Our Languages: A Window on Education in Mauritius

A storm is brewing in a teacup at University of Mauritius (UOM) about a trifling matter – the academic level of a handful of English Language/Literature students. What has been said about these students has long been public knowledge about most students. Anybody speaking any language well in this country does so thanks to his or her own or their parents’ efforts – never thanks to the efforts of the education system. In fact it is well known that most students leaving the UOM with degrees can’t manage either spoken or written English well. One now learns that they write “manga”, whatever that may be…

I have reported in an earlier article how an interviewee with a UOM degree in his pocket for a post of lecturer at a tertiary institution kept mum throughout the interview in spite of the exhortations of the interviewers, only to say at the end “Eski siouplé mo capav dire ène des mots en Créole?” How did that “graduate” get to write his thesis? Isn’t there an interview at the end to question candidates orally about their theses? In what language is such an interview conducted? For this nation to develop successfully, we need quality English and quality French, and not the stuff currently being dished out by the education system.

It is not a bad thing that the UOM has woken up. It is not just the UOM that that should be upset about the level of English (or French) in their output. The entire education system, consisting of the UOM, the MIE, the MOE, and all our secondary schools ought to be concerned – in spite of whatever external moderators and auditors that might be coming over to help out. We all learn to mispronounce our words right from the start – from our pre-primary school teachers, perpetuated by our primary and secondary school teachers. A paper with the elite of the country on its payroll can write a headline like “Extradition seeked for a former Iran minister” (22 October 2016, the same edition that carried the protest of the “mediocre” bunch), and nobody finds anything strange with that. I am not a regular reader of the paper, but I recall that during the early years of the last decade it had another, bolder, front-page headline beginning “It makes no doubt that ….”, and again nobody found anything strange with that. These things stand out like a sore finger. To finish off about this teacup storm in Réduit, I would like to say that if you want to succumb to political pressure and admit lesser qualified applicants into your courses, you have another option open to you beyond lowering your standards: run an extra foundation year for those applicants before you admit them into the course proper, and then do so only after they reach a satisfactory level during that foundation course. You are the sole judge of the entry level; you should not allow any person, minister or otherwise, to change your mind.

Breeding ground for sedition and rebellion

All serious thinking Mauritians should ponder why we are in such a pretty pass nearly 50 years after Independence. Many will disagree with my analysis – they are welcome to put forward their own theories. It all started in my view in June 1982, when the MMM swarmed in on the shoulders of Sir Anerood Jugnauth and Harish Boodhoo. They would never have been able to do it by themselves. If there is one thing I hold SSR responsible for, it is that he was too soft with the MMM; he allowed the UOM to be turned into a breeding ground for sedition and rebellion; some lecturers, instead of teaching their subjects as they were duty-bound to do, took to converting their students into communist revolutionaries, just as in certain situations religious zealots engage in proselytizing instead of teaching their subjects. I know, because some of my young relatives were led down the garden path in that manner and were made to waste a decade or more of their lives in the process, before coming back to their senses. Not only did SSR allow that to happen, he even authorized University staff to stand for election in the 1982 general elections! A Lee Kuan Yew would never have tolerated such nonsense!

They came, and messed the country up for good. It is true that SAJ booted them out after only a year, but the evil they wrought during those few months has stayed behind for good, thanks again to the University of Mauritius. First and foremost, my beloved mother tongue Bhojpuri has practically been driven to extinction. Womenfolk in the remotest villages converse with their children in Creole. The first language of all government offices and parastatal organisations, including police stations, hospitals, banks, schools, colleges and universities is now Creole. The staff talk among themselves in Creole. The very idea of a rainbow nation (nation l’arc-en-ciel) has been transformed into the concept of “ène sél nation ène sél lépép ène sél langaz”.

Up to the end of SSR administration, the first language that a government employee would use towards a member of the public was French. Speaking French (in Mauritius) is a little like putting on a uniform: it forces one to feel disciplined, while speaking Creole reduces the conversation to a casual, cosy level. There is something to be said for the feeling of seriousness that French conveys at work. If one-tenth of the national resources in terms of time, money and human effort that has been spent on the Creole language had been spent on English and French, we would not have been in this pretty pass.

What has the University done, and what has it not done

that it ought to have done, in respect of our languages and our sense of self-respect?

Enormous resources have been spent developing a script for the Creole language. Who speaks Creole in Mauritius? In my experience, all Franco-Mauritians speak French all the time, at home and at work. So do all educated ethnic Creoles – except for a handful of activists. By far the largest number of Creole speakers are to be found among the Indo-Mauritians – Hindus and Muslims. This very important fact was ignored by the academics working in their ivory tower at UOM. They seemed driven more by the needs of the Caribbean Creole diaspora than by ours. The Caribbean Creole speakers have no other language at home, whereas we have a multiplicity of them: Bhojpuri, Hindi, Urdu, Tamil, Telugu, Marathi, etc, to name a few. They have only French as official language, whereas we have English and French.

The two situations are not at all comparable. In our homes, even when we speak Creole, we like to pronounce Indian names Indian-fashion, not creolised. They have omitted the most important sound of Bhojpuri (and, as it happens, also of English, Hindi, and Urdu) from the list of sounds used in Creole by us – that is the “schwa”, the sound of “a” in “again” or “distance”. Many common Indian names have this sound, which many of us now have by sheer peer pressure to change to the Creole sound “a”.

All the problems cannot be listed here, but one set of problems has to be mentioned: those are the sounds “ti” and “di”, which are distorted in Creole. The Brindaban Linguistic and Cultural Genocide Watch Group has been raising these matters for over a decade, but the great intellectuals of Réduit have been deaf to our protests. When our delegate tried to raise these issues at an official meeting of the Ministry of Education at Pailles (where the setting up of the famous Creole Academy was decided), the microphone was taken away from him by order of the Minister who was chairing the meeting, with the comment that such issues should have been raised beforehand.

Actually they had been raised, but our paper does not seem to been taken into account. We can prove that with the date of submission of our paper. From then on the march of Creole has quickened into a sprint, and now our education system is drowned in Creole.

What could the education system have done for English that it has not done? It could have trained pre-primary and primary school teachers to read English sentences properly: they are the source of all our problems. I left the primary school system 70 years ago, but I still now and then make the mistakes that I was taught in the primary school at Palma. Some words that come to mind readily are “thyme”, “onion”, “cuckoo”, etc. Primary school teachers (and teachers/lecturers/professors generally) do not teach pupils how to read English sentences.

To begin with, they do not distinguish between “function” words and “content” words: generally, words like articles, prepositions and auxiliary verbs are given their weak pronunciations – except when they are used contrastively. In the sentence like “A boy is running after a girl in the playground” children are not taught to use the weak forms of the underlined words. Individual content words are not pronounced correctly: no distinction is made between fully-pronounced and weak syllables – even a cursory glance at a pronouncing dictionary, or a learner’s dictionary, will convince anyone that there is a considerable degree of method in the apparent madness of strong and weak syllables. In some words (about a hundred in all) the strong and weak syllables alternate depending on which part of speech it is.

An extremely good-looking news reader at the MBC recently read out the noun “rebel” as if it was a verb (or vice-versa, I don’t clearly remember which). That stood out like a sore finger and badly spoilt her looks too. Many of us do the same thing with “PRESent” (noun and adjective) and “preSENT” (verb). It is the University’s task to present these differences in a systematic manner that can be grasped, digested and internalised by primary school teachers and learners generally. The idea that the same letter or group of letters must always represent the same sound is a superstition that the University has acquired during its dabblings in Creole; that concept it has to abandon if it is to make any progress.

Finally, in the matter of reading sentences, the distinction between the various parts of the sentence must be taught: only then can children give meaningful intonation to what they say. The principal parts that need identifying are the phrases constituting the subject, the verb, the object, the complement and the adverbial. Every sentence has a verb and a subject, expressed or implicit. Adverbials are optional elements; they should not be mistaken for adverbs, which are parts of speech, just as nouns are; adverbials, on the other hand, are sentence elements, just like the subject. Those who may not be too clear about the difference would do well to consult a good grammar book, of which there are hundreds, the classic text being “A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language” by R. Quirk, S. Greenbaum, G. Leech and J. Svartic. Even their earlier and shorter “A Grammar of Contemporary English” will do. They have also written several other books singly or in pairs. But for God’s avoid the locally produced “grammars” like a contagious disease.

If you want to have a quick short course on reading sentences. I would suggest the website “www. criticalreading.com”. I would like to stress that it is not important to “adopt” the standard English intonation patterns, although if you wish to put in the effort, it may well be worth it. But it will be a big effort: it’s up to you. I made many mistakes while trying to imitate those patterns (in textbooks by the likes of Kingdon, Arnold and O’Connor, Wells, and others). In my experience any intonation pattern that clearly distinguishes between the sentence elements, provided it is systematic, will convey meaning, because listeners grasp new systems fairly quickly. Please don’t ever think that it is necessary to fake a nasal tone to speak English correctly.

And what about French? I became an Air Traffic Controller in the Department of Civil Aviation in 1960 at the age 25. I had to speak English and French to aircraft crews on the radio, and I felt it was my duty to learn to speak both languages correctly. So I took up the study of Phonetics and worked hard at both languages, aided throughout by my wife who was of the same age as me and had studied the same English and French literature books at school as I had.

One of the early books we studied was “Exercices systématiques de Prononciation française” by Monique Léon, together with her “Introduction à la phonétique corrective.” We learnt the importance of the mute E (which we have pronounced like the schwa ever since) and of the sound R. We practised it day and night until we fully mastered it. In the same books we also came across a warning to students of a few nationalities including Mauritians who mispronounce “ti’ and “di” like “tsi” and “dzi”, and “tu” and “du” like “tsu” and “dzu”. Since then we have always pronounced these sounds as in other languages (like English and Bhojpuri).

Imagine our consternation when the “intellectuals” in Réduit, who systematically made these mistakes when speaking French, also decided to include these mistakes in their list of Creole pronunciations, denying us the possibility of pronouncing names in our language correctly. I hope and pray that somebody briefs Sir Anerood Jugnauth about the doings of these fellows, hoping that he decides to put foot his foot down and put a stop to their “agissements.” It is high time that the University started giving serious thought to the teaching of internationally acceptable English and French.

I earnestly hope that the Senate reads these comments.

Paramanund Soobarah

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