Implementation of literacy in Kreol will paradoxically lead to a
segregationist and elitist model of education
— Satish Kumar Mahadeo
The debate on whether or not Kreol should be used as the medium of instruction in our schools seems to arouse a lot of passion. Some believe that students learn more effectively through their mother tongue than through English. Others maintain that a good command of English is important for the economic well-being of Mauritius.
Kreol is the mother tongue of the majority of our students; it is the common language for all practical everyday communication. It serves as the integrative language at home, and in the social environment. However, due to our colonial background, English (and French) have been the ‘official’ and ‘quasi-official’ languages, respectively, of the State and prestigious languages in the educational context.
However, research in mother tongue instruction policy in countries like Singapore and Hong Kong, which our political leaders take up as our role models in terms of competitive economies, indicates clearly that implementation of mother tongue instruction policy is highly problematic.
Aretha Fraser Gupta, a well-known sociolinguist, formerly based in Singapore, and presently Professor in the School of English, University of Leeds, argues that “the empowerment of individuals should have primacy over the development of an individual’s mother tongue, and even over the preservation of a language. If language maintenance gets in the way of empowerment, then the individual’s language rights may be maintained but the educational and social rights are not” (cited in “When mother-tongue education is not preferred” in Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development).
Simply put, in her view, economic rights should take precedence over linguistic rights. Singapore has been able to achieve a reasonably high level of proficiency in English without going through mother tongue instruction. Linguists who insist on the general rule that primary education should be in the mother tongue need to account for this.
In Hong Kong, after its sovereignty was returned to China in 1997, encouraged by both the pedagogic arguments in favour of mother tongue education and by political forces, the Hong Kong government decided to make more vigorous its plan on the promotion of using Chinese as the medium of instruction. It even enforced the implementation of mother tongue instruction in all secondary schools.
In practice, this policy encouraged parents of capable children to choose English-medium schools. The mother tongue instruction policy ended up grouping most of the high ability students in English-medium schools, and schools adopting mother tongue instruction received low ability students. The Education Department in Hong Kong was even criticized for encouraging the definite linkage between English-medium schools and the elitist schools. Parents from well-to-do families in Hong Kong believe that mother tongue instruction hinders the learning of English and leads to a decline in English standards.
Do we in Mauritius want parents to withdraw their children from Kreol-medium schools in order to ensure a bigger chance for them of getting into English-medium or French-medium schools?
Attempting language shift by language planning, language policy making and the provision of human and material resources can all come to nothing if attitudes are not favourable to change. Language engineering can flourish or fail according to the attitudes of the community. Having a favourable attitude to the subject of language attitudes becomes important in a multilingual policy and practice. Thus, noting the change in attitudes is an essential part for ensuring effective language policy making, language planning and action.
Satish Kumar Mahadeo