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Ahmar Mahboob «The prestige of Creole language has to be raised»

Source : lexpress.mu

Traduction en créole haïtien

Dr. Mahboob, your visit to Mauritius coincides with the official presentation of the document, “lortograf Kreol morisien”. What is your assessment of the linguistic situation here?

It’s very complex. It seems that there is a certain hush-hush about it it is a situation which people do not necessarily want to talk overtly about but which, at the same time, they feel passionately about.

You think we don’t talk enough about the linguistic situation in Mauritius?

Well, people do have opinions about it but there seems to be an understanding that it is a political and potentially controversial issue. Having said this, I did notice that the issue of language-in-education came up numerous times during my workshops and other sessions.

For example, during one workshop at the University of Mauritius, I asked the students to identify one problem that needs to be researched to improve things locally. For the majority, if not all, the problem identified was the high rate of failure at the end of primary school, which the participants linked to language-in-education planning.

Do you think failure can be attributed to the language?

To a degree, yes, because early literacy in the mother tongue is much more successful than in a foreign language. This issue is further compounded if the medium of instruction is also a foreign language and students don’t only have to learn English, but also have to learn IN English. In such cases they might be doubly handicapped.

Do you think that if the children were taught in Creole, the failure rate would diminish?

It could if there were enough resources to teach in Creole. In China, for example, Chinese is the language of their success, not English.

The reason that Chinese can be a language of success though is because they translate most key texts into Chinese. So, there is a very large investment. We have seen examples in China, in Korea, in Japan, where they have developed because they have developed their mother tongue in order to use it for all these different functions. In these countries, English is important – as a foreign language – but it is not the medium of instruction in schools.

But if you look at Hong Kong, for example, isn’t Chinese there a different issue, where parents don’t want to teach their children in Chinese but in English?

I recently spent a year in Hong Kong and my understanding is that there are both English medium and Cantonese medium public schools, with the majority being Cantonese medium. English is the main language in university education, but not in all schools.

The difference in the medium of instruction across school and universities presents its own challenges.

Given the importance of English in university education and in the larger job market, parents who have a choice choose schools that use English as a medium of instruction. Some parents also send their children for private English language tuition.

When you say, ‘parents who have a choice’ you mean parents who can afford to send  their children to private schools, don’t you?

Yes, most public schools are Cantonese medium, while private schools tend to be English medium.

Doesn’t this result in creating a barrier of social class and maintaining it?

Yes, it does. And that seems to be the case in most parts of the world. The maintenance of English in a post-colonial context tends to privilege those who already have access to the language of power – i.e., the people who have the material means to buy the education in a language that is considered prestigious.

So if we introduced Creole here as a medium of instruction, wouldn’t we have to struggle with the same issues of creating and maintaining social differences?

Possibly, yes. But, if you were to introduce Creole and provide reasonable support material in Creole, then you could minimize those social class variations – consider, again, the example of China, where people have been able to improve their socio-economic status through education and use of Chinese. But, this doesn’t happen in all the cases and one has to be really careful in the context of Mauritius.


Because, in Mauritius, English and French have a perceived position of power. So without careful planning, what could happen is that the people who have resources will send their children to private schools. Let me share an example from another country. In Pakistan, in 1979, General Zia Ul Haq declared that he wanted to make all the public sector schools Urdu medium and get rid of English medium schools. What happened as a result was that the public sector schools were converted to Urdu- medium schools. On the other hand, you had a mushrooming of English-medium private schools.

And, over a period of time, you heard the discourse that the public school system was bad and that it could not educate the children properly, and so people began and continue to send their children to private schools. This further promotes class-based segregation.

Coming back to our Mauritian context, the perceived value of English is not likely to change overnight, is it?

No, it won’t but, when we talk about language planning, there are at least three ways of looking at it: status planning, corpus planning and prestige planning. Status planning means that the government recognizes Creole to be language of education in schools.

That’s a policy decision that gives status to the language. The Corpus issue has to do with material development. Developing and translating material such as journals, books etc. in the language to be promoted. The third is prestige planning which involves giving rise to the prestige of the language. At the moment, it appears to me that Creole does not have high prestige.

Although most people use the language, it has low prestige. If this is not changed, the policy of introducing Creole as the medium of instruction is probably not going to succeed. If prestige continues to be associated with English and French, then what we might see is an exodus of students leaving the public sector and going to the private sector where they will be educated in English.

How will the prestige shift? I mean you can’t change people’s attitudes, can you?

Yes you can. We see manipulation of attitudes in many cases. One unfortunate example is that of war engineering in post 9/11, e.g. attitude change towards people from a certain ethnic/religious background that is supported by collocation and regular use of terms such as terrorism, fundamentalism, etc. with them. Such a change in attitudes is influenced by the media, movies, novels, etc.

So, if one wants to raise the prestige of Creole, one has to develop a coherent plan for it. One might ask questions such as: do we have a range of newspapers and magazines in Creole? Do we have a TV station that devotes time to Creole?

Do we have major TV shows and movies that are in Creole? Do we have the top elite coming out and speaking in Creole? All these contribute to the prestige of a language. It creates a positive image of the language as something that people aspire to.

Apart from the prestige, there is also the perception that the child will be locked up in a language that will not lead him/her anywhere. Is that perception justified?

To a degree, yes. Certain options available may not be there if you have been taught only in Creole. For example, if you look at the immigration policies that are now emerging in the U.K and Australia, you will note the importance being put onto English. Australia is introducing a point system where a very large proportion of the points are going to be given to proficiency in English. So, if you don’t have English, you may not be able to migrate to Australia. If you think of education abroad and you think of being able to work in a multi-national company and contribute to a global interconnected world, then English and French are ways to do that. Just having Creole limits you. That perception, therefore, is justified to a degree. A midway would be for the medium of instruction to be bi-lingual.

That is already happening unofficially.

Yes, I have heard that too. Teachers use Creole because they feel that if they taught in English, the children would not learn anything.

But what I’m suggesting is that it needs to be sanctioned so that you can have teacher education programmes that train the teachers to use Creole (and perhaps other home languages) more effectively in classrooms. Giving them insights on how to use both languages proactively as a resource.

Right now, teachers typically use Creole in the class because they don’t know what else to do.

Knowing how and when to use Creole effectively can help in developing bilingual approaches to pedagogy that are more effective.

Which countries do you think have similar issues as ours?

I would think that Mauritius is historically unique, but it has similarities with certain multi-ethnic, multi-religious communities in places like Singapore and Malaysia.

What is the situation in Singapore?

In Singapore, the medium of instruction is largely English, but students are also taught their mother tongue in school.

They are doing very well, aren’t they?

They are doing very well, but they invest a lot of resources in teaching English.

So the issue is not the language then it is the resources.

Well, they also put very strong emphasis on Chinese, Malay and Tamil, which are taught as mother tongues in the schools. In Malaysia, you have English-medium schools, Malay-medium schools, Chinese-medium schools and Tamil- medium schools. Now, while other languages are recognized in Malaysia, it is the Malay language that is tied to the ethnic and national identity, and to Islam. The situation in Mauritius is quite different. Here, Creole is not really associated with any ethnicity or religion .

It is in a way.

It is and it is not. It is seen as coming from the Creole people who have African roots and are mostly Christian but, then Creole has been used by everyone here for a very long time. Furthermore, you have the Geeta and many other new materials about Hinduism translated into Creole and Creole being used as the language of teaching in madrassas and mosques. Whereas in Malaysia, there is a much more categorical distinction between say Malay and Tamil, where Malay is linked to Islam and Tamil is predominantly seen as a language of the Tamil Hindus.

I still don’t understand where you really stand when it comes to using the mother tongue as the language of instruction.

There are good examples and bad ones. Malaysia invests a lot into translation and so does China.

These countries have engaged in quite successful prestige and corpus planning. There are other examples which failed. The earlier example that I gave of Pakistan largely failed, with terrible consequences.

In 1985, the same general who introduced Urdu as medium of instruction reversed the policy and re-introduced English. The impact of the 1970’s policy can still be felt in the country today.

So, if we introduced Creole tomorrow, do you think we’ll go the Pakistan way or the Singapore way?

If you went for it tomorrow, it would go the Pakistan way. It has to have sufficient planning and sufficient local research. Right now, as far as I know, there is very little research that’s going on, published and disseminated. Unless research is shared and disseminated, which provokes further discussion and research, it’s a dead end. The questions we are discussing here today need to be reconsidered in light of locally generated, credible research, that provides us with ethically collected, and critically analyzed and interpreted results about the local context.

We need such research before we make any policy decisions.

What worries me personally about this whole issue of teaching Creole, which is highly topical just now, is that it seems to be put forward as the panacea to all sorts of problems. Children are failing. Just teach them in Creole and they will sail through. Do you think this is an exaggeration?

There is a certain level of research that will support teaching in the mother tongue. However, it’s not the answer to everything because there are socio-economic issues. If mother-tongue education were the solution to everything, you would have no English speaking students failing or ping out in countries such as the US, Australia or the UK. Nobody would fail because everything is happening in English, which is their mother tongue. But, we know this is not true. So the medium of instruction is only one dimension.

It can help if it’s done appropriately, but it is not the only thing.

What are the other problems?

From what I understand, there are a number of questions that one needs to ask in relation to the primary education system here. One has to consider the kind of language and literacy practices that students bring to the school and the ones that they need in order to succeed as well as the teacher training programmes on offer and the kind of pedagogy that is being encouraged. There is also the relationship between exams and the kind of learning that students engage in. One has to consider the resources made available to the schools and to the teachers/students.

These are all variables that affect the quality of education. Furthermore, it seems that you have a stratified system of education here. You have an “exambased” entry system in place. Now, if the system worked properly, you would have a fair and statistically normal distribution of students who enter the secondary schools and universities from all social classes. I am not sure if this is the case. So, why is it that people from certain socio-economic or linguistic backgrounds are disproportionately distributed across the school system? If there are only a token number of workers’ and farmers’ children who manage to get to the elite schools, then there is something wrong.

How do you get to this normal distribution?

Through very careful language and pedagogical intervention, training teachers and research. Research is very important. But I’ve met a lot of people who told me that they would be interested in conducting research but that they have to go through so much red tape that by the time you get your funding, if you get your funding, you’ve forgotten what the point was.

Is it that bad?

That’s what I’ve been told so it’s a question of making processes transparent and equal. There is also this perception that if there are grants, they go to sciences and engineering. They don’t come to social sciences or humanities.

That’s a typical developing world syndrome. We don’t value humanities and social sciences. Actually, if you don’t invest in research, you will have to rely on foreign-generated knowledge. Somebody sitting in Australia, the US, UK, or France may be able to publish a lot of books, but how relevant will these be to the needs of Mauritius?

What is needed is locally generated knowledge.

The research which is perhaps lacking most is relevant research.

This is what I mean by CREDIBLE research. Research that is: Contextually relevant, Responds to theoretical and practical needs, Engages stakeholders, Draws on  an understanding of local knowledge and practices, is Informed by global approaches and experiences, Benefits local communities, Leads the field/discipline and contributes to the larger (global) theories, and is Ethical. That is CREDIBLE research.


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