French Colonial Educational Language Policy and Creole Languages
Since Mauritius was colonised both by the French and the British, it would be interesting to take a comparative view of the impact of French and British colonial language policies on the language situation prevailing today. There was a fundamental difference in French and British language policies. The French were more single-minded in the prosecution of their language in Africa and elsewhere in the French Empire, more conscious of their “civilising mission”, more intolerant of the use of indigenous languages at any stage in education, and more effective in educating African men to speak the metropolitan language beautifully. The French “civilising” mission was an explicit policy, and was based on the myth of Reason as an ideology for all citizens, which the French language ensured access to.
It is essential to examine the unique importance that the French attach to their language and culture, and compare it with the attitudes and policies of the British. One Sorbonne Professor is known to have declared: “The French language is a treasure. To violate it is a crime. Persons were shot during the war for treason. They should be punished for degrading the language.” Surely, few native French speakers would subscribe to this extreme position, but the above statement does reflect the unique preoccupation – some would say, obsession — the French have exhibited with their language for centuries.
The British, by contrast, have rarely displayed this protectiveness of and almost mystical attachment to their native tongue. The claim of the superiority of French, owing to its crystal clarity and rigour which dates from the founding of the Académie Française, as well as a vigorous defence of it from outside “impurities”, continues even to our day. The French government’s proposal of a law (the Toubon Law) in the early 1990s to prohibit the use of foreign words from virtually all public, government and commercial communications is a case in point. This attempt by the French at legislating language usage designed to limit the pervasive incursions of English into modern-day French reflects a long-standing and deep-seated conviction that their language is intimately tied to their identity and grandeur as a nation and as a civilisation. This principle characterised by some as blatant ethnocentrism justified for France the “mission civilisatrice” carried out in Africa and elsewhere.
If the French colonial policy was based on the concept of identity, that is, the belief that the political and cultural destinies of their subjects would eventually coincide with their own, the attitude of the British was rather one of ‘differentiation’ which envisioned the separate development of African peoples and therefore maintained a social and cultural gap between European and African. Although both philosophies are based on convictions of cultural superiority, they resulted in rather different colonial language policies.
As a general rule, the British encouraged the use of indigenous languages in their colonial schools, in literature, and even occasionally in administration. Unlike the spiritual and institutional centrism of the Catholic Church, Protestantism, with its emphasis on the individual’s direct relationship to God, was intensified in Britain by that nation’s tradition of individual rights and parliamentary democracy. It became standard practice throughout the British territories to introduce local languages as the medium of instruction during at least the first two years of primary school (hence the directive of the 1957 Education Ordinance in Mauritius which stipulated that the mother tongue of the child can be used as a support language in primary schools in Standard I, II, III).
The situation in French Africa proved to be quite different. Two major factors were at work here: first, in the earlier days of colonisation, education was in the hands of Catholic missionaries who had inherited from the Roman Empire a strong tendency toward linguistic and cultural centrism. This inclination, coupled with France’s strong propensity for cultural imperialism, led to schooling that was virtually entirely in French and to the resulting devaluation of African languages. Around the turn of the 20th century, missionary influence waned rapidly and the French government assumed responsibility for colonial education. French only was to be used in schools. It was forbidden for teachers to speak to pupils in the local languages. (In most confessional schools in Mauritius, this practice is still widespread).
It has been pointed out that French is the only language in the world where the same word (une “faute”) signifies a moral offence and a spelling (or grammatical) error.
Frantz Fanon, in ‘Black Skin, White Masks’, analyses the almost pathological response of educated West Indians vis-a-vis the French language: anything less than pure Parisian relegates the speaker to a less human category. The assimilationist principle of making of all Africans French Cultural Clones persisted as an ideal throughout the colonial period, and it was seriously applied in education after World War II. During the first half of the 20th century, this approach was modified by the principle of “adaptation” whereby a very limited number of African children were exposed to a simplified curriculum designed to train a small cadre of loyal, mainly low-level subordinates to assist the colonial administration (as in the case of the British colonial administration too).
A linguist called Alexandre sums up the situation as follows:
“La politique coloniale française en matière d’éducation et d’administration est facile à définir: c’est celle de François 1er, de Richelieu, de Robespierre et de Jules Ferry. Une seule langue est enseignée dans les écoles, admise dans les tribunaux, utilisée dans l’administration: le français, tel que défini par les avis de l’Académie et les décrets du ministre de l’Instruction publique. Toutes les autres langues ne sont que folklore, tutu panpan, obscurantisme…”
In the light of the above historical review of the French colonial education language policy, how are we to interpret the enthusiasm of those who have systematically forbidden the use of Creole within the premises of confessional schools to push for the implementation of Literacy in Creole in all government schools? Is it out of philanthropy? Is it for the attainment of political goals? Or is it genuinely for pedagogical reasons when it is well known that the introduction of Creole as a medium of instruction will be rejected by the majority of the public? Or is there a ‘hidden agenda’ to push for the introduction of Creole as a medium in government schools (for the less human category) so as to promote French-medium schools in the private sector?
During the 1950s and the 1960s, in the days of “apartheid”, South Africa had a Bantu Education policy in which mother tongue instruction was used in all black South African schools, which limited students’ literacy in English. Is this the goal intended, directly or indirectly, by “language activists” and the Catholic Church – restricting access to economic participation?