The Issue of Languages in our Education System

The first thing that education authorities should do is NOT to do any harm

English must remain the medium of secondary education for all non-language subjects, and examinations for the certifying success at the end of secondary education must continue to be entrusted to the Cambridge International Examinations Syndicate


— Paramanand Soobarah



All right-thinking Mauritians applaud Minister Vasant Bunwaree’s decision not to be swept off his feet and rush into a half-baked decision on fundamental questions of education in the country. No power on earth should be able coerce him into any decision that will harm the chances of education of our children. Those who shout from rooftops about the ongoings at UNESCO and other fora that swarm with activists of one brand or another should remember what the host country of UNESCO, namely France, does about Breton, the language of the people of the French province of Brittany (Bretagne) and the ancestral language of some of our own compatriots. Moves to get Breton taught in schools in Brittany have been cut short in the Toubon Law which proclaims inter alia that only the French language can be used as medium of instruction in government-financed schools.  

The true meaning of the term “medium of instruction” that the proponents of Creole had in mind had never been spelt out before: we had accepted that medium of instruction meant the oral medium which we do not oppose for the lower primary classes. By not divulging the true meaning they attached to the term “medium”, those making the request for it have misled the people of this country. We are much relieved that Minister Bunwaree has not fallen into the trap. It is also equally misleading to argue that there is “national consensus” behind the change to Creole as medium of instruction, particularly with the new interpretation being given to the term “medium of instruction”. We are aware that all Hindu socio-religious organisations are against this idea; together they represent no less than 50% of the parents in this country. We doubt whether Muslim parents would want their children to be proficient in written Creole instead of written French and English at the end of their primary schooling. Where then is the much talked about “national consensus”?

What we want from the primary level of the national education system is that it should enable our children to write short notes and carry out polite conversations in English and French in formal situations and within the limited vocabularies expected at school leaving age. This will also permit them to undertake secondary education with English as medium of instruction immediately on leaving primary education. We adamantly insist that English remains the medium of secondary education for all non-language subjects, and that examinations for the certifying success at the end of secondary education continue to be entrusted to the Cambridge International Examinations Syndicate.

In these days of globalisation, it would be a sheer waste of time to go into any attempt at justifying the importance of English and French, beyond reminding ourselves that one has official, and the other quasi-official, status in the country. We all speak Creole, because we have been coerced into it. Most children, including those with Bhojpuri mother-tongue, are nowadays fully conversant with it by the age of five, and it has been used orally as the informal medium of instruction in primary schools for generations.

To claim that a language can only be used as a medium of instruction if it is written is absolute nonsense. Sanskrit, the greatest and the most exact language that has ever existed on the face of this earth, was used in its oral form for centuries before being put into written form. What Sanskrit achieved in linguistic science three millennia ago when it was still in its oral form is only being understood in the West since about a century and a half ago, and that only after Sanskrit was “discovered” in India by Judge Sir William Jones, a functionary of the East India Company. The debt of Europe to Sanskrit is not mentioned in Ferdinand de Saussure’s Cours de linguistique générale, the bible of European linguistics, because the book was not directly written by him but assembled from notes of his lectures by his students after his death. De Saussure himself learnt all he knew about linguistics from Sanskrit, which language he liked and taught in Geneva for more than twenty years.


We want our children to be full-fledged members of the international community


We are not opposed to written Creole just for the sake of opposing. The script being proposed for the language conflicts so severely with French spelling that we strongly doubt that a child having learnt the script as its first language below the age of eight will ever recover from it fully to write or speak French properly. Language sounds learnt before the age of eight affect the way we speak any language for the rest of life, except if very special efforts are made to train the ear to recognise new sounds.

We want our children to be full-fledged members of the international community, able to stand on their own in any international gatherings. We should match at least the Malagasies and the West Africans in spoken French. In English also we should be able to match our continental African neighbours. One may not like Robert Mugabe, but it would be difficult to fault him on his spoken English – he masters the language as well as does Tony Blair, whose politics we all detest but whose rhetoric we cannot fault.

Even for just our domestic, insular needs, our children must be able to write about their grievances to the press in decent French or English. We would maintain the same stance for our children even if the mainstream local press ditches French in favour of Kreol, for in this globalised world we do not want to be the frog in the well, and consider the tiny Mauritius as the whole world.

Creole has killed Tamil, Telugu and Marathi as home languages of Mauritian families, and it has practically won the battle over Bhojpuri: it is only the cremation ceremony that is awaited. This has not come about because Asian language speakers offered to give up their languages: it has come about because of the most cruel social and economic pressures. People speaking Asian languages were shamed into believing that their languages, cultures and religions were inferior; jobs were used as economic weapons to coerce people to change. That is all history, but very it should not be forgotten.

Since 1982 French has also come under attack: Creole language activists would refer to French-speaking families contemptuously as “banne je-ci je-là. Just take a look at the pass lists of the Alliance Française and see which communities are upholding the French language in the country today. Soon the turn of English will come. This is a situation “up with which we are not prepared to put.” At the Genocide Watch Group which we have established in Palma, we have launched a campaign in favour of a return to Bhojpuri in all families where the parents still speak the language, and for the adoption of French or Hindi as home language in those families that have passed the “point of no return.”

The battle is now firmly on about the language issue. All sorts of arguments and stratagems will be used to persuade our youngsters to adopt Creole as their cultural language. It has been suggested that Creole should be introduced in our schools with the same ease that Asian languages were. That argument overlooks the fact that nobody is asking for an Asian language to be made the medium of instruction in all subjects. We alert all Mauritians to the killer instincts of Creole, and warn them that if they are to keep their cultures, they must look out about the speech of their children.

The Ministry of Education (MOE) has mooted plans to extend pre-primary education to all three years olds. That would be a momentous step in a multi-linguistic society like ours, for every three-year old must be received on its first day at school in its mother-tongue. It would a fatal mistake for the MOE to assume that every three-year old is capable of speaking Creole. Implementing the plan will probably take years of preparation, and we are prepared to be patient, provided when the change is done, it is done right.

The most important years in the life of any individual for learning and personal development are from birth to the age of eight. There is even incontrovertible proof that language learning starts in the womb. For that reason we would urge that the MOE Plan concerning three-year olds be matched by plans concerning the welfare of children from birth to the age of three.

In our set-up the appropriate government arm for looking after children under three would be the Ministry of Women’s Rights, Child Development, and Family Welfare; we would urge changing the name of the Ministry by re-ordering the components to reflect their proper relative importance, namely, it should according to us rightly be called the Ministry of Child Development, Family Welfare and Women’s Rights (MCD). MOE and MCD must jointly develop plans for the education component of the welfare of infants under three years of age. They must also ensure that all personnel assigned to infant-care and all teachers in pre-primary schools are properly qualified in Early Childhood Education.


Early Childhood Education


One very important aspect of Early Childhood Education is so vital to the development of our children that we shall dwell longer on it. That is the matter of languages used to talk to them and of the use of the correct sounds of those languages. This is the period of life when children are able to recognise sounds of languages through their listening faculty and develop the ability to reproduce those sounds in their speech. Later in life people lose the ability to recognise new sounds. For instance, French children have difficulty learning the “h” sound after a certain stage, a sound that no English, Indian or Arab child has the least difficulty in recognising, because it is introduced to them since very early childhood; similarly older Japanese students learning English have difficulty distinguishing between “l” and “r” sounds.

It is therefore incumbent upon the government to ensure that carers and teachers of under-eights use the proper sounds of the languages they teach, whatever be those languages. The first thing that education authorities should do is NOT to do any harm: they should do nothing to children in that stage of their lives that teaches children wrong speech habits or otherwise adversely affects their development potential. They should recognise the importance of the special learning ability of children under eight, and not waste this valuable resource on matters of secondary importance or, worse, teach them things that they would have to unlearn later in life in order to speak properly.
Parents of all socio-economic classes must continually be briefed about the relationship into the quality of childcare and the propensity of the child to absorb academic or other instruction later. There is abundant evidence that shows that babies whose parents remain close to them and talk to them lovingly are more likely to develop into educated and responsible citizens than those who do not receive such attention. The evidence also shows that the phenomenon of social exclusion (much talked about in the local press) is also linked to the amount of attention a child receives from its parents in the early years. When some children fail the CPE, it is not all the government’s fault — as the impression is often created in the so-called mainstream press.
One argument often made is that members of the Creole community have as much right to Creole as their ancestral language as others have to, say, Asian languages. This is an absolutely valid point where it concerns the oral aspect of the language. But there is absolutely nothing ancestral about the spelling being proposed, a spelling which, if exposed to our children in their primary school years, will destroy their ability and willingness to learn proper French spelling subsequently.

The source language of 90% or more words in Mauritian Creole is French, and we are of the view the original French spellings of words should carry over into Creole, with just the minor additions required for particles and articles. It can be argued Creole (Kreol) and French will be taught simultaneously with their different spellings: that procedure will regrettably carry the serious risk of creolising our French right from the start. Before we begin talking on the subject, sort out your spelling. Under no circumstances are we prepared to be led by the nose by a bunch of Soviet-era activists.


Paramanand Soobarah

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