Our love for the sensational, the glamourous, the prestigious, the eye-catching albeit superficial solutions always prevents us from seeing the truth and understanding reality. We are great makers of empty slogans: vivre ensemble; unity in diversity; enn sel lepep, enn sel nasion. We have the knack of believing in our own lies. We find comfort in the official belief that we live in a literate nation and keep hiding our heads in the sand. We don’t even want to know the meaning of literacy which stresses on the mastery of FOUR skills in a given language: 1. speech, 2. reading, 3. writing and 4. counting.
Let us be more concrete. A quick look at the 2019 Grade 6 PSAC English paper can be very revealing. It consists of FOUR types of questions: 1. Multiple choice; 2. One-word answer; 3. Sentence writing and grammar; 4. Essay writing. This looks quite OK.
Now let’s probe deeper.
1. Multiple choice (choosing one from four answers) questions carry 30 marks. It is common knowledge that a candidate can score 25% of the marks i.e 7½ marks, without even reading the questions and answers by simply throwing the dart (pik-poul) in a haphazard way. Any serious examination body normally excludes (does not count) these marks. The PSAC English paper has also questions where candidates have to choose one out of two, three or five answers giving them a 50%, 33%, and 20% chance of scoring marks without reading or understanding the question. It would be pedagogically sound to ignore and rule out between 9 and 10 marks in the assessment of achievement. In Mauritius these marks are taken into account in the assessment exercise. It simply means that any totally non-literate candidate will score about 10 marks.
2. The one-word answer questions carry 35 marks. A semi-literate candidate by sheer guess and chance may score between 10 and 15 marks. So, it means that below standard candidates who have not mastered some basic reading skills after six to seven years at school, may easily score between 20 and 25 marks by just throwing the dart and by making lucky guesses.
3. Sentence writing carries 25 marks and essay writing carries 10 marks … yes 10 MARKS. So, the two questions which evaluate the literacy level of candidates have a weightage of roughly a third of the whole.
CUT-OFF MARK AND MEDIUM OF INSTRUCTION
The cut-off mark for English is 30 (numerical grade 5) after standardisation which could mean 20 raw marks. Remember that these include the 10 marks which should not be taken into account as they can easily be obtained by throwing the dart in a haphazard way. This means that with 10 real marks, candidates pass the PSAC English paper. In fact, they are non-literate. I leave it to you to imagine the standard reached by those who fail after six to seven years of schooling. There are thousands of them, poor victims of a heartless elite.
We must not forget that English is the official/legal medium of instruction which means the following:
• We must master the four skills in it (speech, reading, writing and counting);
• We need English to learn mathematics, the hard sciences, the soft sciences, history, geography etc.
• Examination papers are set in English;
• Candidates must answer in English.
Need we be surprised that 75% of Mauritians do not possess functional literacy which according to UNESCO means “the capacity of a person to engage in all those activities in which literacy is required for effective function of his or her group and community and also for enabling him or her to continue to use reading, writing and calculation for his or her own and the community’s development.”
PUTTING THE CART BEFORE THE HORSE
I believe we can achieve universal functional literacy if we have will to fight prejudice and ignorance and understand the need to use the mother tongue to master basic literacy. Mauritian creole is the mother tongue of 90% of the Mauritian population and the remaining 10% use it as a second language. Moreover, since English is a creole language, we can easily produce a nation of bilingual functional literates (in Mauritian and English) provided we have the lucidity and brawn to start genuine language planning and implementation and not plaster and paint termite-ridden structures.
Once sustainable universal bilingual literacy in Mauritian and English is established, improvements in different sectors will follow, be it in parliament, administration, higher learning and law courts.
The self-seeking promoters of Mauritian creole, more interested in being in the good books of people in power whose racist and fascist predispositions are obvious, do not care for the welfare of people and the true development of the country. They only think of feathering their own nests. Consequently, they will not rock the boat and disappoint their masters. It is more profitable for them to adopt the ignoble course of action which is to transform a de-facto national language into a minor ethnic language.
While the racists and fascists are sowing Hindutva, the deadly seed of division and hatred, their self-seeking Kafkaesque allies are trying to metamorphose our vibrant language of national identity and global development into a grotesque papier mâché caricature to offer to their leader a fake face of national ‘rassembleur’.
Will they get very far? I doubt it.