SOME ARTICLES ON LANGUAGE BY DEV VIRAHSAWMY
MUCH NEEDED REFORMS NOBODY WANTS
Almost 40 years ago now a major reform in the field of education took place as a result of student unrest. Secondary schooling was made free. Parents, pupils and teachers were happy. The biggest beneficiaries were teachers who, overnight, saw their status and work conditions improved. Since then there have been minor changes here and there but nothing of great note. Yet the system needs a complete overhaul. The main reason being its inability to generate a reasonable standard of literacy to drive the country to a higher level of growth and development.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
It means above all a language policy which is based on facts and not fantasy. After almost 40 years of free schooling from primary to tertiary, we would have expected to have a functionally literate population but this is not the case. A great majority of our compatriots still need party symbols to be able to vote because they are either semi-literate or non-literate. Most people still misuse vital terms and words when they talk of education. Mother tongue is confused with ancestral language, medium with support language, literacy with language learning, national with official language. Most surprisingly, teachers who should know the meanings of these words and expressions fail to use them properly and show no understanding of the main aims of primary education.
Besides boosting up the socialisation process and develop sensitivity and imagination, the fundamental aim of primary education is to make children fully orate, literate and numerate. All other fields and activities are of secondary importance and should not divert our attention from our main goal. How to make them fully orate, literate and numerate? Please note that we are not here dealing with preserving ancestral cultures and values or learning second or third languages. The best way to make children fully orate, literate and numerate is through the medium of their mother tongue or what we call L1 in the pedagogical jargon. What is the situation in Mauritius when viewed from this angle? For 90% of children Morisien is their L1; Bhojpuri is the L1 of 5% at most; French is the L1 of 3.8%. I leave it to my readers to decide which language is the ideal medium to ensure global oracy, literacy and numeracy.
Another factor which deserves out attention is the nature of our official language, English. It is a CREOLE language which means that, if the right pedagogy is adopted, we will favour a quick transfer of literacy skills from L1 to L2. We have all the ingredients to build a nation of truly bilingual literates (in Morisien and English) but the political will is absent. Mainstream politicians are not keen on nation building for they need ethnic and caste votes; most parents do not understand the problem and prefer to rely on the ‘wisdom’ of politicians and priests who have their own hidden agenda; the worse of the lot are primary school teachers who are opposed to change because it means more work and, most importantly, more studies, creativity and originality. Moreover they know that the new language policy and pedagogy will dramatically reduce the need for private tuitions which has grown into industrial proportion.
If proposals for a nine year schooling do not take on board the need for a new language policy with the necessary pedagogical innovations, better not do it at all. And let schools become the blackboard jungles they are about to become. And let parents and teachers melodramatically wallow in bouts of despair and self-pity.
If we are unable to develop a system of nine year schooling which can generate enthusiasm; make our young people healthy, free and creative; develop the sense of belonging to a Rainbow Nation in which citizens are functionally literate in both the national language, Morisien, and the official language, English; understand gender equality; learn to become creative and active citizens in a maritime republic which controls 2.3 million square kilometres of sea, then we have only ourselves to blame. Don’t look for scapegoats!
Twelve hundred years ago Vikings invaded England and controlled a third of the country, mainly the north and east. As a consequence, in what we today call England, there were TWO peoples andTWO cultures. There were also TWO languages: that of the Anglo-Saxons and that of the Vikings. Interactions between the two peoples and cultures led to the emergence of, first of all, a pidgin which quickly became a creole language when children started to use it as their first language. Although the prestige languages then were French and Latin, the local vernacular developed and spread rapidly and a few centuries later it had become a powerful instrument for literary creation mainly through the works of Chaucer (14th century AD) and Shakespeare(16-17th centuries AD). Another important event was the translation of the Bible in that language (King James Bible, 17th century AD). By that time the creole vernacular in England had become English, the national Language and official language of England. The language which developed between the 9th and 17th century was totally different from Anglo-Saxon or Old English and a detailed study of the morphology, syntax and lexis of the language used in Beowulf, probably written before the Viking invasion, will reveal the point we are making here. The new language has all the characteristics of Creole languages, namely the dropping of all cases except for the genitive (the boy’s book), very few inflections and a rigid word order of the SVO (subject, verb, object) type. Initially an ugly duckling rejected by the intelligentia of the time, this creole language is now the official language of several states and is considered as a quasi-universal language.
WHAT IS A CREOLE LANGUAGE?
When two or more languages co-exist in a particular political or geographical space and they are spoken by different ethnic or cultural groups, the needs for interethnic or intercultural communication will help the emergence of a pidginlike lingua franca which eventually may become a full-fledged natural language and take the name of the people speaking it. Hence we have English, Bahasa Indonesia, Afrikaan and hopefully Morisien in the years to come.
In Mauritius we are blessed with two creole languages with prestigious functions. English is our official language and Morisien the quasi-national language or if you prefer the de facto national language even if it is not yet the de jure one. The genesis of Morisien, another ugly duckling, is not to be found on Mauritian soil. In fact it is the child of an extraordinary history which began in the Mediterranean basin in the early days of exploration by European navigators. Because sailors of different nationalities worked on the ships, a pidginlike lingua franca developed which settlers and slaves had to use during long trips across the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Through a process of relexification the lingua franca was nativized to later become a fully developed creole language in the Caribbean and south-west Indian Ocean. Creole languages share certain features: rigid word order, massive reduction of inflections. Here are some examples:
The French verb ‘savoir’ has dozens of forms: sais, sait, savons, savez, savent, savais, savions, saura, saurons, saurait, sache, sachant, su etc. The English verb ‘to know’ has only 5 forms: know, knows, knew, knowing and known. The Mauritian verb ‘kone’ has only two forms: Mo kone; Mo konn lir. We may wonder why creole languages share certain features when they don’t share the same history. It has been suggested that the syntax of creole languages is very close to the universal grammar with which humans are genetically programmed.
Knowledge of the structures of creole languages will definitely help us to devise a progressive language policy and sound pedagogy which will ensure a high a standard of functional literacy in Morisien and English. Are we prepared to shed our blinkers? If we do we will discover that what was thought to be an ugly duckling is in fact a noble swan.