Spoken English in Mauritius

Speaking English fluently is very important for Mauritians and indeed vital for the future of Mauritius, and deplore the paucity of real governmental effort towards that end

The Brindaban Linguistic and Cultural Genocide Watch Group warmly welcomes Mr Satish Kumar Mahadeo’s recent article on the teaching of English in Mauritius. We trust that it will help re-launch the national debate on the very poor level of spoken English in the country generally and help bring about some change for the better. To our knowledge, Mr Mahadeo has been the only academic who has been publicly active on this subject, one of the highest national importance, since the turn of the century. But his has been a single-handed mission: we have not seen the sort of backing extended to him by the government as was, and is still being, extended to the proponents of Creole. Little surprise then that the results of Mr Mahadeo’s efforts have been so meagre.

With the advance of Creole, all other languages have taken a backward step. For some governments, this was the result of a deliberate policy. For others, including the Labour government, it was we fear the result of stupidity, as evidenced by their all too great readiness to accept the rantings of a bunch of activists as the ultimate wisdom in languages and language teaching. Similar policies are being pursued by the present government, even more forcefully so than in the past, as is illustrated by their Nine-Year Schooling programme. It is ill-advised to mix boys and girls in the same class and even in the same school at the onset of puberty. Our religious leaders at the time went along with the policy just to protect their own narrow personal interests, regardless of whatever might befall the community. Curiously, and very rightly so, it was the Roman Catholic Education Authority that showed some resistance. The present national trend in languages is for Creole to advance and English and French to retreat. This decline is borne out by the results of the Cambridge School Certificate exams. Posterity will know who to blame.

Like Mr Mahadeo, we believe that speaking English fluently is very important for Mauritians and indeed vital for the future of Mauritius, and deplore the paucity, if not the total absence, of real governmental effort towards that end. The locally produced textbooks may be helping to some extent towards written English, but they contribute very little towards the spoken language. We also agree with him that by-and-large English is no longer the property of the British, nor, for that matter, of the Americans or the Australians. It is an international language where non-native speakers outnumber natives by five to one. However, the basic characteristics of present-day English grammar and pronunciation have been codified by native speakers, and non-native speakers generally strive to, and indeed willy-nilly have to, abide by them. An international English has evolved, accommodating without difficulty the slight differences between American and British spelling, which is likely to remain fixed for a long time, while the slow but inexorable process of language change will continue among native speakers. There may come a time when native speakers will have to learn International English as a separate language to be able to communicate with other nationalities. A problem already exists within the English language: speakers of some dialects find it difficult to understand speakers of some other dialects. And it is already said that in English-medium international meetings it is the native English language speaker who poses the greatest intelligibility problems to the others with his speaking.

We also agree with Mr Mahadeo that fluent speakers do not, and need not, waste any time or thought on whether they are being judged on the quality of their pronunciation. By and large, most people who speak (anywhere, be it in class, at home, in clubs or public places) nearly always get their grammar right. Where they can fall down is in their pronunciation. This is a problem in all countries where English is not the mother tongue.

In Mauritius, nobody need be ashamed of their pronunciation – there has never been any systematic English pronunciation teaching in our education system. Any occasional individual efforts by well-meaning teachers have been short-lived. Most of our present-day teachers would fail a proper pronunciation examination run by, say, the British Council. Teachers are our role-models when at school, and it is no surprise then that as they mispronounce, we mispronounce.

I was 45 years old, sitting in a class on a post-graduate course in Cranfield, England, and as ever, always ready to put my opinions forward. At one point I had to use the word ‘self-image’, and the lecturer asked me to repeat my statement; he had not understood what I said. I did so, but he still seemed to have a problem, when another student generously came forward and said “he means self-IM-age”, and this solved the problem. I had been saying “i-MAGE”, strongly stressing the last syllable, rhyming it with “rage”. That was my mistake. In the word “image”, the first syllable “IM” takes the stress, and the second syllable “-age” is “reduced”.

It requires systematic teaching and learning for us non-native learners to acquire an acceptable pronunciation level. Beyond the age of about 10, when most second language teaching begins in earnest, it becomes impossible for the human being to pick up sounds just by hearing others talk. However much an adult hears a word pronounced in conversation by a competent speaker in another language, his mind converts the sounds he hears to his already-acquired sound codes, so that he reproduces the word as he would have pronounced it earlier. This is a scientifically established fact.

Nobody should hesitate to speak for fear of making mistakes: they should either totally disregard the criticisms, or use them to improve themselves.

When somebody hesitates to speak because of the possible pronunciation mistakes he or she may make, it shows that they have acquainted themselves with what may be correct pronunciations but have not practised them sufficiently. Nobody becomes a footballer by just learning the rules of football without practising the game intensely. Practice time is when learning to avoid mistakes takes place. Even so those who criticise minor errors in the people who are making a genuine effort to speak a foreign language are wrong and stupid, and no attention need be paid to them. One important fact remains: we cannot as a nation stop making mistakes so long as our teachers go on making them, because they are our role models.

Our own observation is that in Mauritius error-watching is not too serious a problem as far as the English language is concerned. It is in French that we have a real problem with institutional error watchers. Not so long ago one of our girls mixed up “émue” with “confuse”, and the ‘superior class’ went on chattering and gesticulating about it for weeks. But when they make the grossest mistakes in English, ten times worse than “émuse”, even in the so-called national papers, they don’t even know about it, and nobody bothers them. That is a very firmly-established attitude in this country, and we must learn to live with it by resolutely disregarding it. I remember one case where a doctor, belonging to the ‘superior class’, told a revered teacher of mine: “Vous parlez très mal le Français!” He retorted immediately: “Vous parlez beaucoup plus mal que ça le Bhojpouri, Docteur!”. That should be our stand!

It is absolutely necessary to improve the level of spoken English in the country. We believe that the Ministry of Education should introduce systematic English pronunciation classes in all our secondary schools and also in grades 7-9 of the reformed primary schools. Furthermore, the teachers of all subjects should be examined for competency in English pronunciation, and retrained if necessary. An incentive should be offered to those who qualify, perhaps in the form of extra salary increments. Those who fail should be offered alternative employment outside of teaching: nobody can be allowed to mess up the future of our children.

This policy should extend to all teachers, including other language teachers as well. The responsibility for teaching pronunciation should not be limited to teachers of English only; the medium of instruction being English, all subject teachers should be required to assist in the matter. In my own case I have learnt more about Spoken English from my teachers of Mathematics (R. d’Unienville), Chemistry (B. Bathfield) and Physics (D. Burrenchobay) than from my teachers of English, probably because I spent much more time with them in classes than I did with say English teacher Louis Besson; it is one of my sorrows that I did not benefit from more classes with the latter.

While the components of a national pronunciation teaching programme can only be left to professionals like Mr Mahadeo, we would like to share some points culled from own experience as learners in the matter.

A pronunciation course would normally be based on a loud reading programme in class. Perhaps even before starting on such a programme, it may be necessary to take policy decisions on certain matters. It is assumed that the process will begin by teaching the sounds of English, including particularly the distinction between short and long vowels and diphthongs which would be abundantly illustrated by monosyllables. But some points peculiar to Mauritius may have to be addressed first.

For instance, should the long “a” sound be taught as a diphthong (“éi”) or as an elongated monophthongal French “é” of “église”? The method so far has been to teach the French “é” for “a” without any lengthening: that is not correct. The same sort of decision may have to be taken as regards the long vowel sound “o” (of “go” and “no”) and the diphthong sound “air”(which could well be assimilated to an elongated French “è” sound). One other point may have to be considered. Should “man” and “men” continue to be pronounced the same way as currently? This applies to several word pairs (e.g. band/bend, sand/send, etc.) and to words like “bank”, “thank”, etc.

Finally, while considering the man/men problem, some may consider the idea of introducing the English sound of the short “a” (as in “cat”, regularly pronounced “ket” in India) into our teaching. We believe that such a change would be an impossible undertaking. In this country we have always used the French sound for the letter, and it hardly ever causes intelligibility problems. A further problem seen by purists is the distinction between the u-sound of “cut” and the schwa sound described below. We do not believe it is serious – some American texts actually use the same symbol for both sounds.

The full range of English sounds is regrettably not available from monosyllables. Perhaps the most important sound in the language, in terms of frequency of occurrence in speech, is the schwa, which sounds like the first letter of the Hindi alphabet, and is indicated in Dictionaries using the International Phonetic Alphabet as a back-to-front letter “e”. This sound only becomes available in longer words and in reading sentences, even short ones like “This a boy”, “This a pen”, etc. Once all the sounds are acquired, the vocabulary can be extended to longer words, and the reading of sentences can begin.

In a course of loud reading of sentences in class, the first thing to teach is that not all words in a sentence are pronounced with the same force. The common “grammatical” or “function” words, like articles, prepositions and auxiliary verbs, are pronounced in their weak forms, except when they come at the end of a sentence. In 99% of cases, the article “a” is pronounced in its weak form, which is the schwa. Since our earliest childhood the wrong form of the word is drummed into us. About a hundred words in English take on weak forms in normal reading and conversation, and it is not a great matter to list them up and teach them to our children for use during sentence reading practice. The strong forms are only used in contrastive situations: “I did not say A boy, I said THE boy.” Incidentally, the form of the word “the” taught in the country is the weak one, and therefore the correct one. The strong form is pronounced “thee”, and that is the form that must be used in the sort of constrastive situation just indicated.

The other words of sentences are called “content” or “lexical” words; each one of them must have been previously taught individually as regards meaning and pronunciation. While the learner may take credit for guessing the meaning or the pronunciation of a word, it is the duty of the teacher to ensure that he or she has mastered these aspects correctly. It is essential that every word is pronounced accurately syllable by syllable.

Even though half of the English vocabulary comes from French — following the conquest of England by William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy in the year 1066 — syllabification of words in English differs on several points from what obtains in the process in French, where a single consonant between two vowels always attaches itself to the second vowel.

In English, the short vowels (as in “pat”, “pet”, “pit”, “pot”, “put”, and “putt”) cannot stand by themselves at the end of a syllable: they must always be followed by a consonant. Therefore a consonant between two vowels cannot attach itself automatically to the second vowel. In words like “cabin”, “lemon”, “limit”, “model”, “study”, in which the first vowel has its “short” pronunciation, the middle consonant must attach itself to the first vowel, giving “cab‑in”, “lem‑on”, “lim‑it”, “mod‑el”, “stud‑y”. In French the middle consonant would have shifted to the second syllable. It would be useful to point out here that the long vowels and diphthongs tend to follow the French system, as in the words “pa‑per”, “Pe‑ter”, “pi‑per”, “po‑lar” and “pu‑pil”.

Another property of English syllables that distinguishes them from French ones is that not all syllables are pronounced with the same force: some are stressed, some pronounced normally and yet others “reduced”. Even among the stressed syllables there can de differences: they may not be equally stressed. In each word one syllable has the primary stress, and others can only have secondary, i.e. weaker, stress.

The stressing pattern of words may not be the same when spoken in sentences as when they are pronounced individually, but it is important to know the stress pattern of the individual words in order to be able to use them correctly in sentences. The stress pattern of a word spoken by itself (as in answer to a question) is a fixed, unchanging feature of the word. One cannot be said to know a word if does not know its meaning, AND pronounce it properly with its proper sounds and stress pattern.

The aspect of pronunciation that is likely to cause the greatest difficulty to us foreign learners is vowel or syllable reduction. At first sight these “reduced” syllables do not seem to take much account of the vowel letters in them. In all the following words the second syllable is reduced: “beggar”, “Richard”, “villain”, “restaurant”, “agent”, “moment”, “ocean”, “surgeon”, “gorgeous”, “chauffeur”, “Russia”, “patient”, “nation”, “vicious”, “method”, “Oxford”, “actor”, “cupboard”, “tortoise”, “favour”, “famous”, “figure”, “auburn”, “languor”, “breakfast”, “vineyard”. In spite of their spelling differences, they are pronounced with the same vowel, namely the schwa, already described above in connection with the weak form of the article “a”.

The schwa is the most common vowel sound in reduced syllables, but it is not the only one. Other possible vowel sounds in such syllables are “i” and “u”. But it is difficult for us foreign learners to distinguish between them and their unreduced counterparts, particularly as most dictionaries have the same symbols for them. Only the Oxford Dictionary of Pronunciation (Clive Upton et al) shows which “i” and which “u” are fully pronounced and which reduced. With this knowledge we can cut up the word “divisibility” into syllables as follows: di‑VIZ‑i‑BIL‑i‑TI. The syllables in capital letters are “fully-pronounced”, and those in lower case “reduced”; the one in BOLD carries the primary stress. Sadly, the dictionary does not show syllable division; other dictionaries of pronunciation (Cambridge, Longmans, etc.) do show the syllabification, even though they do not distinguish between regular and reduced “i’s” and “u’s”. As a matter of interest, the reduced “i” is often replaced by the schwa in conversation.

The letter “a” normally reduces to the schwa, but surprisingly, the letter it can also reduce to “i”, as in “image”, “village”, “cabbage”, etc. The letter “e” is pronounced as a reduced “i” in reduced syllables (e.g. COLL-ege, re-FER). But it can also reduce to the schwa (O-pen, CURR-ent). An important point to note is that the regular short sound of the letter “e” is as in “get”. It is pronounced “i” only in reduced syllables, except in the words “pretty”, “England”, and words derived from them. The reduced sound “u” occurs most typically in words with the ending “–ful”, as in “awful”.

Given these aspects of syllabification in English, a policy decision may be required on the advisability of getting children to play the Creole game of “madame serrée” in the language, as recommended by some language experts.

A policy decision may also be required as regards the teaching of English Intonation. A small dose of it will certainly help in toning down some of the highly strident outbursts regularly heard in the Legislative Assembly.

Our own experience shows that practising hundreds if not thousands of sentences, correctly pronounced, goes a long way towards improving fluency in spoken English. Use of substitution tables helps.

We wish Mr Satish Kumar Mahadeo success in his mission!


* Published in print edition on 29 June 2018

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