The Language Issue and English

If we are convinced that English should be reinforced in its official status and in the educational system, we should encourage a broader use of the language in the interaction with the public in administration and the offices in the public sector as well as with customers in the private sector

If anything, whether we define ourselves as communities or Mauritians is a non-issue. If that was the gist of the NICE discourse delivered to youngsters, as reported by the press, there is cause for concern.

Right now, what is at stake is the language issue which should not be left to the sole decision of the Minister of Education. It is too important an issue to be taken unilaterally within the closed circle of a ministry. People already put up with quite a number of measures which they would rather not have voted for had they had their say in matters which impact on their everyday life.

Now, instead of tackling the root cause of the inability of some SC and HSC students to understand exam questions in English, the ministry’s decision to bring in French sounds more like an abdication than a solution. Normally, teachers are expected to help students understand questions that are put to them in the various subjects they study for tests and exams. If that is done regularly throughout the year, there is no reason why students should fail to understand exam papers set in English. Come on! Are we being serious? There aren’t a thousand ways of putting questions in exam papers. Teachers are normally well-informed about the type of questions that come up every year.

It is high time to bring together all stakeholders around a table and make up our minds on what status English should be given in this country. We all seem to agree that it should continue to be the official language and the language of our intellectual make-up. First, no one refutes the fact that English is absolutely indispensable for us to connect to the outside world for information and knowledge in every domain.

Most of us, including educated youngsters and university students, communicate with relatives and friends in English as much as we express our ideas and opinions, and discuss topical issues in blogs and social networks in the English language. As from Form I, most students who start reading borrow or buy English adventure novels and detective stories, and English is the language they are most comfortable with during all their college years and thereafter. Currently, former SC students, even those who failed SC and never made it up to HSC, who are now in their 40s or 50s and beyond who feel like reading history, biographies or philosophy do so in English.

Statistics on the percentage of students whose low performance in exams can be put down to a poor understanding of English will be most welcome. There may be other reasons other than the language issue which account for failure. Anyway, the decline of proper writing and speaking languages is a worldwide phenomenon. The Chinese impute the lack of understanding key terms in Communication and Information Technology in Mandarin to the overwhelming presence of English on the net.

The chute libre of French in the French educational system has reached an alarming proportion, and no one seems to have any remedy to halt the decline. Teachers are instructed not to mind the poor quality of French in baccalaureate exam papers. Yet, no other language can be blamed for the decline of French in France! For more than a decade, the nivellement par le bas has become the norm. What matters to the authorities is to haul 80% students to a Bac level so that ultimately all of them graduate from high school. Not to mention the treatment meted out to French literature in France itself. It would also not be surprising if the average English child still writes ‘cot’ instead of ‘caught’!

In keeping with the utilatarian approach dictated by the World Bank to keep economic indicators afloat, budget cuts target Humanities first in many countries.

Undeniably, pupils in their teens read less and less. That is very much the case worldwide, but especially so in developed affluent countries where they enjoy too much material comfort, and parents tend to be at their beck and call to render their lives as smooth as possible. Laziness ensues quite naturally. Speaking or writing Creole requires no effort and is less demanding. The Legislative Assembly is both the wrong model for and the mirror image of lax linguistic norms ever since MPs have felt free to resort to French or Creole which is mainly used to insult opponents.

Instead of giving supermarket choices to pupils to help themselves from either English or French exam papers in a typical consumer spirit to have it easy, efforts should be focussed on promoting English in schools. Should Mr Soobarah, Ms N. Bauthoo and like-minded people barge into classrooms with guidelines for teachers on pronunciation, stress patterns and intonation? We should think that some people are highly paid from public funds to straighten up a system which has laid emphasis on written English and not enough on its phonological quality.

Incidentally, pupils used to be asked to write essays without proper guidance on writing technique not only in Mauritius but in other countries too. From personal experience, this was how languages were taught at the QEC. It is just mind-blowing when you think of it later on! Pupils were asked to write an essay on ‘Pollution’ for instance, without any prior discussion on the topic which might arouse interest and research work in magazines, and help pupils to acquire the appropriate vocabulary. They were expected to find relevant ideas just out of the blue.

A few days later the teacher would give back the papers with annotations written in the margin, and a broad smile to those who scored the highest marks. No effort whatsoever was made to give individual attention to pupils and explain on what criteria the marks were based, or whether they should improve grammar, syntax or paragraph building and so on. From 11 to 17 or 18 years, we were supposed to find out by ourselves how to do better next time! Language teachers’ job: give essays, mark them and hand them back. Needless to underline how teaching from a pedestal impacts on learning and motivation. Regular reading of literature books and magazines helped us to understand the intricacies of English and French. Encouragement from teachers or advice on the choice of books was almost non-existent. But we hope that some progress has been made in teacher-pupil interaction.

However, one positive point was the teachers’ recommendation that we should speak English and French during recess in the schoolyard, and on our way back home, which we did with pleasure. We did our best to converse mostly in English in the buses that carried us to Port-Louis, and we would go on chatting in English along John Kennedy Street walking past office clerks and loads of people heading home, make our way in the hustle-bustle of the market in Farquhar Street among vendors and dockers to the bus station. Our conversations in English did not attract particular attention from grown-ups who seemed to find it quite normal that college children should put into practice what they were learning in the classroom. No one tried to laugh down our efforts to acquire some command of the language.

If we are convinced that English should be reinforced in its official status and in the educational system, we should encourage a broader use of the language in the interaction with the public in administration and the offices in the public sector as well as with customers in the private sector.

Every Mauritian should feel free to use English when calling offices and similar places and should expect to be answered in English. A few months ago, a relative called the Mauritius Port Authority to inquire about the location of the passenger terminal for Mauritius Pride. With too much of French language in use around, she decided to address the office clerk in English on the phone. It stirred quite a panic! ‘Wait, wait!’ was the answer as the fellow grappled to put her through to other officers. Finally, he just hung up! Too complicated to say: when you reach the roundabout where ICAC toweringly stands on your right, turn right and drive on, etc.

The Minister of Education is not expected to hang up and single-mindedly take decisions which might cause irreversible damage to future generations. As several observers have pointed out, our spoken English, and French to a lesser extent, makes us the laughing stock in the region, surpassed by African and Asian countries. Diego Garcia was cut off from Mauritian territory without the consent of the people. We hope there is no freemason comradeship or personal gains in preparing Mauritius to end up as a member of the DOM-TOM-POM French family. No, thanks. Just see the lethargy in societies castrated by French occupation.

Another suggestion is that French, being the mother tongue of Creole, will make its own way among languages students learn at secondary level. If we admit that primary school children are overburdened with too many subjects, French should not be taught in Standard One. Let the focus be on English. French can be started in the last two years to children aged 9 to 11. The world is not going to end for that. Anyway, youngsters can really be fluent in foreign languages from the age of 15 onwards in most cases unless there is early immersion and exposure within the family context.

Challenging thoughts and ideas are needed right now to address the language issue in the educational system and the performance of pupils in general before hazardous initiatives are taken.


* Published in print edition on 20 December 2013

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