P. Soobarah

Socio-religious organisations and the language issue

Will the prophecy of the Education Committee of 1880 to the effect that Indian languages will disappear in favour of Creole, at least as home languages, come true?

 

Hindu socio-religious organisations have no business meddling with questions like the education of the children of their members. That is a privilege strictly reserved for the Roman Catholic Church – that is a truth that brooks no argument. The editorial in a glossy Sunday paper during the last weekend rightly questioned the propriety, perhaps even the right, of Hindu socio-religious organisations like the MSDTF and the VOH to express their views on social questions. An accusing finger was pointed directly at Mr Somduth Dulthumun, President of the MSTDF. Mr Dulthumun should have known better. It is the Catholic Church that really knows what is best for the children of Mr Dulthumun’s community. That has been demonstrated time and again since our ancestors arrived here in the nineteenth century.

 

Take for instance the education of children in their mother tongues. It is a great pity that certain aspects of Mauritian history are not taught in our schools. According to Mr Satyadev Peerthum, President of the Arya Sabha who is also a historian in his spare time – he does a one-hour talk on aspects of the history of Mauritius on MBC radio every week in Bhojpuri – Sir James Macaulay Higginson, who was Governor of the Mauritius from 1851 to 1857, initiated a move for the education of the children of Indian immigrants in their mother tongues and would have had them study English as well.

A project with some experimental vernacular schools was started but the plantocracy and the Church were successful in making it as difficult as they could for this project to go ahead smoothly, to such an extent that it had to be wound up in 1880. Even though Mauritius was a British colony, the power to take decisions in such matters lay with a committee consisting of local bigwigs. At the session at which the decision to terminate the experiment was taken, the deciding committee was provided with evidence to the effect that the schools were well-managed and very successful. But the committee still went ahead with what it thought would be in the best interests of the immigrants’ children. It forthrightly stated its view that education in Indian languages would bring little advantage to the country and that those languages would in any case soon be forgotten in favour of Creole, the lingua franca of the country. The story is amply covered in Ramesh Ramdoyal’s “Development of education in Mauritius” (MIE, 1977) and Patrick Eisenlohr’s “Little India” (University of California Press, 2006).

Everything went on just fine for another twenty years. Then in the twenty-first year an event occurred that shattered the dreams of many. The boat on which Mahatma Gandhi was returning to India from South Africa stopped off in Port Louis. He seized the opportunity to meet and talk to people and he quickly and shrewdly gauged what was going on. He subsequently persuaded a young activist he met in London during a short visit there to devote his youthful energies towards improving the lot of Indian immigrants in Mauritius. That young man was Manilal Maganlal Doctor, who did carry out the wishes of the Mahatma and made his way to Mauritius. That started a chain of events that finally led to the Independence of Mauritius in 1968 with an Indian immigrant’s son as Prime Minister. The journey was rough and many fell by the wayside, but the final outcome was well worth the effort.

However, education in the mother tongue of Indian immigrants at the primary level never came back. Most of those mother tongues have been genocided – very few people of Tamil, Telugu or Marathi origin speak those languages at home with their children. Bhojpuri has also taken a severe bruising, and its chances of survival are pretty slim. Some dedicated individuals are leading a tireless and even desperate battle to save it, while many others are praying for its disappearance, and doing whatever they can in support of their prayer. Will the prophecy of the Education Committee of 1880 to the effect that Indian languages will disappear in favour of Creole, at least as home languages, come true?

* * *

One must recognise the tremendous efforts made by all Mauritians, including the members of Mr Dulthumun’s community, in the field of education in general and in languages in particular. Few countries in the world can boast of so many languages on an area of 2000 square kilometres. This is a great treasure that foreigners visiting Mauritius quickly appreciate, even though many of our citizens just take it for granted, if they do not actually see it as a source of problems. “Ene sel lepep, ene sel nation, ene sel tout zaffaire” is what they believe in, Unity only in Unicity. It is just possible that diversity is too complicated a concept for them. Without recognition of and allowance for diversity there will be neither unity nor nation. We strongly believe in Unity in Diversity.

In the matter of languages we believe that Mauritius is actually a phonetician’s paradise, except that, like Mr Jourdain, who had not been aware that he had been speaking prose all along, our education authorities have not yet realised that the phonetics and phonology of our several languages can be exploited to great advantage. If we put our mind to it, we could make a living just by teaching languages to others in foreign countries. We cannot immediately rival UK where the income from English Language teaching to foreigners in UK and abroad exceeds 1300 million pounds sterling annually, but I am sure we could rival with them in the quality of teaching dispensed to non-English speaking people – provided we sort out a few problems at home first.

Our educational and linguistic progress is primarily the result of the efforts of primary school teachers of earlier generations. They were the teachers who brought up the generation of politicians and civil servants who took the country to Independence and ran it for a decade or so. Their knowledge was not perfect, but one realises the hurdles they had to overcome to get where they did, one must marvel at their sense of dedication and duty. Most of them were self-taught. We owe them a great debt. Regrettably they have been succeeded by a generation who do not believe in teaching at school: mass private tuition is what they swear by.

Going back to earlier times, our linguistic success did not come easily. People of Indian origin have great difficulty in mastering French sounds, but with effort and perseverance we have got there. We have totally mastered the Creole language: we had to, as failing that we would have had no education. All talk of education in the mother-tongue had been abandoned since 1880. Not even Manilal Doctor could bring it back. The subject was never mentioned again until it became absolutely certain that teaching in Indian mother-tongues would not be called for again. We pursued our learning efforts beyond Creole and finally got to French. Just see the names on the pass list of the examinations of the Alliance française year after year. But now we hear some strange noises. There seems to be a move afoot by some to make us give up French in favour of Creole. This is a little like going to a distant island in the Pacific in a sailing boat to find a treasure, and on finding it, to be told by some: “This is not good for you. Leave it. Take breadfruit – it is better for your health.”

Thank you, Sir. We happen to be very much aware of what is good for us and what is not. We want all our children to learn and master the French language in addition to English, which is itself as important to us as oxygen. If we need the oxygen of English to breathe, we need the beauty of French and Asian languages to lead a happy life. Just breathing is not enough; we need to see and enjoy the countryside with its woods, rivers, lakes and mountains together with the flora and the fauna. Many of us have been laughed out of our mother tongues in favour of Creole. We are determined that this will not also happen with French and, to the extent possible, we shall recover our mother tongues.

We have absolutely nothing against spoken Creole, and are indeed glad that the language provides us all with a medium for communication with our fellow-citizens of all communities and classes. It is also an undeniable truth that we found in spoken Creole a stepping-stone to spoken French and from there on to written French. Some amongst us have produced literary works that have been accepted by reputed publishing houses in France. Our literary successes with English have been far fewer – we do not have an English-based Creole, of the sort they have in Trinidad and other islands of the Caribbean.

We would not normally have any difficulty with writing Creole, except that the options chosen by “experts” appointed to address the problem of the script are antagonistic to French spelling. If our children have to learn to write Creole, that must be as a stepping-stone to writing French. Any lay person can devise a script for writing Creole that does not conflict with the orthographic principles of French. But it takes a bunch of “experts” to mess up the language as they have done. We do not think that they actually set out to block our passage to French, but some have recognised this aspect of the script, and are actively pushing it forward with that aim in view. I am sure that in time we shall come round to identify them precisely.

* * *

The Sunday article referred to above takes issue with Mr Dulthumun’s opposition to the teaching of “Morisien” (sic) in our schools. Presumably this word is to be pronounced like the word “Mauricien” – but the rule in French is for the letter ‘S’, when it occurs between two vowels as it does here, to have the soft “Z” sound. The exceptions to this rule have underlying historical or morphological reasons that cannot be invoked here. In the meantime the word ‘Morisien’ can only rhyme with “pharisien”. This is but one of a myriad of instances where the spellings proposed for Kreol go against the principles of French orthography and orthoepy, and not the simplest one. The most basic problem is the hijacking of the role of the “mute E” (E muet) in spelling. Without the mute E our stepping-stone to written French disappears completely. Any barely literate Mauritian will find it easier to read “vine vite” than “vinn vit”. This makes one wonder about the literacy level of the so-called experts.

We do not have the space here to list all the difficulties created by the spelling options of grafilarmoni, but we will quickly mention a few. In addition to blocking the passage to written French, it does not provide for many of the sounds of French that one regularly hears from guest speakers at the MBC – sounds like the “j” of “joli”, the “u” of “lune”, the “eu” of “deux” or of “fleur”, etc. We do not agree with the spelling chosen for the first letters of the Creole equivalents of the French words “tigre” and “digue”. To begin with, that representation of “ti” and “di” spills over into and adversely affects our spoken French. See for instance Monique Léon’s Exercices systématiques de prononciation française (Hachette 2003, p. 82). That choice betrays either a disregard for Indian languages and Indian names by the experts, or their ignorance of them. The Indian pronunciation of these syllables is more acceptable in French than the Creole ones. Monique Léon suggests the spellings “tsi” and “dzi” for the Creole versions of these syllables.

 

Concerning the letter “R”, while the script accurately reflects the Creole pronunciation of the letter at the end of syllables (as in “par”, “pir”, “père”), it does not allow for the pronunciation of such syllables in Indian names. Why should an Indo-Mauritian be expected to creolise the name of members of his family when he is speaking Creole? Besides our spoken French, which is under the toxic influence of the Creole version of “R”, will never be regarded as correct internationally until we change it to the Indian, Arabic, Southern French or Parisian “R”. In Urdu and in Arabic there is a version of “G” which is the perfect Parisian R; if that is adopted in our spoken French, it will dramatically improve the quality of our spoken French.

 

Our experts should learn from Canadians – a short visit to Montreal and watching the French news broadcasts there will quickly teach them how to treat the sounds of other languages. Those who think they have too many languages to learn should think a little about the problems that children of Mr Dulthumun’s community have to face: beyond Bhojpuri and Hindi, they have to say their prayers in Sanskrit, before getting to Creole. Children of Muslim families still speaking Bhojpuri have to learn Urdu and say their prayers in Arabic before getting to Creole. And beyond these languages we are determined that they master English and French as well. This is a subject to which we will come back again and again.

The Brindaban Linguistic and Cutural Genocide Watch Group seizes this opportunity to welcome the arrival of Dr Satish Kumar Mahadeo in the language debate. We are extremely happy that he is taking up the cudgel in favour of English. Our group consists just of laymen who have never had anything to do with languages in our professional lives – except to use them to put our points forward in meetings, both locally and internationally. Even so we have seen how the teaching of English in the country has shortcomings which, while they can be easily addressed at the MIE, put adult Mauritians into embarrassing situations in their oral communications abroad.

I will selfishly quote my own example. I was posted in England at the ripe old age of 55. While I had no difficulty whatever with English in my work environment, I was embarrassed in the pub at lunch time by mispronouncing simple words like ‘thyme’, ‘cuckoo’, ‘pulpit’, ‘wander’, ‘wonder’, etc. I still carried along with me the pronunciations I had learnt from my primary school teachers. Perhaps the greatest shortcoming in our system is not to teach the schwa, which is the sound of first letter of the alphabet in Indian languages and the most frequently-occurring sound in spoken English. Proper pronunciation is not caught – it is taught, as Henry Sweet, the father of English phonetics, maintained; he was actually referring to the education of English children, not to that of foreigners like us.

So far as the Group is aware, pronunciation is still a neglected subject in mainstream schooling, subjecting compatriots to easily rectifiable faults in their spoken English – and even in their French. Surely a short systematic course in the pronunciation of English and French at the MIE to aspiring primary school teachers will go a long way towards eliminating the embarrassing problems we meet. We hope that Dr Mahadeo will bring his weight to bear on these and other problems relating to the use of English and hopefully other languages by Mauritians.

 

Paramanund Soobarah 

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