Improving our spoken English 

Francophone Africans laugh at our French and everybody laughs at our English. How did we get to this pass? 

By Paranand Soobarah

I recently had the privilege of watching the show “Manilal Doctor Aur Bharatiya Aapravasi” staged by by the Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund in collaboration with the Hindi Speaking Union. Author and Director Mahess Ramjeeawon and the Academy of Performing Arts deserve the fullest congratulation and gratitude of the community and the nation for their outstanding production and performance. The show ought to be compulsory viewing for all history, sociology and culture classes in our primary and secondary schools.

Although one full century had elapsed by the time I was born (1934) since the indentured labour migration from India began (1834), the scenes depicted in Mahess Ramjeeawon’s play are very familiar to me – they bring back memories of my childhood in Palma in a large joint family, with the womenfolk cleaning the many straw-covered and mud-floored houses and the very large and dusty yard that served the family, the cooking and serving of rice or roti and curry in small brass thalis to all the children seated cross-legged on mats on the floor, the chachis manipulating their okhris and jantas in the afternoon, and the cows and the goats mooing and bleating not far away in their sheds… They also brought back memories of the right royal time us children had in December every year: it was spent mostly on fruit-trees. Those people really looked after their children – why else would they plant the so many letchi, mango, longane, peach, pawpaw, banana, vavangue, and every other imaginable fruit-tree in their yards? Fruits were never sold – nor bought. That would have been unimaginable. Pharaataas were daily fare in the evening, but from time to time we had treats – puris, dalpuris and all manner of Indian sweets cooked by the grandmother. But an end to all good things must come and the war came along, when we stopped having rice and flour, and had to live on manioc, sweet potatoes and maize for some time. The idyllic life never really came back.

The pictures that come back to mind after the show reveal that the economic conditions the descendants of the first-generation workers had improved to some degree after the compulsory rites of passage as indentured labourers. The play does give a snapshot or two of the harshness of the life of the indentured worker. But one thing that these memories highlight for me was the resistance of our elders to the social pressures for change – pressures for leaving behind their ‘backward’ Indian habits and adopting more ‘advanced’ Creole and Christian ways of life and culture.

Perhaps the most striking element of our way of life was the respect people had for their elders. My grandfather, with whom I was a great favourite, always received and spoke to visitors and Brahmin priests who visited us regularly with great respect in the choicest Bhojpuri, and always addressed other members of the family in the same language. But I must acknowledge that my father and his brothers spoke to one another in Creole – the rot had already set in. Knowing how solidly they were attached to their traditions and culture, the social pressures on them for doing so must have been very great – I know a thing or two about those, but will keep them for another day.

During my early school years, at the start of which I knew not one word of Creole, I became conscious that it was regarded shameful for me to be heard speaking Bhojpuri. The children of some relatives living in Rose Hill, then regarded as the cradle of ‘civilisation’ — just a pompous synonym for “creolisation” — were frankly ashamed of acknowledging us as relatives: I stress that that was attitude of some children, never ever that of the grown-ups. Such influences have slowly made their way into the rural areas of the country, and so is it now that almost every Indo-Mauritian man, woman and child is creolised. Many actually know no language other than Creole. During their wedding ceremony, the priest has to speak to them in Creole. That is a far cry since the days of my grandfather, when a child or an adult speaking Creole during a religious ceremony was made to go and rinse his mouth.

In addition to learning Creole, most of us, at least those of us who had the opportunity of attending secondary schools, learnt to speak what we are pleased to call French and English. But neither of these languages were taught correctly to us. Francophone Africans laugh at our French and everybody laughs at our English. Our versions of both of these languages are heavily creolised. We speak no language right. But as a nation we are not stupid – we can hold our own in intellectual contests with any other nation in the world. How did we get to this pass?

Creolized Mauritian English

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Creolised Mauritian English is its refusal to recognize the so-called “neutral vowel” in speech, usually referred to in the technical jargon as the “schwa” (pronounced exactly like the word “choir” in Creolised French). The problem does not lie in our inability to pronounce it, for the schwa sound is also the pronunciation of the first letter of the Bhojpuri/Hindi/Sanskrit/Marathi alphabet and is also the most frequently heard vowel sound in these languages; it is also the most frequently heard vowel in spoken English. The first letters of the Tamil and Telugu alphabets are also nearly the same.

The genesis of our problem lies in the fact that the first Mauritians to learn English after the capture of the Island by the British were adults. The human faculty of hearing is so built that, after the early years of childhood, people, when listening to spoken languages, only “hear” the sounds they are used to since early childhood, or that they have been taught and trained in during their early school years. This explains why Mauritians who moved to England as adults and have lived there for a decade or more still speak Creolised Mauritian English.

At what stage French became creolised I cannot say. It appears that the Gens de Couleur who, way back in the 1840s, fought for the introduction of English in the country, already spoke a Creolised French. But even in the teeth of strong opposition by Franco-Mauritians, they were successful in their fight to bring in English. The occasion of introduction of English as the sole official language of the Supreme Court , on 14 July 1847, was marked by the speech in French of Franco-Mauritian lawyer Sir Célicourt Antelme right up to the stroke of midnight as a mark of protest against change, and also by the mobbing of Lady Gomm, wife of the governor who had introduced the change, by a crowd of Franco-Mauritians in front of the theatre of Port Louis.

When the children of the Indian indentured workers began attending primary school later in the century, it was from Gens de Couleur and Creole teachers that they learnt their English and French, and the deficiencies that prevailed in those days among those teachers continue to this day. In French, the principal problem was the omission of the sound “R” is syllables like par, pir, pair, pur, por, etc, and the attendant suppression of the mute “e” coming after them. Again it is not because we can’t pronounce the “R” – my old Bhojpuri-speaking grandmother, when forced to speak a word of Creole, would always correctly say “paar là bas”, pronouncing her “r” just as Mr Abou Diouf, the Secretary-General of the Association internationale de la Francophonie, would. Except that in her case, those around her who thought they knew better would laugh at her. But this is a problem that can be corrected — listen to (and learn from) Ms Selvina Sungeelee Chadien of the MBC. I recently had the pleasure of listening to her speaking immediately after a couple of Franco-Mauritians: no comparison was possible between their command of the French language and hers – she was infinitely better!

But let us leave French aside and concentrate on English. Our first primary school teachers taught the alphabet in English as é, bi, si, di, etc. The word “negative” they pronounced /ni-gué-tiv/, “Oxford” like the two words “ox” and “ford” in quick succession, “development” as /div-lop-ment/ by omitting the “e” as in French, etc. Absolutely the worst case was the way the article “a” was and still is pronounced in sentences. One must work hard to invent an English sentence where the “a” of “a boy” would be pronounced the Mauritian way (é). In spoken English, the article “a” is pronounced as the schwa, that is to say as the first letter of the Hindi alphabet. That is the way also that the “a” of “about”, “around”, “again”, and a host other very common words is pronounced. That is also how the “or” or “Oxford”, (and of “opportunity”), the “a” of “negative”, the “o” of “develop” are pronounced. Little wonder then that we are the laughing stock of Africans in this matter.

Far be it from me to suggest that our first primary school teachers were stupid. They taught us what they had learnt. At the risk of irking some readers, I will repeat myself. They had learnt the language as adults and had met with the same problem that every other adult meets in similar situations: without special effort, the ears of the adult only recognise the sounds he or she acquired as a child. To begin with, the adult does not even recognise that there is a problem at all. 

The main characteristics of spoken English

The three elements that are particular to spoken English and that do not apply to French are vowel length, syllable stress and sentence intonation. Regrettably these elements are seldom taught seriously in our education system, if at all. While the length element is caught to some degree by our children, the other two remain forbidden ground. Closely tied to the stress element is the pronunciation of the vowels. The letters a, e, i, o, u are pronounced differently in stressed and unstressed syllables: I was never given a hint of these matters at school: that is why I usually describe myself as a victim of the Mauritian education system.

By the time a child leaves secondary school, he or she can tell the difference between bit and beat, sit and seat; he probably also knows that “book” has a short “oo”, while “food” has a long one. But even so, one often comes across speakers who are not too sure of the vowel length of some syllables in fairly common words. One of the commonest problem is how the letters of the alphabet are pronounced. Except for the letters f, l, m, n, s, and x, they should all be pronounced with long vowels – as bee, see, dee, pee, etc. The letters a, e, i, o, u, when taught as part of the alphabet, should be pronounced properly in their long forms and these should be drilled into our children. When used in stressed syllables in words, one of their pronunciations, their so-called long forms, always coincides with the way they are said when reciting the alphabet, as in “mate”, “mete”, “mite, “mote” and “mute”. The same vowel letters also have short stressed forms, as in pat, pet, pit, and pot, but note that “u” has two short forms, as in put and bus.

In unstressed syllables, “a” is usually pronounced as the “schwa”, except when it comes towards the end of the word, as in advantage, orange, literature, when it is pronounced “i”. Way back in the fifties, shortly after leaving school and getting married, I was so surprised by this “discovery” from the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary that I made it a point to learn the correct pronunciation of words.

The letter that seems to give us Mauritians the greatest problem is “e”. It also happens to be the most common letter in both English and French. In unstressed syllables it is usually pronounced “i” as in “sit”, that is to say with a very short i-sound, but in some words it can also be pronounced as the schwa. In stressed syllables it is pronounced either short as in “get” or long as in “scene”. The word “economic”, for instance, can be pronounced either as EE-ko-NOM-ic or as EK-o-NOM-ic.

We have mentioned stressed and unstressed syllables several times. I have to say this important aspect of English was never mentioned in my English classes in the eight years that I spent at the RCC in the forties and early fifties. To my knowledge things have not changed. If those responsible of for our education insist that our children speak as they do themselves, then there can never be any improvement. If they can bring themselves to believe that the pronunciation of a language is an integral part of it, there will be no difficulty in finding ways of going about improving our English. But if they insist on finding one-letter-one-sound to all linguistic problems, our children shall end up being experts in Kreol only and nothing else. That is certainly going to please some people but it is not going to put food on our plates nor dignity on our faces. It is not a difficult matter to find textbooks on the pronunciation of English, and of French for that matter. The coming generations should be able to hold their heads high when discussing with others in this globalised world. It is not a difficult matter for the education system to teach, and for our children to learn, the stress system of English.

In every English word of two or more syllables, one syllable receives what is called the main stress. There is certainly a great difference between the stress system of a word spoken in isolation (as for instance when reading a list of words) and its use in a connected speech. But the stress pattern of sentences cannot be mastered without an appreciation of the stress patterns of the individual words. This is a very simple matter to teach, and would require no more than one or two hours of classwork every week in the lower forms.

Syllables which receive the main stress are particularly easy to identify in words that have come into English from Latin through French or directly – remember that after the Duke William of Normandy invaded and captured England in 1066, French became the official language of England and remained so for three hundred years. This explains why so many English words are spelt more or less like their French equivalents. They include all words ending in –tion, -ic, -ical, -ial, -ian, -ious, eous, -ity, -omy, -ogy, etc. and such words have their stress on the syllable immediately preceding these endings.

The same holds for words of three syllables ending in –ative. Words like “relative”, “negative”, “sedative”, etc always have their main stress on the first syllable, and therefore the vowel “e” in that syllable can never be pronounced “i” – it is always pronounced with the e-sound of “get”. In these same words, the second syllable is unstressed and therefore its vowel, the “a”, can never be pronounced with a long “é” sound – it has to be pronounced with the schwa. Does this help in pronouncing those words? In another frequently-mispronounced word – “develop” – the stress is on the second letter “e”, and has to be pronounced as in “get”. The first and last syllables are unstressed: the “e” of the first syllable is therefore rightly pronounced “i” and the “o” of the last syllable as a schwa. “Development” has the same pattern, except that the syllable “ment”, being unstressed, is pronounced with the schwa.

We are extremely fortunate that in this country most children get to know French words before learning their English equivalents – though for how long this will continue so is not now certain, for some in the Kreol movement are pressing for French to be banished altogether from the curriculum. If an English word resembles its French equivalent even remotely, it is a simple matter to locate its main-stressed syllable. Other syllables in the word, if it is long enough, can receive a secondary stress or no stress at all. Given the rhythmic nature of the English language, it is usually possible to decide which syllables receive the secondary stress and which not, as they alternate with one another. Giving every syllable is proper degree of stress is an important part of speaking Engish.

People who study English intonation in Mauritius are usually charged trying to “ape” the English. The only people one can “ape” here and be acclaimed for it are speakers of Creole, Creolised French or Creolised English. But it must also be acknowledged that there are some who do try to “ape” the English by adopting a nasal tone, but usually falling foul of proper English in some essential aspects. Examples abound at the MBC. Nasality is not an aspect of spoken English, but intonation certainly is. It is not a difficult matter to train children to listen to the intonation of English sentences – that is one of the important purposes that the recitation of children’s rhymes serve, provided these rhymes are taught properly by qualified teachers. Only with such aural training will they learn to appreciate radio and TV broadcasts and cinema shows in English. There have been calls in the press recently for more English-speaking films to be shown on TV. With the present system of language teaching, English-speaking films can be shown ad nauseam but but they are not likely be watched by the public at large. :You can take an ass to water and drown him in it, but you cannot make him drink if he does not want to. How many people are there in the country that tune in voluntarily to the BBC or the CNN, even though these stations are readily available through the MBC, one on DTT and the other through MyT? Few people will even recognise the acronym DTT – they know it as TNT, which stands for Télévision Numérique Térestre, in this country where the official language is English.

Before embarking of the teaching of English pronunciation, the authorities should look at certain matters and take some decisions. The long “a” of “cake” and the long “o” of “coke” are pronounced as complex sounds known as diphthongs. It will not interfere with intelligibility if they are pronounced as long single sounds (monophthongs). Some linguists in India recommend this to their pupils – see P.Nihalani et al, Indian and British English. Another matter that requires decision is whether the “u” sound of “cut” and “bus” can be equated to the schwa. This equation is done by some teachers even in America. It will certainly simplify matters for us. One can then decide whether “cut” and “curt” can be included in training triplets like bee, beat, bit; see, seat, sit; pooh, pool, pull; paw, port, pot; cur, curt, cut. I would not hesitate in doing so where my relatives are concerned.

* Published in print edition on 30 December 2010

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