UNESCO and ENGLISH

Mauritius Times – 60 Years Ago

English is the world language of the future

By Peter Ibbotson

The language argument still rages. The MBS – Mauritius Broadcasting Service – is criticised for putting out Government announcements in English; many people, it is alleged, do not understand the barabia of such announcements when they hear the English read. But it is pertinent to ask, would they understand the barabia any more easily if it were in French? Of course not. Even in the UK, many Government announcements are couched in a form of jargon which to the laymen is almost incomprehensible and has to be ‘translated’ into everyday English, usually in the newspapers.

Instead of relying on the partisan propaganda of our Francomaniacs, let us look and see if UNESCO has any useful guidance to offer on this vexed language problem.

In a monograph published in 1953, entitled The Use of Vernacular Languages in Education, we can read (at page 47 in the English edition): “It is important that every effort should be made to provide education in the mother tongue.” That of course raises the question, for Mauritius at any rate, of what is the children’s mother tongue? The Romans had a proverb quot homines tot sententiæ (as many opinions as there are people), which we might well paraphrase in Mauritius into tot liberi quot linguae (as many mother tongues as there are children), especially as UNESCO’s monograph goes on: “On educational groups we recommend that the use of the mother tongue be extended to as late a stage in education as possible.” Since there are almost a dozen languages which can be justifiably be regarded as mother tongues in Mauritius, we must look elsewhere in the same monograph for help and guidance.

We find the help in a section dealing with New Guinea, written by the Hon. Miss Camilla H. Wedgwood, senior lecturer in Native Education at the Australian School of Pacific Administration, Sydney. In New Guinea there exists a large number of communities, each with its own language, perhaps totaling only a few hundred (and seldom more than a few thousand) people. There is no common language; people in villages only a few miles apart are often unable to understand one another’s language.

Obviously, there is need of some linguistic medium through which those speaking different mother tongues can communicate with one another.

New Guinea is economically and politically backward; unlike Mauritius. But in the need for a common medium of linguistic communication the two countries are similar.

Thanks to the efforts of traders and missionaries, a form of common language has been developed — pidgin English. It is as truly a ‘language’ as Creole is in Mauritius and Haiti. It is the one common language of the people of New Guinea; it is no longer to be regarded as an inter-tribal vernacular. It is also used as the medium of instruction in technical schools, as well as in the Protestant and Catholic mission schools; though not in the Education Department’s primary and secondary schools. Other Government departments, however, do use pidgin to instruct trainees (e.g., the Agriculture, Fisheries and Public Works departments).

In fact, pidgin occupies in New Guinea a place comparable to the place of Creole in Mauritius. Yet few persons in the country are satisfied to have pidgin always as the common language of the many linguistic groups. The total replacement of pidgin by English, and the use of English as the one common language, is the wish of most people concerned with the future and well-being of the inhabitants. Europeans regard pidgin as a means by which the social and economic subordination of the native inhabitants will be perpetuated. For their part, the natives wish to learn English, for two reasons. First, they wish to be able to speak on equal terms with the Government officials and other Europeans; second, they believe that English is the key to knowledge, hence to wealth and power.

“It is desirable,” says Miss Wedgwood, “that English should be taught in the schools as a world language, and the sooner in a child’s life that he can begin to learn it without overstrain or harm to his general intellectual development, the better. For English, it may be expected, will…. be the international medium of social, political and intellectual communication, and the vehicle for higher learning.”

The reasons advanced for English being desired as the common language by the people of New Guinea are reasons equally valid in Mauritius. But UNESCO also has words to say about countries (such as Mauritius) where there is a multiplicity of languages. In such a case, it is suggested that one language should be selected out of the multiplicity; and one suggested criterion of choice is “the language… having the most developed literature”. Apply this test to English and French literature, and what do we find? That the most developed literature exists in the English language. And of course, there is the added advantage that (pronunciation apart) English is a much easier language to learn than French.

Two objections are usually advanced against the choice of English as a means of communication between people of different linguistic groups: pronunciation, and the use of idioms. The second objection can be levelled against the use of any language by persons whose mother-tongue it happens not to be; as for the first, English pronunciation is admittedly irregular, but this would not stand in the way of people learning the language as a means of written communication; and oddities of pronunciation can, anyway, be rapidly learnt by heart. (If ease of pronunciation were the only criterion affecting the choice of a world language, then Spanish would have an obvious claim.)

All things being taken into consideration, it is clear that the Education Department is right to insist on English as the medium of instruction in the primary schools at an earlier age. It cannot be too long postponed; personally, I hope that very soon — certainly within ten years — the Department will insist on English as the medium of instruction from class I. The British Council representative must play his part, too; and the newspapers can help by publishing regular “Brush up your English” articles, helpful to those who want to improve their English. The weekly quiz in the MT is a step in the direction; when space permits, this quiz could form the basis of an even more helpful series.

One thing must be avoided like the plague — the habit, common among many Mauritians (and it is the fault of the Education system, not of themselves) of thinking in French (or Creole) and then translating their thoughts into written English but not achieving an English idiom. A simple example will act as an illustration of what I mean. In English we say “I have been here for a long time” (it is permissible to leave out the word “for”). In French we say “Je suis ici depuis longtemps.” But many Mauritians wanting to write that in English would write, turning the French into literal not idiomatic English “I am here since a long time”. I could multiply this simple example many times; and it is only a greater degree of concentration on English teaching that will able Mauritians to express themselves properly in English. All means of education should be marshalled to the goal of raising the standard of English: press, schools, radio, British Council.

For English is the world language of the future.

5th Year – No 186
Friday 28th February 1958


* Published in print edition on 18 March 2022

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