Mauritius is a social laboratory. Here we find elements and behaviours shaped by the country’s colonial past. There are many attributes one can write about. On a more positive side, the island is a well-known tourist destination. It has breath-taking sceneries. Mauritian cuisine is a delight. Mauritians are hospitable and full of kindness. On the other side, the daily headlines on the local newspapers give a rather gloomy picture. It seems all the evils are thriving on the island. But I am not going to condemn Mauritius like the newspapers. Instead, I am going to talk about the linguistic heritage of the people. Put it simply, Mauritians speak up to four languages, but sadly, cannot take ownership of any. It is a complicated situation, made more complicated by language policies, and a system of education that cannot get it right. It should not be that complex, but there are social pressures that make us either enjoy the language we use or hate the language that is imposed. So what is the problem?
Parliament TV has brought out into the limelight how competent people are in their use of language. The debates that are broadcasted live have thrown into the open what we knew for a long time but denied. The debates were pitiful, the language poor, the discourse weak and the replies lacked professionalism and flair. The recent sessions were a poor version of a play that lacked direction, trained artists and a well-prepared script.
Here is the reality. The national language is Kreol, the official language is English; French is widely spoken and a variety of ancestral languages can be heard around. It seems some are ashamed to speak the national language, and quickly revert to French, for it gives them a sense of social acceptance. I was on the plane a few weeks ago and for the first time I heard an announcement in Kreol. I looked around, some felt uneasy, and others showed a face of disgust. I thought it was a great idea. I was on the plane last Sunday, the announcement in Kreol was gone, replaced by French. How sad! People are ashamed to communicate in their national language. Mauritians need an identity after almost fifty years of self-rule. Language is identity; Kreol, the national language is tossed aside. I get a sense it is more than simply politics. It is a mindset that I hope will change soon.
Let me come to the recent theatrics in Parliament. After watching the debates I came up with the following observations. The medium of communication was English and the debates were poorly conducted in a language that sounded atrocious. The use of English by the professionals in Parliament was not only poor, but they simply could not articulate themselves. There was a sense of discomfort but some felt uneasy communicating in English, but the debates went on, and those watching live on TV must be wondering where some of these individuals learnt English. I am being fair. I realise Mauritians are not native English speakers, but still to hear the discussions in broken English begs a serious examination of the state of the English language in Mauritius.
Some of the ministers need to polish their language, I recommend English classes, and perhaps they need some private tuition! The Speaker needs more than language coaching. The Speaker must be fluent, articulate, poised and in control. I am afraid, the quality of discussion and the Speaker’s inability to control the House, was a poorly enacted play. The same goes for the national airline. The announcers on Air Mauritius require more than coaching. It is unpleasant listening to the announcements in English. I don’t know how the national airline keeps getting all those awards, when it cannot get its announcers properly trained.
The poor quality of the language used in Parliament raises a number of serious questions. Let’s get down to the real problem. As stated earlier, English is the official language, but it does not receive the attention it deserves. Children are taught English from an early age, and one would expect them to be fluent, both in communication and writing by the time they complete the Higher School Certificate (HSC). Oh, the HSC. That brings another issue. Students must pass the General Paper (GP). The students are tested on their understanding and use of English, and the extent to which they are able to think maturely as appropriate for this level. They are not primarily tested on their general knowledge. So, the language should be taught in such a way that students can articulate themselves properly in English, even if it is not their native language.
I have been reminded that the pass rate in English has been going down, and GP is becoming more and more challenging. That should not be the case. In a country, where the official language is English, if the quality of the language is going down, a serious review must take place. I did my own survey. I spoke to several English language teachers, many of them teaching GP and giving hours of private tuition to get these kids through. I had some embarrassing moments. Many of these teachers are unable to teach properly. Their language skills are limited, the methodology is poor, and the resources used are questionable. The key point here is simple, many teachers cannot teach English properly and they should be trained to teach English as a second language. The problem starts here.
When some parliamentarians are thinking in Kreol and literally translating their script into English, one can imagine the outcome. Here is an example by the Deputy Speaker before the expulsion on April 4, 2017: “Honourable Bérenger, don’t make gestures with me. Honourable Bérenger, allow the honourable member to speak”.
It is a literal translation. In Kreol it sounds more original: “Honourable Bérenger pa fer zes ar mwa. Les onorab mam la koze”.
The poor pronunciation, the broken sentences, a limited vocabulary, and the lack of structure, coherent and proper grammar produced the spectacle many saw on live TV. When I hear the announcements on Air Mauritius I am confused. The French version is almost perfect. The oral English version is poor and the Kreol version is usually shorter, almost diminished in importance. Someone once reminded me that Mauritians speak French with flair, speak English like a fish stuck in their throat, and Kreol is for the beach party. I noticed mothers speaking Kreol to their children in the markets, but once inside the supermarket, French takes precedence. It is a sign of insecurity.  I keep asking myself why people are scared of speaking Kreol, almost ashamed of expressing themselves in their national language. Speaking Kreol does not make a Mauritian less important or less desirable. When we limit ourselves, we limit our world.
This leads me to a begging question. Why are the parliamentary debates conducted in English and not in Kreol, the national language? I think it will improve the quality of discussion since it is conducted in a language that is common to everyone. The level of comfort will increase and the replies will be more accurate since the choice of words often dilute a point of view. Many are not comfortable communicating in English, and they should avoid doing so. It makes them look rather foolish! When the Speaker uses broken English to bring order into the House, the scene is pitiful. When a senior minister is unable to pronounce a word properly, the House does not look so professional. Those who profess professionalism require more than coaching. A note of caution to parents: if your kids want to learn proper English, please keep them away from the live parliamentary debates.
Whether you call it “donkey English”, “Franglais”, or “Anglais patois”, there is a serious problem. I visited several offices and banks, people are just scared and uncomfortable in English. They automatically revert to French, and if you use Kreol, the reply will be in French, and forms you get must be filled in English. Reports, notices, road signs and entries are usually in English, but when it comes to the oral part, there is an issue. The letters and bank statements are in English confirming the official status of the language in Mauritius. Why aside from its official use, is English diminished in importance, and why some parliamentarians make such a pitiful display, that brings shame to the House?
The answers are not too difficult to find. First, give Kreol the legitimacy and respect it deserves as a national language, and Mauritians should build a national identity around it, as opposed to relegate it for fear of shame. Second, teachers should be well trained to teach English. Those who teach in the old fashioned way should adopt new methods, especially when it comes to teaching a language. Third, employers should test English competency for certain positions before hiring. Parliamentarians should also be tested for English competency and proficiency. It is not a desirable experience listening to their speeches in English. Fourth, employers should encourage the use of English in offices. Air Mauritius please take note. Singapore provides a good model. English is the official language, there is no compromise at the workplace. The United Arab Emirates is another example worth examining, where one has to be fluent in Arabic but English is the language for business.  English as a second language caused a revolution in China, the dividends are paying off. Where is Mauritius? I hope the live debate in Parliament is not the benchmark.