Mauritius: the language issue

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sun Jun 17 15:30:40 UTC 2007

*The Language Issue *

"If a three-year old can hold a conversation in his mother tongue, how come
that after six years of formal teaching in a primary school and five years
in a secondary school, my daughter cannot express herself fluently in either
English or French?"  This question was raised by a perplexed father who
could not understand why his daughter who had passed the SC examinations and
had scored credit in both English and French and in whose honour a party had
been organised could not, when invited to do so, thank the guests in either
English or French. His pride was hurt.

Each year, just like a cyclone after a lull, the language issue in school
comes to the forefront again. As usual, debates sidetrack, facts are
distorted and issues deliberately mixed up to impress and sometimes
intimidate those sitting on the other side of the fence. The impression has
been created in some people's minds that it is the language used as medium
of instruction that is the root cause of the poor performance in certain
schools. Nothing can be further from the truth since failure depends on a
number of factors and not a specific one. Even France has its ZEP schools
and England has its failures though the medium of instruction in each
country is in the mother tongue of the students.

What goes on inside the classroom of a primary school? Standards I and II
teachers and others do not abide strictly by official instructions to teach
all subjects through the medium of English. The fact is that most teachers
usually have recourse to Creole while some turn to French whenever they feel
the need. The Ministry does not insist on English being utilised throughout
the day for it is well known that progress would be slow without a good
interaction between pupils and their teachers.

If language acts as a barrier and prevents the essential two-way
communication in the classroom, then obviously learning cannot be expected
to take place as teaching and learning go side by side. Certain teachers,
however, make an abuse of this flexibility in the use of the official medium
of instruction and conduct classes in Creole for the best part of the day.
Some do so because they feel it makes their task easy, others because they
have not mastered the art of teaching and do not possess the skills and
qualities required of a good teacher. Stress should be laid on quality

Like the father quoted above, many parents are sad to note that after a
dozen or so years at school their children cannot hold a simple conversation
in English, French or even the Asian language they have learnt at school.
What are the causes behind this sad state of affairs? Let's consider how
children learn their mother tongue before trying to answer the question.
Children learn by listening, by associating names with objects, by
imitating, by constant repetition, revision and correction and the
encouragement of parents. The child has one teacher at school but more than
one at home. He/She learns from father, mother, brother, sister, grand
parents, etc. The child is immersed in the language he/she is learning.

A child learns a language not because he is born in a particular religion or
community. He learns what those around him use daily in their conversation.
If an Indian baby is brought up in a Chinese family, it will grow up talking
the language of its environment. Learning a language, other than the mother
tongue, at school is a different matter. Recreating the emotional
environment of the home and similar developmental conditions is not always
possible at school. However, without good exposure and without adequate
repetitive oral work, students cannot be expected to make great progress.

Language acquisition in such conditions becomes difficult. If a teacher does
not talk in the language he is supposed to teach because of the inability of
his pupils to understand that language, he is doing a great disservice to
them. The lesser the exposure; the greater the difficulty to learn a foreign
language. This is something obvious and we don't need any expert to come and
tell us that. Some teachers do not teach in English or French because their
pupils don't understand those languages; the pupils don't talk in English or
French because they are not exposed to these languages and not encouraged to
express themselves in them. It's a vicious circle and a comical situation as
well. This state of affairs is not restricted to primary schools only.

If the teacher and the pupil talk two different languages, the child who
comes to school with lots of personal experience finds if difficult to
express himself. He does not feel confident; he feels frustrated and may
eventually not open his mouth at all in the classroom for fear of being
misunderstood or being laughed at. While such children should be allowed to
express themselves without fear, they should also be encouraged to express
themselves in the new languages they are learning. That's the reason why
parents send them to school otherwise they could well have stayed back at

If children are constantly exposed to the language, they will definitely
learn it. I had my primary schooling at Père Laval RCA. I spoke only
Bhojpuri like my grandparents while my teachers spoke mostly French and
English. Though I had no notion of Creole this did not prevent me from doing
well in French. The environment was such that I was compelled to learn
French in order to communicate with my teacher.

Language learning can become fun through games, songs, poems, stories,
dramas etc. though a great deal of repetitive work is imperative. This is
one reason why new words in children's stories, poems and songs are repeated
a number of times. If oral work is taken care of to a certain extent in the
lower classes in spite of the constraints of oversized classes, the same
cannot be said once the pupils step into senior classes where, for obvious
reasons, the emphasis is on written work. In spite of the reforms, teachers
as well as parents are still examination conscious and examinations are
written not oral.

Those workers who are shouting for shorter working hours from housetops are
the same who are forcing longer working hours on their children, sometimes
even seven days per week. Mental fatigue is worse than physical fatigue but
who can tell that to parents whose children are in the CPE class or
preparing for SC or HSC examinations?

Teachers use mostly Creole to converse with colleagues outside the
classroom. What can be expected of the pupil who does not get enough
exposure inside the classroom and gets almost none outside it? In most
homes, children are not encouraged to practise oral English or French
because of the burden of homework. In Mauritius, unlike other countries, it
is rare for children to get homework if they don't take private tuition. All
homework is directly linked with private tuition. The main purpose of
learning a language is to be able to communicate in that language both
orally and in writing. If the spoken part is taken care of students will be
able to read with understanding, will have fewer problems with writing and
will hopefully develop the reading culture which is at present sadly

Many parents who spend a lot of money sending their little children to
pre-primary schools where the medium of instruction is French are appalled
when they see the same children forgetting their French once they join the
primary school. They feel that the gap, instead of being bridged, is being
widened. Many concerned parents express their despair with the system of
education because the intention of the Ministry is not always translated
into action.

Compare the fluency in French of a student who attends an RCA school or the
Loreto Convent with that of another one from a different school. With the
same number of contact hours per subject, one masters spoken French while
the other does not. It's the school culture that makes the difference. At a
time when Call Centres are multiplying like mushrooms, our language teaching
strategy definitely needs to be revisited, not on paper but in the

*Leckram Gunnasaya ***

Copyright (c) 2005 Mauritius Times.

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