The English – French Divide

Colonial Linguistic Inheritance and Impact On Ideologies

It is fairly common to hear people in Mauritius say that ‘imperfect’ command of English is tolerated here, but not ‘imperfect’ French. This reveals to what extent discrimination exists on a linguistic basis in this country, and how people can be marginalized and silenced due to their limited command of French within the context of inequitable power relations among the languages used and spoken in Mauritius

Our society seems to be perennially caught up in a clash between two nationalist ideologies. The first nationalist ideology is of ‘French-tendency’, primarily promoted by the mainstream written media apparatus financed by the former colonial elite, and advocated by the MMM, at least in its earlier stages; it consists in a form of colorblindness that denies ethno-religious identity and celebrates a homogeneous Mauritian identity. This ideology borders upon the assimilationist viewpoint pictured in the idea of a ‘melting pot’ summed up in the MMM slogan ‘enn sel lepep enn sel nasion’. This nationalism does not recognize ethnic identification, as it understands this type of identification as being ‘communalist’, or divisively against civic national values.

In contrast, the second nationalist ideology, based on the concept of ‘unity-in-diversity’ is of ‘English’ or ‘Indian-tendency’ actively promoted by successive governments, especially the Labour Party, since the 1980s. In this view, Mauritian culture can only be understood through the diversity of its cultures; hence the celebration of ancestry and diverse ethno-religious identities. Ideologies that surround the terms ‘unity-in-diversity’, ‘cultural pluralism’, and ‘multiculturalism’ thus challenge the assimilationist philosophy.

This article focuses on the English-French colonial linguistic inheritance which has shaped the ideologies of our respective political elite presiding over the destiny of our country. ‘Ramgoolam et Bérenger sont deux hommes avec deux styles et deux caractères différents.’ dixit Reza Issack in a recent interview (Le Defi Plus 30 August). In spite of repeated claims by the PM that there prevails a ‘chemistry’ in his relationship with the leader of the Opposition, could it be that both have imbibed, each in his own way, different states of mind and visions of life due to the impact of their respective linguistic inheritance on their ideologies, one being English-educated, while the other being French-educated?

When we learn another language, we start to think in slightly different ways. A traditional reason for teaching children another language was that it trained their brains. In England it was Latin that was supposed to do the trick. Boris Johnson, the current Mayor of London, has pronounced ‘Latin and Greek are great intellectual disciplines, forcing young minds to think in a logical and analytical way.’ But all learning of another language probably changes people’s thinking to some extent, not just classical languages. Bi/Multilingual speakers do not see the world in quite the same way as monolinguals. As the Italian film director Federico Fellini is supposed to have said, ‘A different language is a different vision of life.’

Take an important concept like ‘friend’; do we change our idea of friendship when we have to take part in another culture or do we stick to the same idea? The English concept of ‘friend’ reflects ‘values of autonomy and self-reliance, as well as egalitarian non-exclusivity.’ To a Mauritian, however, the concept conveys ‘strong loyalty and attachment bordering on love.’ A Mauritian learning to live in an English-speaking society has therefore to tone down the strength of meaning of ‘friendship’. In most languages the casual use of the word ‘friend’ for Facebook contacts would be unthinkable. Complex changes in thinking are necessary to function effectively in another society. A young Polish girl in Canada was asked by another girl if she would be her friend and she replied that she didn’t know her well enough yet: the two concepts of friendship had collided and the Canadian girl was upset at the apparent rejection.

It is to be noted, to take another example, that there is no straightforward equivalent to the French ‘communautarisme’, which refers to the attitude that some communities have to ‘ghetto’ themselves instead of trying to get integrated and mingled with the rest of society. Of course, this concept and terminology is misleadingly used by the French dominated mainstream written press to demonise and stigmatise the Hindu community here.

In order to come to terms with the differences of visions of life distilled in English-educated as opposed to French-educated political elite here, it is worthwhile considering the difference in the British and the French colonial linguistic policies. It is widely believed that a comparison between the British and French empires reveals a fundamental difference in their language policies. The French were more singleminded in the propagation of their language, more conscious of a ‘civilising mission’ (‘mission civilisatrice’), more intolerant of the use of local vernaculars at any stage in education, and more effective in educating black men (and far fewer women) to speak the metropolitan language beautifully, though this is an over-simplification of the issues involved.

The French were prepared to treat Africans as equals, but only if they learnt to speak French properly and adopted the values of French culture. If they reached a sufficient level of education, Africans might be accepted as French citizens. To fall below the required level was to invite charges of racial inferiority. French colonial policy incorporated concepts of assimilation and association. Based on an assumption of the superiority of French culture over all others, in practice the assimilation policy meant extension of the French language, institutions, laws, and customs in the colonies, but it entailed different institutions and systems of laws for the colonizer and the colonized.

A local elite trained in French administrative practice formed an intermediary group between the French and the Africans. Back in 1914 there was already an African politician in the French National Assembly (the equivalent of the British House of Commons). This was Blaise Diagne, representing Senegal. Another leading figure was Leopold Senghor. Before he became a politician, he was a teacher. In the 1930s he took the post of Senior Classics teacher at the Lycee in Tours, France. No British public school or grammar school at that time would have accepted an African as a teacher no matter how brilliant.

Under French colonial policy, missionaries, primarily Catholic, operated under the assumption that the French language was part of the civilizing ‘package’ they offered to the Africans. These missionaries also worked in close partnership with the colonial authorities, and the goal of these leaders was clear. Governors-General of French West Africa described their education objectives as follows:

“The goal of elementary teaching is the diffusion among the indigenous people of spoken French. The French language is the only one to be used in schools. It is forbidden for teachers to allow their students to use local speech.”

“French must be imposed on the largest number of indigenous people and serve as the vehicular language in the entire expanse of French West Africa. Its study is obligatory for future leaders. But our contact doesn’t stop at leaders. It penetrates deeper into the masses. So we need to spread another layer of spoken French. We must be able to find even in the farthest villagers, along with the leaders, at least a few indigenes that understand our language and can express themselves in French without academic affectation… Multiply (…) preparatory schools, call as many children as possible and teach them to speak French.”

At independence, obtained by most Africans colonies around 1960, it is not surprising that all French colonies opted to keep French as the language of instruction in schools. Even here in Mauritius, colonized both by the British and the French, a large number of Mauritians, for whom French is not a native tongue, suffer from the intolerance and prejudices for the slightest deviation from the prescriptive norms of Standard French. Pallavi Gungaram, chosen Miss Mauritius 2013, was hounded, humiliated, and became the laughing stock at the hands of the press and on the social media. Journalists made an issue with sadistic relish out of Pallavi’s slip of the tongue, when she stated ‘Je suis ėmuse’ instead of ‘Je suis émue’. She was eventually forced to present her apologies to the press, saying “ Je m’excuse pour ce lapsus… Cela a été un lapsus dû à la fatigue et du fait que je m’exprime souvent en anglais.”

It is fairly common to hear people in Mauritius say that ‘imperfect’ command of English is tolerated here, but not ‘imperfect’ French. This reveals to what extent discrimination exists on a linguistic basis in this country, and how people can be marginalized and silenced due to their limited command of French within the context of inequitable power relations among the languages used and spoken in Mauritius.

British policies have appeared to represent the antithesis of the French philosophy of citizenship, though they too stigmatized or simply ignored local languages and traditions in educational practice during the days of the Empire. They implemented the policy of ‘indirect rule’ during the colonial period by educating the elite exclusively through the medium of English; primary education could for others be in the vernacular. In British colonies in Africa, African languages generally served as the medium of education for the first few years of the primary school. But instruction through the local language was invariably seen as a transitional phase prior to instruction in English. Local languages were never accorded high status in any colonial society. Education served the interests of the colonizing powers, but it has to be acknowledged that large areas of social life were unaffected by colonial education or linguistic policies. A sizeable proportion of the population remained illiterate.

The hegemony of the dominant colonial languages was buttressed by a ‘linguicist’ ideology in both empires. ‘Linguicism’ is defined as ‘ideologies, structures, and practices which are used to legitimate, effectuate, and reproduce an unequal division of power and resources between groups which are defined on the basis of language’ (Skutnabb-Kangas). Whereas the French more actively propagated a discourse of linguistic supremacy, the British, though apparently more pragmatic and laissez-faire, had a fundamentally similar attitude to the values of English and failings of other languages. The leader of the Labour Party is often accused by the written press of his laissez-faire approach, while the detractors of the leader of the Opposition accuse him of being ‘totalitarian’ or even ‘dictatorial’. Does their respective educational background have something to do with the shaping of our leaders’ attitudes and ideologies? Now that the Labour Party-MMM coalition has been almost sealed, will this indicate a form of reconciliation of the two types of ideologies? These are questions worth some reflection.


* Published in print edition on 5 September 2014

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