Language politics and the pragmatics of world economic trends

“Mauritius will need more than the English-Speaking Union and the British Council to build up the presence of English in the Mauritian language ecology, a prerequisite to wide acquisition and proficiency in the language. It will need a clear, ambitious and holistic vision from Government, backed by the will of state funding…”

The way we describe, use, promote or repress languages is underpinned by relations of power. It was not out of some intrinsic superiority that the English language rose to become the world language. It was to do with the combination of Britain having been the cradle of the industrial revolution which fuelled its imperial ambitions. In turn, rose an English-dominant USA as a superpower which became the cradle of the internet, thus catalysing global connections.

Whether we like it or not, we cannot bypass the English language. Access to English determines, to a great extent, success, mobility both social and geographical, and assures our links and negotiations with the rest of the world.

Languages have two functions, an emotional identity function by which we create community and the pragmatic one of communicating which assures survival and growth. The language debate in Mauritius is deeply emotional,with ethnic undertones driving discussion over rational ones.

What is the tug of war between SAJ and XLD really about?

In the current tug of war between SAJ’s pro-English and XLD’s pro-Creole stances in Parliament neither has articulated his position within a convincing vision of national development. This goes to show the absence of a mature, dispassionate supranational language policy for Mauritius.

In Mauritius, we have had a laissez-faire language policy since independence with enough leeway to not upset major stakeholders. But language planning is time specific and the context of a fast moving 21st century, increasingly dependent on global connections served by the English language, calls for a clearly defined framework whereby the languages in our ecosystem are not used for political battles but used instead as resources for national development.

Linguists and pedagogues are in agreement that early literacy in the mother tongue is more successful than in a foreign language and that, on that basis, Creole should play a role in the early years of a child’s formal education. In a similar way, it makes democratic sense that the electorate, the majority of which are wooed in Creole during electoral campaigns, must surely have linguistic access to Parliamentary debates.

But whether we want to turn Creole into the medium of instruction in the national schools and have it replace English in Parliament is not a decision we can afford to rush into. For one, it would be dishonest to hijack the medium of instruction as the sole cause and, therefore, easy panacea to the failings of our education system. More importantly, it is the ultimate desired national outcome which should determine the approach and the language policies we devise. If we aspire to be a version of the Seychelles, then for sure we should implement the use of Mauritian Creole in all public domains. But if we want to be a high-income economy, highly efficient hub (in just about everything as seems to be our ambition), then to be able to walk that talk, we should be looking at Lee Kuan Yew.

A resource-poor country needs a unique economic model

Singapore understood soon after independence that language is both an economic resource and an emblem of culture that necessitates careful planning. Political and economic realities, says Lee Kuan Yew, guided him to choose English as the working language in a country where 75% of the population is Chinese. ‘Had we not chosen English, we would have been left behind.’

The country adopted a smart strategy of investing resources into English-language teaching for all, while respecting and encouraging access to mother tongues and ancestral languages. Although Malay was chosen as the national language at independence, by the 1980s in light of social, political and economic developments, it was replaced by a bilingual education with English as the main language.

Singapore is the only (non-native speaker) country which has adopted English fully as a working language – and the economic rewards of English proficiency have been huge. This achievement could not, of course, have taken place in a vacuum. The government undertook a series of measures thanks to which English has become deeply integrated in the local linguistic landscape of Singapore, and gradually weaved into the social and family domains.

India is another important example of a country that recognises the importance of English not just as a language for economic empowerment and upward mobility in a globalised world, but also as a tool to exploit online opportunities in the Information Age. The fact that 55% of the total web content is in English, as opposed to the 38% of people who speak English as a first or second language, indicates the increasing trend in the number of English language users.

Taking a small country to big heights

If we want to create the backbone to our economic dreams through capacity building, an education in Creole policy cannot be a triumphant end in itself, it must be a bridge to the learning of English and French, amongst other languages. The use of Creole in Parliament then becomes a transitory phase until the majority of people have sufficient competence in English to understand and participate, and not a ghettoising end.

In terms of business and trade, we would want to reinforce our links with BRICS and mainland Africa. A new generation of politicians would be seeking inspiration from the Indian journalists rocking the political boat, young competent parliamentarians taking to task their own dinosaurs in South Africa and elsewhere. And it is not our mother tongue which will facilitate this exchange.

Mauritius will need more than the English-Speaking Union and the British Council to build up the presence of English in the Mauritian language ecology, a prerequisite to wide acquisition and proficiency in the language. It will need a clear, ambitious and holistic vision from Government, backed by the will of state funding.

I am not a fan of dictatorship but I like Lee Kwan Yew’s vision for Singapore, his uncompromising understanding of the relationship between economic success and language policy, and the proactive measures he accordingly took very early on in Singapore’s development. Occasionally, an unambiguous assertive Government action that surpasses the petty politics of warring lobbies, is what it takes to take a small country to big heights.

Roshni Mooneeram
Honorary Associate Professor of the University of Nottingham


* Published in print edition on 25 December 2015

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