“English as she is spoke in Mauritius”

By Paramanand Saabarah

Wishing to poke fun at the way some of his compatriots spoke English, a Portuguese author once titled his phrase book “English as she is spoke”. I am parodying the title to draw attention to a national problem. I am amazed at the total ignorance displayed or feigned by one and all, particularly the academic class, that there is such a problem at all, even though many, like me, make private efforts to improve their spoken English after leaving school.

Tough times lie ahead, and no Mauritian should have to waste his or her precious time in their adult working life learning to do things they should already have been taught at school, like speaking English or French. At that stage of life, all efforts should be going towards productive activities. The way things are done now is that whoever wants to speak any language well must start learning it after leaving school. Those that do not engage in such efforts end up speaking what can be referred to as Primary School English or, less kindly, Primary School Gibberish. While I will not go as far as Mr Percy Mistry in saying that English has to become our lingua franca and patois before the country can fulfill its destiny, I agree fully with his core view that we must speak English more accurately and more fluently for us to be able to play our full part in this globalised world and take full advantage of what it has to offer. As a nation we cannot do that unless more attention is paid to the teaching of the language in our schools.

Why do we say i-nergy, i-go, i-loquent, eg-zemple? While “dative” is taught correctly, every word ending in “–ative” is rhymed with it, so that in the word “relative” we end up with two mistaken sounds. While “dance” and “chance” are taught correctly, every word of two or more syllables ending in “-ance” is rhymed with “pence” and “tense” – very fortunately not with “dance” and “chance”, but then why with “pence” and “tense”? Why are we taught to rhyme “orange” with “derange”? In words of two syllables like “present”, no distinction is made in their use as verbs versus nouns and adjectives. We study English continuously for ten years or more – right up to the end of our secondary schooling, and carry out all our secondary level studies in the language. It should not have been a difficult matter for us to learn the language well during such a long period of apprenticeship.

We can actually pronounce all the individual sounds of English correctly. We do not have the H-sound difficulty of the Frenchman nor the R-sound difficultly of the Japanese. In fact, we have no physical handicap at all in speaking intelligible English properly. Every Mauritian child says the word “the” in expressions like “the boy”, “the girl”, “the anything whatever” correctly. The vowel used is the most important one in all our languages excepting of Creole. Furthermore, no child in our primary schools has any difficulty in saying the words “pat”, “pet”, “pit”, “pot”, “put” and “putt” correctly, or nor would they find difficulty in saying the words “bead”, “bird”, “bard”, “board”, and “booed”, which all have long vowels. They are not even likely to any difficulty with the slightly more difficult sounds of “bay”, “buy”, “boy”, “a bow”, “to bow”, “beer”, “bear”, “boor”. Every child can say “fire” and “flour” correctly. We can thus pronounce all the vowels of English correctly. Why is our potential so badly distorted in our schools?

We could even follow the example of Indian linguists who have officialized the simplification the compound vowel of “bay” into the simple long “é-sound” of Sanskrit, Tamil or Telugu. They have done a similar conversion of the O-vowel of “go” and “so” into the long O-sound of the same languages, resulting in the long O-sound of “le nôtre” and “le vôtre”.

This is the sort of task that our University ought to be engaged in, but sadly the people there have been intensely busy since its creation with the vital matter of KREOL – there’s no time for such trifling matters as English and French sounds! Having been absent from the country for about twenty years, I looked up the UOM history website to see what they have been up to. I found nothing about English and French. I recall that the UOM was one of SSR’s pet projects, only for him to find later that the cradle he built had turned into a viper’s nest not long after. Some lecturers, instead of attending to the tasks they were paid for, took to proselytizing and turning the heads of our youngsters. Today, SSR’s name is not even mentioned in the website.

While we can say all the sounds of English correctly, our schools do not teach us how to use the sounds properly. Knowing how to pronounce all the words that one uses is not enough to ensure that one is speaking correctly, but one cannot speak correctly if one does not have that minimum knowledge. That we are pronouncing the words exactly as we were taught to at school, or as we think their spellings require, is no excuse. That other Mauritians understand our form of speech perfectly is neither here nor there. In this globalised world, what matters is international intelligibility. We cannot afford the luxury of the frog-in-the-well attitude. The government’s (and Academia’s) efforts are currently directed towards pushing KREOL. The organizations capable of taking the drastic steps that would be necessary to bring about a change in how we speak English nationally, namely the MOE, the UOM and the MIE, show no visible interest in the matter at all.

I have to stress that this is not an indictment of the present administration. The Kreol movement, which has been going on since the early seventies and which came into its own with radical tsunami that swept the country in 1982, seems to have severely affected our spoken English and French at all levels; since then, these languages have taken a perilous downward trend.

While Mr Mistry’s warning supports our long-held view that not enough attention is being paid to English, at the Linguistic and Cultural Genocide Watch Group (GWG) we also bemoan the unmistakable decline that has taken place since 1982 in the popularity of French as the medium of oral exchange among educated people. Civil servants, the police and employees of all other government and parastatal bodies dispensing services directly to the public will now unfailingly address you in Creole; if you address them in French, they are likely to give you an offended, mocking or even contemptuous look and, more often than not, respond to you in Creole.

My comments on teaching of English are not intended to denigrate the teaching community. Our teachers are an integral part of nation, and they too are the victims of the national teaching system like the rest of us. They can only teach what they have been taught, unless they engage in personal research exercises – but how can they find time for this with the present overloaded syllabi and the hundreds of children they have to coach outside school hours? We have never had English mother-tongue teachers in our pre-primary or primary schools, the stage at which a child can easily acquire foreign sounds. But this is a difficulty that our teachers can and must overcome, provided they are properly trained to do so at our teacher training establishments.

In our view, the present KREOL effort is part of a much wider campaign by so-called intellectuals that has helped to put an end to parental authority over children, banned caning in schools, turned our prisons into five-star hotels, and stopped Mauritians from engaging in manual work forcing us into the shameful situation of having to “import” workers. Picking pockets is now seen as a more honorable activity than doing manual work. We have seen what such policies lead to in other countries. It is to be hoped that our policy makers have watched the recent pictures of London and Birmingham burning, and that they reflect on what led to that terrible state of affairs.

At this point it would be appropriate to clarify that I am putting forward the views of the Brindaban Linguistic and Cultural Genocide Watch Group except that the choice of wording is my own. As a group, we are motivated solely by the national interest and by our perception of what is required to safeguard it. By no stretch of the imagination would we call ourselves linguists or teachers. We have no language qualifications beyond the School Certificate. But our long work experience helps us see where the shoe is pinching. Without improving the level of English teaching in our schools we are not likely to realise our full potential in this fast-changing world.

* Published in print edition on 16 September 2011

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