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Kreol unfit as language of instruction in higher studies


I refuse to believe that a well-educated university lecturer, politician, and social activist like Dev Virahsawmy (and a seasoned linguist to boot!) would have written the sentence “Mauritian Creole will become Morisien and will enter the curriculum as medium and language of higher studies” (Mauritius Times, 5 February) after having given the idea it expresses any thought, leave alone serious thought. Mr Virahsawmy should be the last person to whom I should be telling that the number of languages existing in the world today is about 7000; that languages emerge and evolve (as Mr Virahsawmy rightly points out), but also die in ‘mass graves’ more common than the ones that our power-obsessed leaders inflict on humankind every now and then even at the beginning of the Third Millennium. The latest language to die, among the 3500 that face the likelihood of extinction (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8500108.stm), was the 70,000 year-old Bo language of Great Andamanese tribe living in India’s island territories of the Andamans. When Boa Sr died very recently.


Even languages lacking a written form contribute to civilization

Now, Mr Virahsawmy, an educator, knows very well that a language is defined as a particular system for encoding and decoding information. Thus, to take an extreme case, the blind, deaf and speech-disabled young Helen Keller learned the word “water” through the intelligent (intelligent, not stupidly soft-hearted) care of her teacher Mrs. Sullivan through a sign-and-feel-and-phonetic combination of a ‘language’ from which ‘non-traditional’ languages, such as sign language and Braille were developed or refined.

But, to limit ourselves to more commonly-understood usages of the word language, Mr Virahsawmy is right that languages that may not have evolved a written form are not necessarily inferior to those that have. He is right that languages, whether thriving or facing possible extinction, should be celebrated rather than denigrated. As a statement lifted from the link provided above puts it: “…Key insights of biology, pharmacology, genetics, and navigation arose and persisted solely by word of mouth, in small, unwritten tongues. [The speakers of these languages] tell [anthropologists] how their ancestors calculated accurately the passing of seasons without clocks or calendars; how humans adapted to hostile environments, from the Arctic to Amazonia [and to colonial Mauritius].”

At the same time, educators, in particular, ought to constantly keep in mind that languages, like cultures and (as Robert Wright has so felicitously documented in his recent best-seller “The Evolution of Religions”) religions, reflect the contexts in which they emerged, the environments in which they spread, the opportunities and challenges that their users opened up or had to face. The fate of languages is interlinked with that of peoples and cultures and, over longer periods of time, of species, as they undergo parallel competitive evolutions or extinctions. Thus the people of the Yupik tribe of Alaska have names for 99 distinct sea ice formations in their environmentally adapted language, and they thrive in a climate where the most hardy group of Canadian or American explorers spread over an area of the land and unable to communicate with their colleagues the features of the landscape, knowledge of which might be essential to their survival, would soon die.

In his best-selling book “Guns, Germs and Steel”, Jared Diamond explains how the he found the ‘cargo people’ of Papua-New Guinea and of the South Pacific every bit as intelligent as he is and every bit as fond of the material comforts of modern civilization as he is. He assures us that it would not be difficult to teach the ‘cargo people’ to settle and grow high-yield crops and domesticate animals for agricultural planting and harvesting. But, they prefer their traditional way of life and are wiling to look upon visiting Europeans or other modern peoples as near-deities bringing ‘cargo’.

I beg forgiveness for this pedantry, but all this to demonstrate convincingly that Mr Virahsawmy is conflating linguistics, with sociology and anthropology and pedagogy and politics. This makes for a terrible mess!

Kreol unfit as medium of instruction beyond Form III

I strongly favour the celebration of Kreol/Morisien as a national language. I strongly favour its use as a supplement to the medium of instruction at what is called, in American parlance, “primary to junior secondary” schooling level. I am convinced that it will be impracticable at a higher level of education, simply because it lacks the concepts that are necessary for effective encoding and decoding and communication of information at that level.

I have always insisted that there is no normal child studying his geometry at around the age bracket 12 -15 who has not, however, fleetingly, asked himself the question that Carl Gauss so successfully asked himself as a child and went on therefrom to develop non-Euclidean Geometry: “What if we relax one of Euclid’s postulates, the most evident candidate being the fifth postulate about parallel lines”. When he started on that path, Gauss did not have the concepts to clearly develop his thoughts. He formulated new concepts, the German language and the environment that his benefactor the Duke of Gottingen provided for him easing his task.

Similarly, every child at some point asks himself, when he goes to sleep: “What is absolute nothing”. Like me, he tucks the question in some dark corner of his brain. Only if he has mastered some more evolutionarily advanced language does he go on, as I have done, to read, with complete understanding John Barrow’s book “The Book of Nothing” and possibly contribute to advance knowledge in that cutting-edge field of human intellectual investigation.

Kreol simply does not have that complexity, that richness of concepts. Trying to pretend otherwise does a disservice to the celebration of the Kreol/Morisien language rather than celebrates it.

Slahoodine Malleck Amode


Commémorations des indépendances africaines
Le temps des clarifications

L’idée de devoir commémorer les cinquante ans d’indépendance de leur pays en compagnie de l’ex-colonisateur était loin de faire l’unanimité parmi les Africains. Certains ont trouvé le projet saugrenu. D’autres y ont flairé un piège, d’autant que l’indépendance équivaut, pour le moins, à un divorce, et ne mérite donc pas un défilé, le 14 juillet, aux côtés des troupes françaises, sur les Champs-Elysées…

On s’attendait à des manifestations d’hostilité, mais pas de sitôt. Et voilà qu’une figure de premier plan dans la lutte pour l’indépendance du Cameroun vient d’ouvrir le feu, en rappelant quelques faits historiques. « Nous, Camerounais, dit Samuel Mack-Kit, nous avons gardé de l’indépendance un goût amer. L’histoire de notre indépendance a été une histoire sanglante. Et jusqu’ici, les gouvernements de la France officielle ont fait semblant d’ignorer cette réalité. Nous disons donc que pour ce qui nous concerne, tant que l’on ne tombera pas d’accord sur l’appréciation des conditions de cette indépendance, nous ne pouvons la fêter ensemble. »

Et d’exiger de la France qu’elle reconnaisse qu’elle a envoyé au Cameroun, de 1955 à 1964-1966, une armée qui a fait la guerre aux nationalistes camerounais. « Car, déplore-t-il, il n’est indiqué nulle part dans les livres d’histoire qu’il y a eu une guerre d’indépendance au Cameroun. »


Pour éviter les bévues…


Les réflexions de Samuel Mack-Kit nous ramènent à une autre réalité, qui pourrait expliquer, au moins en partie, le mauvais usage qui a été fait de certaines de ces indépendances que tous les Etats veulent célébrer aujourd’hui : ceux à qui l’on a remis les clés des Etats indépendants n’étaient pas toujours ceux qui luttaient pour la souveraineté internationale. Certains étaient tout simplement du côté… du pouvoir colonial, qu’ils ont cru devoir continuer à servir.

Les initiateurs de ces commémorations conjointes voulaient sans doute célébrer un demi-siècle d’amitié et de coopération franco-africaine dont Paris estime avoir de bonnes raisons de se féliciter. Mais qu’en pensent les populations et l’intelligentsia africaines ? Peut-être est-il encore temps, pour les organisateurs de ces festivités, de rattraper les oublis et d’éviter les bévues, de mieux penser leur projet, dont la réussite passe par leur aptitude à ne pas passer par pertes et profits les blessures et autres éraflures de l’Histoire, les humiliations et le sang versé, dont on s’est – hélas ! – peu préoccupé au cours du demi-siècle écoulé.


Jean-Baptiste Placca


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