The International Mother Tongue Day and the Language issue in our education system
Sunday 21 February last, designated as International Mother Language Day, was celebrated by speakers and friends of Bhojpuri with great pomp and quasi religious fervour in a function masterfully orchestrated by Mr Jagdish Goburdhun, Chairman of the Indian Diaspora Centre at Hindu House, Cassis. According to an MBC report a parallel function was also held to celebrate our other ‘mother tongue’, namely the Creole language. However, regrettably, and with a very heavy heart, we must spoil our report for the occasion with the following question on another issue: Until when will the variety of any language that we speak continue to be regarded as inferior? Who arrogates unto himself the authority to take those decisions and, it would seem, to implement them too?
The good news first. A select group of more than 600 people gathered at Hindu House on Sunday on the occasion of the celebrations – select because every participant had something or other to do with the advancement of the Bhojpuri language and culture. The Chief Guests were none other than the President himself and Lady Sarojini, who were welcomed into the hall in full Bhojpuri style with shehnai and dholak. Other guests included Hon Pravind Jugnauth, leader of MSM, Mr Rajnarain Guttee, Adviser to the Minister of Education, representing the Minister, Hon Suren Dayal, Chief Whip of the Alliance Sociale in Parliament, Hon Mrs Leela Devi Dookun, MLA, and a few other personalities. A pooja/hawan function was celebrated at the beginning of the proceedings, and thereafter Mr Jagdish Goburdhun welcomed the guests and the attendees. The main activity was the distribution of bundles of certificates intended for successful candidates taking part in the Bhojpuri Praveshika examination throughout the country earlier in the year. Nearly a hundred representatives came to receive their loads of certificates which together amounted to more than 5000 in number. These statistics provide a clear indication of the enthusiasm with which the Bhojpuri language classes are being received around the country. But we have to add that the Plaine Wilhems district was severely under-represented.
Mr Jagdish Goburdhun, in his welcome address, reminded us all that before Bhojpuri was displaced as the majority language by Creole, it was a unifying language: all the various segments of the Indo-Mauritian population – Hindu or Muslim, Bihari or Tamil or Telugu or Marathi, the Chinese shopkeepers in the countryside and even some member of our Creole compatriots were fluent in Bhojpuri. He estimates that in days gone by 90% of the population was competent in Bhojpuri, but that number has now dwindled down to just 15%. To Bhojpuri mother-tongue people, the sweetness of Bhojpuri cannot be found in any other language – not just in the mothers’ lullabies but also in their speech in general and in the songs which go straight to the heart. Mr Goburdhun reminded us of the struggles that our elders had to lead to gain some recognition for our languages in general, and that the struggle about the recognition of Bhojpuri is still ongoing. He reminded us of the personal struggle waged by Sir Anerood Jugnauth in favour of Asian languages when he was Prime Minister, and also disclosed that the Cabinet decision to include these languages in the assessment for entry into secondary education was taken on 13 February 2004 when Hon Pravind Jagnauth was Acting Prime Minister. Regarding the recognition of Bhojpuri he held high hopes for a successful outcome in the light of Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam’s promise about the creation of a Speaking Union; he also reminded us that we have yet to hear about the recognition to be given in this country of the grandmother of languages, namely Sanskrit. He ended by thanking Shri Ramdhun, President of the Hindu House, for having made the premises available free of charge together with a free lunch to all participants.
The President, in his address entirely in Bhojpuri, reminded us once again that the Bhojpuri language was our soul, with the obvious implication that if the soul goes the body will rot. Readers may find it interesting to note that the Provençal language poet Mistral (made famous for posterity by Alphonse Daudet in his Lettres de mon Moulin) was also of the same view: Qui perd sa langue perd son âme, he was fond of saying. Hon Pravind Jugnauth also addressed the meeting, eliciting a loud peal of applause when he ended his statement with a few sentences in Bhojpuri. Perhaps the greatest speech of the day, certainly the most moving and with the most substance, was delivered by Mr Rajnarain Guttee, in his capacity as representative of Hon Vasant Bunwaree, the Minister of Education. He spoke in the sweetest Bhojpuri idiom heard in public for a long time, and his language showed how committed he was to its survival and propagation. He assured us that work is well advanced on the paperwork for the Bhojpuri Speaking Union.
Regarding Sanskrit, I can only recall that the subject was mentioned briefly by Mr Suren Dayal in his address, in which he informed us that the matter was under discussion, at least between him and other senior officials.
Three pages of Kreol to act as the thin end of the wedge?
I regret I do not have any information about the celebrations regarding our other mother tongue, namely Creole. But I do have some other very important and disquieting news for you. As part of the current Enhancement Programme, a term whose pronunciation was cruelly disfigured in multiple ways by MBC speakers of all languages, the Ministry of Education has slipped in three pages of text in grafilarmoni script.
I should begin by wishing Minister Bunwaree total success in his endeavour to enhance the education dispensed in our schools and to put an end to the scourge of private tuition as currently practised. Previous governments have been guilty of a crime in encouraging this practice to the extent of even authorising it on government premises. We should go back to the austere days when an appointment as teacher or nurse or other civil servant was regarded as a privilege to serve the nation. This nonsense of taking rewards over and above one’s official salary is totally unacceptable in an ethically driven community. The present corrupt practices is not the monopoly of just teachers: top civil servants who are handsomely rewarded for the work they are supposed to do pocket without blushing large amounts of money for attending meetings of parastatal bodies where they represent their ministries. This is nothing short of government-sponsored corruption. Concerning private tuition as currently practised, teachers should be allowed to decide whether they want to work in schools or to run their own private courses against payment – they cannot have it both ways.
But beyond the basic intention of enhancing education is the somewhat hasty step of introducing the grafilarmoni into our schools. Surely it is not the Minister’s intention that Mauritian children will finally become quite adept at writing Creole, one version of it anyway, but at the same time be totally incapable of writing a sentence in French or English. This is what the Genocide Watch Group has been warning against for a long time. Which, in your view, will lead more smoothly to written French: “vine vite” or “vinn vit”, for “come quickly”? Let everybody judge for himself. Let there be an honest evaluation by parents and teachers of the effects in the long term teaching a script before forcing it on our children, particularly as regards their subsequent ability to acquire English and French.
Beyond the question of just the script, there is the question of which variety of the language is going to be taught. The mainstream press and the Catholic Church have been waging an aggressive campaign for the teaching of the mother tongue. Did they mean by this the mother tongue of a minute minority Creole speakers, the so-called refined speakers? Hidden somewhere inside the three pages of KREOL circulated in the Education Enhancement Document is the word “acrolect”. Practically nobody in our primary and secondary schools knows what that means. The current edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary (11th) does not even mention the word; nobody has taken the trouble to explain it to the recipients of the document. It is only by a microscopic examination of the text that one comes to know that the language being foisted on our children is not their mother tongue but the language of a few families of Rose Hill, who in any case do not speak “KREOL” but “Créole”. The difference between the two lies in the manner of saying the “o” of the word; in “KREOL” it is pronounced as in the word French word “nos”, whereas in “Créole” it is pronounced as in the French word “notre”. We are indirectly being told that our version of Creole, the “basilect”, is too inferior to be taught to our children.
In all Creole languages (based on French or English or Portuguese), with rising social stratification, a few people put themselves above the mainstream by speaking a version of the language – the acrolect — that is closer to the source language. Acrolect speakers rarely exceed 5-10% of the population, while the vast majority, in the range of 75-80%, are the “basilect” speakers. Those in between are said to be “mesolect” speakers. All mafias have their particular idioms or jargons, or, as mafia of linguists would call them, their particular “sociolects”. I have on previous occasions referred to this phenomenon by the more readily intelligible term “decreolisation”. Is it part of the Catholic Church’s campaign that we should all speak decreolised Creole?
We wish to make it quite clear that, while we have no objection to teaching in Creole, we maintain our long-standing opposition to the script that is being proposed. Now we must also clearly indicate our opposition to the variety of it that is being promoted. We draw the attention of all politicians to this point, as the language they use to address public gatherings is the basilect, now being set aside by those planning the introduction of Creole into our education system.