Make Haste Slowly

The Problems and Politics of Language Reform

By Uttam Bissoondoyal 

If we are thinking of vast changes in the language situation with our present state of knowledge, I would like to strike a note of caution.

To begin with, the politics of culture may make any hasty decision counter-productive, tearing apart what may come to be a stillborn nation particularly when ideological decisions are so easily taken and can just as easily prove to be wrong. I need not go into the sociolinguistic history of Mauritius as a determinant of prevailing linguistic attitudes, as this has been adequately dealt with by more competent people. Suffice it to say that the colonial powers have generally practised “un champ d’exclusion linguistique”, excluding both the “immigrant” language and their speakers from a position of dominance. At the same time, the languages were spread at first through the dominant and the ruling classes, then through urban people and eventually reaching the countryside. This may condition our response in that now the excluded may decide to exclude the language that has excluded them. English does not suffer from this because it is regarded as neutral, because the British generally pursued a policy of association and because the Protestant missionaries came via the Indian connection and encouraged the Indian languages (Tamil and Bengali were used as medium of instruction) as well as English.

Our attitude to Creole as a langue dominée is also similarly conditioned by years of neglect and may lead us to make unjustified claims at its present level of development by appealing to notions like cultural self-reliance. The Creole language has emerged as the African languages died unlamented in the process. Bengali, the language of Tagore, at one time used as medium of instruction here and the early preserver of the Ramayana and Mahabharata, has suffered a similar fate, to the impoverishment of us all. We do not want a flattened society in Mauritius where the mosaic of culture would be regarded as a liability. Having tacitly accepted the basis of ‘multi-racialism, multi- culturalism and multi-lingualism’ for our society, we do not believe, to quote Rajaratnam “that one needs one language, one culture, one set of values or one religion to build a coherent society”. Let us not, in the name of a yet mythical nationalism, make the same mistake which the French colonial power made. People will not sit back and see Tamil, Telugu or Hindi die out. I will ask our decision-makers to put their ears to the ground and listen to the tremors. Just as people will not sit back to see their languages suffer the fate of the African, Malagasy or Bengali languages, we have people with proclaimed faith in Mauritianism who have made up their mind what languages to be illiterate in, what cultures should not cross their threshold.

If we analyse the social location of linguists who have written extensively in the Press on language problems and who have conditioned the public to certain views, we will find that they are all urban people and very often the urban view is taken either naively or arrogantly to be the view. The views — that goes for mine as well — are based on comfortable isolated armchair theorising, intuition, emotion and opinion rather than on experimentation and thought.

Let me make myself clear. To make the process of language decision-making a worthwhile activity, there should have been extensive research on the socio-linguistic and pedagogical aspects of language. This has not been forthcoming. Our research has been concerned with developing an orthography, or writing down a grammar. I do not disclaim that this is a very important and seminal research. I believe, however, that it does not help to have a linguist develop an excellent orthography on sound scientific and linguistic principles e.g. moi to be written mwa (turning me, for one, into a near-illiterate) without deciding whether a scientific orthography was needed or not or how it would relate to the fact that children are already learning French and probably as far as possible any orthography of Creole developed should not create confusion in that area. In other words, the psycho-pedagogical context should be an important factor in opinion or decision-making.

Let me make my point further by reference to a few positions that can be justified fully and demolished as fully: I will just raise a few of those areas where, without research, one can argue in whatever way one chooses, to show how full of uncertainty the issues are, and how dangerous it is to take major decisions.

(a) The MBC recently switched over to Creole and bhojpuri as the major languages of information and formation. The co-existence of bhojpuri and creole implies that creole is aimed at the urban population and a residual population in the rural areas. If we believe that a language policy must be reflected in administration, in the school and in the media, would it not have been better for the MBC to await the outcome of these deliberations before assuming, without research, that a large number of those who understand creole will not understand a news bulletin in French. I do not disclaim that there are domains of usage for Creole to encourage understanding and participation. Are we not doing a disservice to those we want to help in keeping them in a univers clos? My friends here are aware how the change to Arabic in Algeria, however well-justified, has perpetuated those with a mastery of French in positions of power and influence, because French is a facilitator of social mobility in Algeria.

(b) I can argue on both pedagogical and social grounds that at the primary level one should concentrate on the middle ground between Hindi and Urdu, that is develop a Hindustani, if need be in different scripts, that is acceptable to both Hindi and Urdu speakers. I can even argue for a Roman script at the Primary level to be followed by Hindi and Urdu at the Secondary Level. I feel it would make the multi-cultural objectives in language education more easily attained, and fit in more into the Hindustani environment of the media. This proposition, however, would be as totally unacceptable to both Hindi and Urdu speakers for as valid reasons.

(c) I can argue that Creole should not use a phonetic script and should evolve close to the French script to create the least possible disturbance to language learning in the Primary Schools and to facilitate a symbiotic relationship with French so that Creole would develop more easily lexically. One may argue against it as strongly on the ground of identity and to prevent the development of a Francreole. One may stress that Creole must now open itself to the richness of Asian cultures for its loan words in the areas of kinship, spirituality, food, music, dance, etc., and a closeness to French will not further this process.

(d) I may argue that English has no place in the Lower Primary and must be pushed up to the Upper Primary and the Secondary — this is enough to give functional literacy to the many and provide the few with a library language and a language of further education and wider communication. This limiting of the choice of international languages to one (probably French) is unavoidable if we want all children to be exposed to an oriental language and its culture (this interest in the culture of the other is now claiming the attention of pedagogues and sociologists in Britain and Australia). If one should make a real socio-linguistic study of English usage in Mauritius one will find, I have no doubt, a wide gap between claims for it and the reality. This view may be rightly attacked on the same sociolinguistic grounds that it is English that has made possible the socioeconomic mobility of those with no access to the “superstructure linguistique” conditioned by the French heritage, and it is English that has provided a neutral ground of evaluation and self-evaluation.

(e) The role ascribed to bhojpuri as well may be variously interpreted. Some may claim that, in spite of its undoubted richness, it is a langue décadente although its folklore may be very much alive, and therefore it must only be emphasized as a facilitator for Hindi. Putting it on the same footing as Creole, a langue ascendante may be a mere attempt to ‘sécuriser’ vast rural masses deeply suspicious of creolisation and pan-creolisation.

One may argue the other way, and claim that bhojpuri spoken over 43,000 sq. miles and by 20 million people is the reality if we move out of the four walls of the school in the same way as Creole is, and this is not the case with Hindi or Tamil. If it has survived 150 years of inferiorisation, it means it is here to stay and it may be engineered to move towards the pole of Hindi-isation instead of creolisation if one wants to sustain its life and bring it closer to Hindi.

I have tried to make but one point clear. Do not let us base our decisions on opinion. I have been talking to many of our linguists present here during the past year, and our views have changed so much that I would be afraid of suggesting anything on the basis of mere opinion except what seems to have achieved consensus. I am referring to the use of the environmental language in the primary sector. The point has been well made in the UNESCO publication, ‘The Use of Vernacular’. It is axiomatic that the best medium for teaching a child is his mother tongue. Psychologically, it is the system of meaningful signs that in his mind works automatically for expression and understanding; sociologically, it is a means of identification among the members of the community to which he belongs. Educationally, he learns more quickly through it than through an unfamiliar linguistic medium.

G.R. Sharma puts it more simply: the mother tongue is the language through which the child has acquired the earliest experiences of life and it is the language by which he dreams, thinks, cherishes, loves, scolds and learns. Let’s take only this minimum for granted (the language of environment as medium of instruction in the lower primary) have schemes for language development in bhojpuri and creole but as to the rest — medium of instruction, staggering of languages, etc., — let us submit our views to probing research in the next decade.

During the Afro-German Research Conference in Mauritius in 1980, a team of German researchers were interested in a 9-year research project on medium of instruction, staggering of languages and language development which I submitted to them, but the time was not the right one for language research. I hope this can be taken up again.

Any language policy in a multicultural setting like ours must, according to me, be based on the following objectives.

(i) Establishing the identity of the child who belongs to a given linguistic and cultural group. This is an important aspect to achieve respect for self, to provide a basis for meaningful cultural interaction and a critical revaluation of one’s culture. The approach will have to be decided: (a) whether to move from a cultural package with socialisation purposes to more formal language study; or (b) the ‘langue et civilisation’ and the access to culture as the aspect to be emphasized.

(ii) Multicultural understanding which aims at knowing the language, beliefs, customs, values and historical evolution of another group to achieve respect for others and to participate in multicultural life. Only the other day the Minister of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs for Australia was saying that children from the very earliest school and pre-school ages should have the opportunity to learn about other languages and cultures.

(iii) National Development. While the State plays the broker in furthering the development of national languages (orthography, lexical development, dictionary, publications, etc.) it is fair to bear in mind the claims of what has been called plural multiculturalism whereby the state both guarantees and balances the aspirations of all ethnic and religious groups.

(iv) Participation in economic and media life.

 (v) Wider communication and access to further knowledge.

To attain such objectives would mean for each child to be exposed to the language and culture of his own and at least of that of another group, to learn French which is indispensable to mobility and participation in economic and media life, to learn English so that it can share with French the function of wider communication and access to further knowledge. I must say that I am personally inclined in the very long term towards French as the medium of instruction and the major international language in Mauritius, provided two conditions are fulfilled. First, the teaching of French is vastly improved in the rural areas and all compensatory facilities are provided, for I believe that performance in French is linked to a large extent to the fact that nobody has addressed himself to the problems of learning French in the rural areas which ask for a special pedagogy and facilities. The problem of selection is an artificial structural problem that can be solved by structural means and must not condition overly our views.

Secondly, participation in the private sector will not be credentialled by connexion and complexion. If it does, then by nationalisation, the setting up of parastatal bodies and the propagation of the co-operative movement, the democratisation of employment must take place.

As it will have been realised by now, the end forgets the beginning. I have ended with the very idea of abstracted speculation on issues that require research which I started by rejecting.

I come back to the idea which I have pushed for on several occasions. Let us accept the consensus for the Lower Primary and for other major decisions let us await the research findings of a Language Institute over the next decade. A Committee at the end of this Conference may map out possible areas of research in sociolinguistics, medium of instruction, staggering of the languages so that the child does not have to start learning three languages at the same time in lower primary.

May I also suggest that whatever decision is reached by the Government, it is followed through in a rational manner. In other words, it must be reflected not only in the schools, but in the media as well. I find it difficult to explain why the decision to have English as an official language has not been translated into the media, and why there has been no real attempt to launch an English newspaper or English films for that matter.


* Published in print edition on 22 October 2010

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