Teaching of English

Mauritius Times – 60 Years

By Peter Ibbotson

It was on May 5, 1832, that the Secretary of State considered (and of course a ‘consideration’ by such an august personage is tantamount to a directive) that all official correspondence emanating from departments in Mauritius should be conducted in English. That being so, one would have expected that sufficient time had by now elapsed for all conversations in all departments to be conducted also in English; but one can often hear Government functionaries carrying on conversations, even about official business, in French. It is the rule in many English boarding schools that there is one table where the pupils must speak nothing but French; the pupils circulate to this table so that all of them have a chance to practise and perfect through usage their oral French. May I suggest that Government departments institute a similar rule, that during office hours inside the Departments, officers speak nothing but English, especially if they are discussing between themselves official business.

Perhaps Government officers who use French for conversations use it because their English is “rusty”. May I remind them of the words of Sir Cavendish Boyle, Governor from 1904 to 1911, who at a prize-giving in October 1905 said: “Do not despise the language of Britain and the greater Britain because in your house-life that of France is in common use.” He went on to urge the pupils listening to him to perfect both their French and their English; he looked forward to a bilingual Mauritius. Le Mauricien approved of Sir Cavendish’s words on that occasion, for it reprinted them in a manchette under the heading ‘Mots Justes’ on March 8, 1934. A week earlier, Mr Gabriel Martial had written in the same paper (28 Feb 34), referring to the teaching of English at the Royal College, “Notez que nous approvons entièrement le Recteur de vouloir “épurer” le langage des éléves. Disons même que nous l’approuverions d’inviter les élèves dans leur propre intérêt, à s’habituer à parler l’anglais autant que possible.”

About the same time, Le Mauricien was anxious to have the standard of English raised. Referring on March 17, 1934, to the weakness of many pupils in English, as revealed by the School Certificate results, the paper commented, “On ne saurait donc qu’approuver  les autorités scolaires de vouloir mieux faire connaître la langue anglaise aux jeunes Mauriciens.” Yet when the Education Department announced that the use of English as the medium of instruction would start a year earlier, it was in the pages of Le Mauricien that the most vehement denunciations of the Department were found.

This problem of teaching where there are many different mother tongues in use among the pupils is a common one. In the Belgian Congo, for example, the problem is whether to use the Congolese vernaculars or the language of the colonial power, Belgium, which means of course the French language. Unesco has recently published a bibliography of books on education in the Belgian Congo, and a number of books and articles cited refer to this question of the language of instruction.

A Jesuit priest, Pere Charles, is cited as concluding (in a paper presented to the 26th session of the Institut international des civilisations différentes in 1951 that a language belongs to those who use it; the advice of the Indigenous peoples themselves should be sought before deciding a linguistic policy; and the linguistic policy should not be coloured by Europeans who fear seeing the ‘native’ rising to the European level.

If we relate the reverend father’s conclusions to the conditions now prevailing in Mauritius, we have an advocate for the various communities in the island being asked by the Education Department what language of Instruction they want to see used in School. We have an advocate against the Department’s policy being allowed to be affected by Francomaniacs who fear that if English became the common language of Mauritius, then Indo-Mauritians would be able to compete on equal linguistic terms with them instead of being, as now, on a linguistically inferior plane.

Another contribution to the language problem comes from M.L. Dekoster who in ‘Problèmes d’Afrique Centrale’, a Brussels periodical, argued that bilingualism was essential. One should perfect one’s own language as well as master the language of the colonial power; and in the absence of an acceptable common vernacular, the study of French should be undertaken as a civilising instrument. Belgium is a French-speaking country of course, hence the author suggests the study of French; if he had been an English writer, he would have suggested that English be studied as a civilising influence in the absence of an acceptable common vernacular.

There is no common acceptable language in Mauritius (there are no vernaculars, which are properly the languages of indigenous peoples, of which Mauritius has none), so we can argue that the language of the colonial power (as M. Dekoster does) should be adopted.

Another writer, in the journal ‘Nouvelle Revue Pédagogique’, urges that children become used to school only through using their natural, spontaneous means of expression — their mother tongue. He (R. P. Delanaye) recommends that primary schools use first the mother tongue, then if possible a language in wider use that has an affinity with the mother tongue. Yet another recommendation that the vernacular be used comes from M.J. Larochette, also in the periodical ‘Problèmes d’Afrique Centrale’, who considers that there are two solutions to the problem of which language to use in teaching and in education. He wants to see more widespread use of English. His solution to the problem is to teach the foreign language in primary schools, and to teach in it in the secondary schools — but that presupposes a larger provision of secondary schools than at present exists in either Mauritius or the Belgian Congo. Without a widespread provision of secondary schools, only the small minority who attend them can learn adequately the use of the foreign language, so that a linguistic elite emerges.

The answer to the problems appears to lie in this last suggestion — that there be a larger provision of secondary schools, so that having learned English well in their primary schools, the pupils can learn in English at their secondary schools.

We cannot have une entité mauricienne unless we get rid of the linguistic elite which the present system has thrown up. At present, with French a compulsory subject at the secondary schools entrance exam, the children of the French-speaking section of the population have an advantage when it comes being selected for a secondary, school.

At the early age of 11, a child is labelled one of the elite or one of the hoi polloi; simply because, in many cases, of

what language he learned at his mother’s knee. Make English the language of instruction throughout all primary and secondary schools — that way, all would start at the same level, linguistically, and we would have a good chance of seeing the entité mauricienne.

5th Year – No 209
Friday 8th August, 1958

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