P.Soobarah

The Issue of Languages in our Education System

How the Kreol script will kill off both English and French
and the future welfare of our children into the bargain

 

Like most climatic phenomena there are few elements in the current language storm that remain beyond understanding. Who’s denying whom the right to speak Creole, at least in public places? Who’s is denying primary school teachers the right to explain things to their classes in Creole? When it comes to getting meaning across, who cares about the Education Code? Does this not look a little like a storm in a teacup?

 

 The point at issue does not seem to the language itself, but the script to be used if something has to be written down in the language. Creole remained a largely unwritten language since its birth with the arrival of Africans in the country in the eighteenth century. Those who had tried writing it earlier obviously turned to French for indicating consonant and vowel sounds. In French the same vowel sound can be written in several ways; for example the letters ‘ô’, ‘au’, ‘eau’ all indicate the same vowel sound, but this apparent madness is not entirely without system. Regrettably each writer composing in Creole chose his own way spelling the words. Left to themselves they would over time have developed a common script – as has happened with English, at least until the publication of Dr Johnson’s Dictionary.     

 

The sixties brought significant changes to many parts of the world – the Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King in America, the uprising in Czechoslovakia, the Students’ Movement in Paris, the rise of the Palestinian Liberation Movement, etc… We had our own Independence in 1968. The tail-end of that decade and the early seventies brought forth a youth-led movement with the object of overthrowing the existing establishment. Some youths started writing in Creole, but in the absence of a standardised script the proliferation of individual scripts continued.

The script of the International Phonetic Association (IPA) had made its way into some dictionaries but the standard Larousse and Oxford dictionaries stuck to their conservative policies; this may explain why the IPA script, which should have been the natural ‘new’ script of any language, remained little known. Hornby’s Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (OALD) and the Larousse Dictionnaire du Français Contemporain (DFC) did introduce the script in the sixties but do not seem to have had much effect in this country.

The arrival of a researcher in Linguistics, Philip Baker, in the early seventies did make a change: he wrote down the Creole pronunciation of the word “Creole” in IPA script, which could only be KREOL. This had a magical effect. Incidentally the French pronunciation of the word, with the slightly different “o” sound, had been available in DFC since the sixties but had not had a similar effect. Scripting of Creole and analysis of the texts began in earnest and a lot of literature became available. Left-leaning academics envisioned the possibility of replacing “imported” oppressive and often divisive languages by Creole in their dream of creating a unified nation of equals, and did everything possible to install a government sympathetic to their views. The first such government came about in 1982 but did not last long enough for them to implement all their ideas. A surprising conjunction of stars brought the same people back into power in the year 2000. Even though by this time the economic aspects of their policies had changed drastically, there had been no change in their linguistic ideas, and before long they were able to get a technical committee to “harmonise” the script.

The committee did its work behind closed doors without any public consultations, giving the somewhat ridiculous name of “grafilarmoni” to their concoction. The word “carbonizé” is standard in Creole; we do not understand why we could not have had a “grafi armonizé.” But that is not the problem we have with the script. Our problem is different, but we wish to emphasize at this point that it was created by the committee set up to do the harmonisation work. This is what we set out to explain in this article.

The script they produced conflicts on too many points with the principles of text-to-speech conversion of French. One such principle, namely the sound of the letter “s” between two vowels, was brought up at a recent meeting on a language-related meeting at the MGI. The spoken Creole language has always been, for us, a stepping stone in the acquisition of French and that is what our children will lose if they are introduced to the Kreol script in their early years, the most productive years in anybody’s life for the acquisition of languages. What the committee lost sight of is that we are not in Reunion, not in Haiti, not in Martinique, where most people can survive with just Creole and French.

To mention the case of my own family, we have to learn Bhojpuri, Hindi and Sanskrit for our cultural and religious purposes. Of course we have to learn Creole for interacting with the rest of our compatriots. Then, most importantly, we have to learn English and French which are absolutely essential for our economic survival in the world at large in general and in this region in particular. Our children therefore have to devote an inordinate proportion of their time to learning languages, but they were helped in the acquisition of French, Mauritian French anyway, by our spoken Creole. If they are compelled to learn and practise the Kreol script, that will take away from the precious hours required for learning the more important languages and will also be a hindrance to them in the acquisition of French. We cannot be expected to welcome a change that will add to the difficulties of our children. If the proposed script would have been helpful towards the acquisition of French, we would have welcomed it. But as things stand, NO WAY!

We believe that the spellings of French words with direct Creole equivalents are sufficiently phonetic to be retained as they are in Creole, with minor additions for articles and particles. It is true that the same vowel sound can be spelt in many ways. This also applies, but to a lesser degree, to the consonant sounds. The best solution is to accept that, because our children have demonstrated they can accommodate that: the pass rate in French at the CPE, where all the different spellings of the vowels are used, hovers around 75%. But if all our children are to be treated as “imbeciles” incapable of mastering the multiplicity of same sound spellings, then there are ways of getting round that, but still keeping some of the “génie de la langue française” alive. But it would be better to devise a system that does not treat all our children as “imbeciles”, in spite of the fact that a fundamental law in statistics requires that some will necessarily be such. The beauty of statistics as a science is that it enables us to decide a cut-off point and develop solutions for both sides of the point. Evidently they will not be the same.

There are some other points about the spelling of French which we are not prepared to abandon — except perhaps if the IPA script is chosen for the spelling. One is the centrality of the role of the “mute-E” (E-muet) in French orthography which in the grafilarmoni script is used to represent the sound é — ‘école’ and ‘église’. This is also done in the IPA script of course, but we are not dealing with the IPA here, but with a stepping stone to French. Most French words ending with a pronounced consonantal sound end in a mute-E. The exceptions can easily be listed. Furthermore, most words ending orthographically in a consonant have that consonant muted in speech. Of course, exceptions abound; they overlap with those on the previous list. Perhaps the most important point of all to preserve is the method of breaking up words into orthographic syllables, and from there reconstruct phonological ones. Certain other elements of French spelling should also be retained – like vowel digraphs ‘ai”, “oi”, etc and other clusters like the “tion” of “nation”, instead of writing it as “nasyon”

One important point brought up by the father of “Kreol”, Philip Baker, in his work he entitled “Kreol”, in Chapter 3, is that there are different varieties of the Creole language. He enumerates Bhojpuri-influenced Kreol (BK), French-influenced Kreol (FK), Refined-Creole (RK), in addition to Ordinary Creole (OK) which by elimination one must assume to be Creole- or Kreol-influenced Kreol (CK or KK as desired). There is one variety which he has overlooked, and that is Decreolised Creole (DK). Decreolisation is a natural phenomenon with all Creole languages, whereby people tend to move back towards the pronunciation of source language, in our case French, as education standards improve in the country concerned. We hear a lot of that at the MBC; hardly anybody there uses the exact phonetic representations set out in the Diksioner Morisien of Arnaud Carpooran – should their speaking be banned? This is a phenomenon that will increase, and provision should be made for it.

Leaving aside the question of which variety will be taught in our schools for the time being, I am sure people will understand if I limit myself to BK. The script does not permit me to pronounce the name of my brother Kumar properly – I absolutely refuse to rhyme his name with the English word “Car”. This defect in Kreol also stops our children from speaking French correctly. There is also the question of the pronunciation of the Kreol syllables “di” and “ti”, which in Canada are regularly symbolised as “dzi” and “tsi”.

Monique Léon, in her “Introduction à la Phonétique corrective” also has some observation in that regard about Mauritian French. How are people supposed to pronounce the names of my niece Divia and my friend Tiwari? I am absolutely flabbergasted when people write my daughter Chitra’s name as Titra. Whatever happens to the other K’s, BK must enable me to represent the names of my family and friends properly.

Additionally, there is a view that all teaching must be done in Creole. Nobody stops anybody from explaining concepts in Creole; but the importance of an initial explanation in English permits our children to hear some some English, and perhaps to talk a little English while seeking clarifications from the teacher. If all interaction between teacher and pupil is restricted to Creole, when will the pupil get a chance to listen to some English and say a few words in that language? As is well known, practically no school offers English literature as a subject; so the only English that a child will hear will be in the English language class. That will hardly be enough.

In summary, our main concern in the issue of language is the future welfare and the cultural and economic survival of our children in this increasingly globalising world. The system being proposed will kill off both English and French, and the future welfare of our children into the bargain.

 

— Paramanand Soobarah

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