Compétences Langagières

All right-thinking people must be thankful to Ms Nita Chicooree-Mercier for having brought out into the open last week a vital subject concerning our standing in the world as a civilized country. It is also likely to affect our economic development adversely if not attended to sooner rather than later, as Mr Percy Mistry has already warned.

I am referring to Ms Chicooree-Mercier’s article “Air Mauritius: Personnel navigant et compétences langagières” in last week’s MT, in which she recounted how Reunion people made fun of the French pronunciation of an Air Mauritius pilot-in-command on board a flight. The only precisions I would like to bring to her article is that this problem concerns not just the sole pilot involved in the incident, but the entire nation, and not just French, but also English, and that it is not just a planeload of Reunionese who mock our linguistic shortcomings but the entire world. Most people are just too nice to say anything to our faces, but this does not mean that they can avoid thinking the thoughts that arise in their minds on listening to our speech.

I had a direct experience of such a comment myself way back in the eighties when I was posted in West Africa, a Francophone area, and where there happened to be another Mauritian around for some time. At a social gathering one of them asked me: “Où donc ton compatriote est-il allé chercher cet accent exécrable?”. I could not avoid thinking that a few years earlier he would have made the same remark about myself, for the compatriot was only speaking standard Mauritian Ministry of Education French. Another colleague of mine, a foreigner of course, once candidly observed to me that “Mauritians are a nation of linguistic bastards. Both their English and their French are bastardised.” We should not take offence at what the Reunionese said about our Captain. Nor should he, for that matter, but now that he knows he has a problem, he should do something about it.

The linguistic and mental genocide of our minds begins at the age of three, in our pre-primary classes, and goes on right through our education system. The only languages that are taught well in our schools are Hindi and Urdu, and possibly also the other Asian languages that form part of our Asian heritage – with the important exception of Bhojpuri which has been introduced recently and which is being massacred outright.

The most important, and dangerous, part of our linguistic education is what goes on between the ages of three and fourteen, for it is very difficult for most people to unlearn the way of speaking they acquire from their teachers in those early years. In our case, of course, children do not get the chance of improving themselves even in secondary school, because most teachers have been through the same grinding machine, and don’t know, and can’t do, any better. Those who make it into tertiary education now have the option of asking the professors to teach in Creole. But a frequent complaint of employers is that applicants for employment in their firms, even when they come with postgraduate degrees, can neither speak nor write a coherent sentence of English. However they get to complete their theses and dissertations remains a mystery. It is most fortunate that the employers do not examine them in French. And some have the temerity of speaking about a “knowledge hub”!

This problem should have been the first to occupy the minds of our government and of our Ministry of Education, but for them it does not even exist – as evidenced by the total absence of any reference to it in the recent “national forum” on education. But in their defence I must add that the problem is not of their making. It has probably been there since the introduction of free public primary education when people whose mother tongue was neither English nor French and who had not had much training were recruited as teachers. Most people who today are running our educational organisations are unwitting victims of that system of education, which has perpetuated itself over the decades and which has gone worse since the great electoral catastrophe of 1982 when the government fell, however briefly, into the hands of linguistic and cultural activists. My one great complaint, however, is that many of our present administrators and political authorities seem to have bought into the ideologies of a few of the activists from that era with unprecedented and inexplicable enthusiasm and made of the Creole language the be-all and end-all of all education and culture.

At one point in her article Ms Chicooree-Mercier describes Creole as being “assez redoutable dans sa capacité de massacrer d’autres langues”, which confirms the position taken my association that Creole has very aggressive genocidal characteristics, and other languages, including particularly French and Bhojpuri, must be shielded from it. However, in Mauritius one cannot get away from Creole. We have to accept it as part of our way of life. But it does not have to be the language as spoken by just the ethnic Creole community. The Creole language is now a national asset available to all Mauritians, regardless of ethnic origin, to use and indulge in in any which way they like, and to that end they must have at their disposal all the sounds that they use when speaking their version of the language. If any within the ethnic Creole community feel reluctant to allow the sounds of other Mauritian languages into the inventory of Creole sounds, they must decide whether they want to integrate the nation or always remain a small, under-privileged separate group surviving on government handouts and affirmative action.

Sadly, misled by these few noisy activists, the government has made precisely an ethnic version of the language “official” for use within our education system. Most people, other than the 30% who are ethnic Creoles, and often many of them, speak versions of Creole that include French sounds, but these have been banned from the official list of sounds. The 60% who might claim to be Hindi or Urdu mother tongue or ancestral language speakers have the right to use the sounds of their language when calling one another, even when they are speaking Creole. In Canada, for instance, French speakers use English sounds when saying English names; similarly in francophone West Africa and the Maghreb, many people are called Mohammed; they will always pronounce the h-sound fully even when they are speaking French, even though that sound is not included in the inventory of French sounds. In our own case, the most important sound of Indo-Mauritian languages, the schwa, i.e. the sound of the first letter of the Hindi alphabet, IPA symbol “ə”, is not included in the list of sounds. You can pronounce neither “Nuvin”, nor “Arvin”, nor “Vasant”, nor “Bunwaree”, nor “Rashid” correctly without that sound. The experts who devised our list of sounds were too “civilised” to be seen including the schwa in the list of Creole sounds – never mind that it is also the most common sound in English — and a very important sound in proper French too! (This many of them probably did not know, as the schwa is not used in Mauritian French: But one only has to open Le Petit Robert and check the pronunciation of de, le, and longer words where the mute-E has to be pronounced, like Mercredi and Vendredi, very importantly, gouvernement).

If we wish to recover from our present linguistic predicament, it is important that our children be introduced to all the sounds they are likely to need in their lives right from age three by competent teachers who master those sounds thoroughly. Evidently the list must include all English, French, Creole and Bhojpuri sounds, beginning with the schwa. Such a programme cannot be evolved overnight – it will require prolonged consultation and concertation, followed by a still longer period of teacher training. If adults like the pilot on the Reunion flight want to do something about their speaking, it is still possible, but will require hard work.

I came face to face with the problem myself way back in the fifties on joining the Civil Service after leaving school. In those days French was the current spoken language in service, and I felt quite embarrassed to find that I was not fluent in that language in spite of 15 years of schooling. I felt the same about English as well, but perhaps to a lesser extent, when I had to speak it with colleagues. (I had no difficulty writing it; at least I thought so.) I knew what good spoken French was, for our French teacher at the RCC, Dr Karl Noël, would often spend the entire French period reading aloud from Alphonse Daudet or other similar author; his manner of reading held the whole class mesmerized for the whole period. I also knew what good English was, having listened to long lectures and discussions over several years by competent teachers like Louis Besson (English), R d’Unienville (Maths), B Bathfield (Chemistry) and D Burrenchobay (Physics and Maths). But I could not speak like them. My problems became more acute in 1960 when I joined the Department of Civil Aviation where I would come across genuine French- and English-speakers every day, and had to interact with them. I resolved to suffer indignity no more and take up the study the spoken versions of both languages properly. I have the occasion to speak of the efforts I had to make about learning spoken English often enough, and will come back to it some other time, but today I will limit myself to French.

I first helped myself to the phonetic alphabet symbols of International Phonetic Association (IPA); this was useful for both French and English. After reading some French pronunciation textbooks and listening carefully to French speakers on the radio, I realized that my first task had to be to master the sound of R at the end of syllables. In Bhojpuri (and Hindi and Sanskrit) there is no difference in the quality of the sounds R and A in words “rat” and “tar”; so should it be in proper French, unlike what happens in English, Creole and Mauritian French. We have no difficulty with R at the beginning of syllables, as in ra, ré, ri, ro, ru; it is with syllables like ar, ère, ir, or, our, ir, etc., that we have difficulty in French, because we are not taught the R-sound properly in our childhood. With ra and ar we actually have two problems in French: not only do we omit the R-sound, we also change the quality of A-sound. This also is a carry-over from Creole.

I tackled the task by drawing up lists of syllables like paR, pèRe, puR, pouR, poRt, pwaR, etc., in a table, with the first line of syllables beginning with “p” and, in subsequent lines, replacing the “p” with b, t, d, k, g, f, v, s, z, ch, j, y, r, l,w, m and n successively. I first pronounced the R exactly like my Bhojpuri-speaking grand-mother, that is to say Indian-fashion, to make sure I had it under control, and not swallowed it as we do in Creole or English; not only that, I also learnt to pronounce “aR” as she did, as for instance in “Aar Paar”, “Nadiya-garam-paar”, etc. This helped me get rid of ugly pronunciation of “ar” of the sort ridiculed by our Reunionese friends in the Mauritian pronunciation of “canard” and “revoir”. Systematic practice in the conjugation of verbs with syllables closed by the letter R, like garder, parler, verser, fermer, tirer, admirer, porter, adorer, hurler, mesurer, pleurer, leurrer, labourer, etc, was a great help — with all Rs pronounced Indian-fashion in the secrecy of my study.

The Indian (and African) R-sound of the name Ram is said to be lingual or apical, as it is pronounced with the tip of the tongue. There is another R-sound in Bhojpuri, Hindi and Urdu which is a retroflex flap, i.e. has the tip of the tongue touching the hard palate quickly, as in “ghoRa” (horse). The English R-sound is actually between the apical R of Ram and retroflex one of GhoRA. The French R-sound of “le Français standard” is pronounced in the throat with the uvula, and is therefore said to be “uvular”. Another vocal organ deep down the throat is the velum (soft palate) which is used to pronounce the G-sound of “ga” and “go”; this is why French pronunciation teachers associate the sound “g” with that of “r”, by getting their trainees to repeat rhymes like the following ad nauseam:

Dis-moi gros gras grand grain d’orge,

Quand te dégros gras grand grain d’orgeras-tu?

Je me dégros gras grain d’orgerai,

Quand tous les gros gras grands grains d’orge

Se dégros gras grand grain d’orgeront.

I did that too, ad nauseam. I had copied the exercise from a book, and I have regrettably forgotten the name of the author. I believe I did get to master the sound in the end.

For those who may be interested in the matter, a good method of learning about phonetics is to follow the order of the consonants in Hindi or any other language derived from Sanskrit. The first line of consonants (ka, kha, ga, gha, nga) is pronounced with the tongue touching velum, and are said to be velar. For the next line (cha, chha, ja, jha, ña) the tongue touches the hard palate, and these sounds are said to be palatal. In the third line (ta, tha, da, dha, na) the tongue tip moves up and curls to touch the forward part of the hard palate; these sounds are said to be retroflex. For the fourth line (ta, tha, da, dha, na), the tongue moves further forward and touches the dental ridge, and the sounds are said to be dental. For the fifth line (pa, pha, ba, bha, ma), the lips come into play, and the sounds are said to be labial. Notice how the lines are organised: for all the sounds in any one line, the tongue touches a fixed part of the oral cavity. As one progresses through the lines of consonants, the contact point of the tongue moves forward in the mouth. In all these sounds the air flow through the mouth is stopped completely, and therefore these sounds are said to be stops. In each line, the first two (ka, kha, …pa, pha) are “hard”, are said to be “voiceless”. The next two (ga, gha, …ba, bha) are “soft”, and are said to be “voiced”. The last letter in each line is “nasal”. These terms, together with those of the next two lines, constitute practically the whole terminonogy of phonetics, except that the English pronunciation of cha and ja is complex and these sounds are said to be affricates.

For the next line (ya, ra, la, wa), the tongue does not completely block the air flow and are said to be approximants. In the last line of sounds (sa, sa, sha, ha) the airflow is constricted to produce friction, and are said to be fricatives. A passing acquaintance with these terms provide a very sound basis for the study of phonetics. This organisation of the alphabet was achieved more than five thousand years ago by Sanskrit grammarians, and remains a scientific marvel.

In the latter half of the sixties I, together with my colleague and childhood friend Mohunlall Baguant, went to Beirut in the course of our training in Civil Aviation and spent the best part of two years there. (Beirut was then a peaceful and flourishing city, fully tri-lingual with Arabic being the language the masses, English the main business language and French the language of culture; there was an excellent air safety school there at the time, besides the famous American University of Beirut). I was surprised to find that the Arabic pronunciation of “gas” was exactly like the Parisian pronunciation of the French word “rase”. My observation was confirmed by books on elementary Arabic, which usually begin with an introduction to the alphabet and its sounds. I even observed thereafter that the sound was much the same in Urdu as well. For those who care to do so, listen carefully to the g-sound in the word “gam” in Mukesh’s song “Soonaoon kya main gam apana zubaan taka laa nahin sakataa”; the sound of “gam” is not far from that of “rham” pronounced “à la française”.

Much later, in the eighties, I went to Africa, where I spent several years in Francophone countries. The French language is treated with great respect in those countries. The Senegalese, for instance, are usually the first to draw attention to incorrect language in French versions of working papers at international meetings – well before the French delegations themselves. Had I known earlier that more French speakers in the world use the Indian-African R, as does, for instance, Mr Abdou Diouf, the Secretary-General of the Association internationale de la Francophonie, I would have stuck to the Indian R, regardless of what other “civilised” Mauritians thought.

If one listens carefully, one will find that even mother-tongue French speakers leave r’s out occasionally. Another exercise recommended for learners is to listen to French songs; for the sound R, Edith Piaf’s “Je ne regrette rien”1 is recommended. I did listen to it, and copy the lyric, highlighting the Rs. To my sorrow I found that the great Piaf did miss out a few Rs. Much later, in the nineties, the song was sung again by singer Mireille Mathieu; she was more successful, in my view, with the Rs. Both versions are readily available on Google.

Side by side with the acquisition of the R-sound, one also has to study the pronunciation of the so-called mute-E (E muet), that is to say the letter E without any accent and not followed by two consonant letters in the same word. (The letter E without any accent followed by two different consonant letters in a word is pronounced “è”, as the first “e” in modEstement; if it is followed by a doubled consonant, it is pronounced “é”, as in nécEssaire).

In normal conversation and in reading pieces in prose, the mute-E always has to be pronounced if its omission would allow three consonants to come into contact; otherwise it is not pronounced. It has to be pronounced, for example, in “Vendredi” but not in “Samedi”. (In verse, it is always pronounced except at the end of a line; in songs it can also be pronounced at the end of a line, as in “Au clair de la lune”.) When pronounced in normal conversation, the mute-E is pronounced like the schwa, and not like the e-sound of “deux” or “voeu”. Only in a few special circumstances would that be correct – as for instance in expressions “Donne-le lui”, “Venge-le”, i.e. when it is in a stressed syllable.

The mute-E rule requires that the letter be pronounced in some very common words like gouvernement, département, porcelaine, forteresse, etc. where the first of the two letters preceding the mute-E is an R. In Mauritius, we are erroneously taught not to pronounce the R and the E; this makes these words sound very ugly in French ears. I am duty-bound to point out, however, that several MBC speakerines do have a good command of such words. For learners the best thing to do is to make a list of common words with such spelling and practise them, making sure that the R-sound is always sounded. A textbook of French pronunciation, by Pierre or Monique Léon, for instance, would be very helpful, particularly as there a few set phrases (groupes figés) which have their own rules.

Mastery of the R-sound and the mute-E, and of the “ar” sound like those in canard, au revoir, and vantard is only the first step. It does require some sustained practice from us Mauritians following our fifteen-year roasting by our education system, but it can be done. Some other steps, like proper liaison (including avoidance of liaison in front of the so-called “aspirated H”), use of the proper gender of nouns, denasalisation of nasal vowel sounds in certain situations, distiguishing between “Louis” and “lui”, etc need to follow, together with a lot of practice. Once the sounds have been mastered it is necessary to practice full sentences, hundreds of them, aloud. This will lead to the necessary fluency.

My intention was to give an indication of what anybody interested in recovering from our education needs to do to able to speak some French correctly, and not to give a course on French pronunciation. But I believe I have addressed the main points: they come from my personal experience.


1Here is the lyric of “Je ne regrette rien”, which was written by lyricist Michel Vaucaire and put to music by composer Charles Dumont. To get the Edith Piaf version, type “Je ne regrette rien Piaf” in the Google search bar; to get the Mireille Mathieu version, replace Piaf by Mathieu in the bar. In the text below the Rs are specially marked.

Non, Rien de Rien

Non, je ne RegRette Rien

Ni le bien qu’on m’a fait

Ni le mal; tout ça m’est bien égal !

Non, Rien de Rien

Non, je ne RegRette Rien

C’est payé, balayé, oublié

Je me fous du passé !

Avec mes souveniRs

J’ai allumé le feu

Mes chagRins, mes plaisiRs

Je n’ai plus besoin d’eux !

Balayées les amouRs

Et tous leuRs tRémolos

Balayés pouR toujouRs

Je RepaRs à zéRo

Non, Rien de Rien

Non, je ne RegRette Rien

Ni le bien qu’on m’a fait

Ni le mal; tout ça m’est bien égal !

Non, Rien de Rien

Non, je ne RegRette Rien

CaR ma vie, caR mes joies

AujouRd’hui, ça commence avec toi


* Published in print edition on 25 October 2013

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