to assimilate into the dominant mainstream as quickly as possible.

Language as a right means the diaspora have the right to maintain their ancestral languages and become functionally multilingual.

And language as a resource conveys the idea that the diasporic languages are a resource not only for the diaspora themselves, but also for society as a whole.

One of the reasons why our society prefers English and French in education is that developing skills in ancestral languages does not seem to us to be linked to economic benefits. Therefore, to gain advantage in the global economy, bi/multilinguals will need to adopt a different concept of their identity. With the shift of economic power from the West to the East, Asiatic languages such as Mandarin and Hindi are likely to become increasingly valuable.

To gain advantage in the new global economy, multilinguals will need to adopt a different concept of their identity. The politics of identity so cherished by Mauritians concern maintaining an ancestral language and culture, conserving and protecting traditions, and perpetuating a well defined ethnic and cultural identity. Instead, a new pragmatic identity for those who identify themselves with ancestral languages needs to take advantage of their multiple linguistic and cultural resources to participate in a global economy.

Could it be that stakeholders such as learners, teachers and parents do not perceive the benefits of diasporic languages beyond the classroom? People place value on what they consider will give them returns on investment. Investors in anything, language included, want palpable benefits in economic empowerment due to a strong correlation between enhanced economic opportunities and investment in a language. Multilingualism opens opportunities to what we can call creative economies, which include such sectors as advertising, visual and performing arts, publishing among others.

The main misconception about diasporic languages is that they do not give the learner a competitive edge in the national or global economy. This misconception needs to be cleared. The nature of the New World economy is an ability to cross boundaries, and multilinguals are relatively skilled in such behaviour.

“A People

Put them in chains

Strip them naked

Gag their


They are still free.

Take away

Their livelihood

Their freedom to travel

The table

Where they eat

The bed they sleep in,

They are still rich.

A People

Become impoverished

And servile,

When taken from them

The language

Endowed by their fathers

Is lost forever.”

(Sicilian poem)

* Published in print edition on 29 August 2014

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