Mauritian Multilingualism: Embracing Diversity, Enhancing Unity

By Nita Chicooree-Mercier

For any change in the choice of languages to be officially accepted in Parliament, which is a representative body of the people of Mauritius, it should be brought up for public debate, and not monopolized by leaders of political parties, as was the case with the aborted plan for a Second Republic. The topic calls for a dispassionate and rational debate. For the sake of clarity, terms need to be properly defined. What do we mean by ‘our national language’? Nation-building is a long-term process aimed at materializing the ideal of a ‘nation’. If the concept of nation is being viewed through the lens of Western history, we better step back and ask ourselves the right questions.

For example, it took centuries and much infighting among several provinces before some form of political unity took shape to unite people of largely the same racial and religious identity in France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom. After achieving political unity, which gradually made the idea of being part of one nation acceptable, it took more than a century to implement the one-language policy for official use in Parliament and the educational system.

It was far from being a smooth ride for regional languages like Occitan and Breton in France, Welsh and Scottish in the UK, or Catalan in Spain to accept a backstage secondary status and allow one language to emerge above others. Bitter memories of past coercion on the people still prevail. In the 1960s, South Indians took to the streets to protest against any attempt to popularize Hindi and still bristle at the idea of Hindi gaining ground over decades. Communist China imposed Mandarin without much ado on regional languages in a bid to simplify and unify communication among its people.

Do we derive our concept of a national language from European linguistic experts, who base their definition on a homogeneous race and culture, collective memory of their history, and a clear definition of what defines their civilization? To what extent can we speak of a nation in Mauritius? It is still in the process of being built; it is not yet a reality.

If we insist on putting the cart before the horse, we may find ourselves adopting the definitions of leftist ideologues and intellectuals in Mauritius regarding the status of Kreol. The latter are esteemed in opinionated circles in Creole-speaking French departments like Réunion and West Indian islands. Never mind that in these French departments, Creole is the only remnant of their island culture, as the French assimilation policy eradicated all other existing languages. Hence, there is a fervent effort to elevate its status and display it prominently on posters, road signs, and elsewhere. For everything else, they must accept the reality of owing the islands’ high standard of living and infrastructure to French taxpayers’ money.

Undeniably, there is an ethnic dimension to the language issue. It has become a matter of bestowing dignity upon the proletariat and recognizing their contribution to the initial economic development of the islands.

The endeavour to elevate the status of Kreol initially bore the stamp of a Marxist ideology within far-left circles in Mauritius. However, the question arises: does the existence of a Mauritian nation validate the notion of a national language? While Kreol is widely spoken and understood, its status as a fully developed language remains in progress. Classified as a dialect for decades, it has supplanted Bhojpuri, which once held widespread usage, due to the advocacy of ideologues and the waning interest within Bhojpuri-speaking communities. Nonetheless, Bhojpuri is recognized as a fully fledged language with a rich literary tradition in Eastern India, a heritage that has endured in Mauritius.

A national language reflects a shared history and culture. However, in a multi-ethnic society with a colonial legacy, history does not begin with the year of independence in 1968. Many individuals do not regard the 1840s as a pivotal moment in their intellectual and mental landscape.

In the 1990s, the proposal to mandate Oriental languages in schools sparked controversy in Mauritius. However, over time, acceptance of this idea has grown organically, without being enforced.

A utilitarian and materialistic approach falls short when it comes to languages. Merely having a common language does not automatically equate to a national language, nor does it serve as a unifying factor. Otherwise, civil rights would have been granted to Blacks in America in 1865, following the abolition of slavery, rather than waiting until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

In multi-ethnic, post-colonial societies, there are languages we use and languages that resonate with us on a deeper level. English served as the sole official language in Parliament until French was introduced upon the request of some MPs who faced challenges with English, despite significant investments in English language education over decades. Additionally, Kreol often sneaks into parliamentary discourse, typically utilized by members to take jabs at opponents, shout, and insult without restraint.

If MPs and ministers continue to struggle with these two languages, it is indicative of deeper issues regarding their intellectual capabilities, rather than a mere linguistic preference. Thus, rather than fixating on the language of choice, which risks being weaponized and politicized, attention should be directed towards addressing the intellectual standards of elected officials, especially during electoral campaigns.

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 5 April 2024

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