Ledikasyon pu Travayer has sent this article to LALIT for publication in our REVI and on our website. In fact, it is in reply to an article in L’Express 23 August, signed Audrey Harelle, in which she makes most disparaging comments, erroneous to boot, about the mother tongue of 90% of the people of the country. LPT replied to this, and commented, in the same article on another L’Express article signed Philippe Forget. Then something curious happened. Ms. Harelle replied to the LPT reply (L’Express Dimanche 30 August), but without the rejoinder having been published at all. LPT tells us that the Association has mailed the article to dozens of people, and some 10 people, from all walks of life, have replied, supporting the comments.
LALIT has pleasure in making the LPT article more widely known. By the way, LALIT has, in August has had some 210,193 hits on our site. Here is the article:
It’s dead easy to have opinions on “the language issue”. In fact, everyone is full of opinions on “language”. Journalist Audrey Harelle included. And most of these opinions, like hers in L’Express Dimanche 23 August, 2015 are particularly resistant to facts, logic or scientific findings. The prejudices that so many of us hold – especially the more educated amongst us – die hard. And so, like Audrey Harelle, we end up thinking that Mauritian Kreol should not even be a Core subject in primary school. Imagine that! She even propagates the well-nigh eradicated prejudice that languages, including Mauritian Kreol, are linked to community. “Les Creoles [sic] vont apprendre le kreol et cela ne va guère les aider pour le futur.” And, in addition to prejudice about a non-existant hierarchy of languages – essentially a colonial vestige – she also seems to have old-fashioned ideas on what human language actually is.
The first important concept for Audrey Harelle and others to be able to get hold of is that language is much more than the old clichéd definition of “a form of communication”. This definition applies more to a mobile phone than to human language. Nor is the language we use for “thinking” merely something a State, or Minister Leela-Devi Dookun, can just impose as medium – without causing immense harm to children – nor that parents can just “choose” – as if language were some bit of merchandise in a shop. No, language is just not like that.
Language is, in fact, our uniquely human way of quite naturally “representing in our heads what we capture through our five senses as to what is going on out there in the world, as well as of what is going on in our own emotions and thoughts”. Language is the evolutionary “tool” through which we understand the whole world outside of us, and our whole internal life, our consciousness and our feelings – and it is quite natural. Language is our means of thinking. And this natural language capacity develops to a high level through formal education, through being used as oral and written medium for studying subjects like science or history or economics. It is our tool for cognition, for rational thought, for deduction, for creating new ideas, for abstract thinking, for computing what we already know with something we hear or read for the first time. And it is a natural tool.
The second thing that we all have to grasp is that language only exists because we are “collective” creatures by nature. And language can exist only through a collectively lived life. Without constant co-operation, there is no language. Though our language-capacity is natural, it emerges only in children as they grow up in a human community, and it develops limpidly and unconsciously, while a child plays with other children, converses endlessly and informally with adults, and then later, more formally in school. The few children brought up either sequestrated cruelly by insane parents, or somehow abandoned to be nurtured by animals, have been documented as being unable later in life to learn human language properly.
The third thing is that there is no hierarchy of human language. All living languages are equal. Some are written, others not at all. Some, like English, have a large written literature, others, like French, a medium-sized one, yet others like Mauritian Kreol a much smaller one, many others none at all. But the languages are all equally good. They are what people, in different places, speak naturally. No more, no less. Look at the prejudice of Ms. Harelle, “Les Creoles [sic] vont apprendre le kreol et cela ne va guère les aider pour le futur.” So, presumably Ms. Harelle thinks Norwegians should study Norwegian and study content subjects through Norwegian, the Dutch should study Dutch and in the Dutch medium, but Mauritians should study other languages only, and should study through other languages as medium, even. Otherwise, they will have no future. Dear oh dear!
It was, in fact, Philip Forget, L’Express 14 August, that first drew our attention to an important study, that the World Bank had drawn his attention to, in turn. It was on Mauritius’ very poor rating for “reading with comprehension” on a comparitive study run by the Program for International Student Asessment (PISA) done by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) on 15-year-olds in 75 countries (half of them OECD, half “partner countries”). At LPT, we went and looked up the study. Amongst other things, the assessment, in its own terms, evaluates the
“cognitive approach that determines how readers engage with a text.” ... “the mental strategies, approaches or purposes that readers use to negotiate their way into, around and between texts. Three broad aspects were measured ... [students ability to]
- “Access and retrieve – this aspect focuses on the skills associated with finding and collecting information from
texts. About one-quarter of the PISA assessment was made up of access and retrieve tasks.
- “Integrate and interpret – this aspect involves processing information, sometimes across different parts of a text,
to make internal sense of the text. About half of the PISA assessment was made up of integrate and interpret tasks.
- “Reflect and evaluate – this aspect involves drawing on information, ideas or values external to the text, including evaluation of the text drawing on personal experience or knowledge of the world. About one-quarter of the PISA assessment was made up of reflect and evaluate tasks.”
Mauritius, with its massive educational system including compulsory schooling until 16 years of age, now hovering on track to becoming a high-income country, comes out poorly, only 59th out of the 75 countries compared. Why?
“The language question, stupid!” is the short answer – to borrow from Bill Clinton’s advisor, who coined the famous “The economy, stupid!” as the Democrat’s central campaign slogan – and this should be any Education Minister’s central campaign slogan on how to improve the education system.
In order to make a comparison, we looked for all countries in the PISA study with populations either less than Mauritius or more than Mauritius by not more than 5 times. There are 21 in this category of “small population countries” that do better than Mauritius. What difference is there? It’s easy: they almost all teach in the mother tongue. (The countries with big populations that do better than Mauritius obviously all have mother tongue medium, too.) See the list below of those countries with relatively small populations that have, in fact, done better than Mauritius. All of them, with two exceptions, use the mother tongue as medium of instruction. That is the difference. The only exceptions are Singapore and Trinidad & Tobago, which use English. Here, there is an important difference between these two countries and Mauritius. There, English is at least a living lingua franca or vernacular – what people use between communities at the Post Office, on the bus, or during medical consultations – unlike Mauritius, where the lingua franca is Mauritian Kreol.
Costa Rica - 4.9 million population – medium is Spanish
Croatia – 4 million – medium is Croatian
Denmark – 5 million – medium is Danish
Estonia – 1.2 million – medium is Estonian
Finland – 5 million – medium is Finnish
Iceland – 300,000 – medium is Icelandic
Ireland – 5 million – medium is 70% Gaelic in the Gaelic-speaking areas, English in the rest where English is mother-tongue.
Latvia – 2 million – medium is Latvian
Liechtenstein – 37,000 – medium is German
Lithuania – 3 million – medium is Lithuanian
Luxembourg – 500,000 – medium is Letzeburgesch, then German from Form I.
Macao-China – 575,000 – Cantonese medium.
Malta – 500,000 – medium is Maltese and English
Montenegro; 600,000 is Montenegran
New Zealand – 5 million – medium is English (home language of vast majority)
Norway – 5 million – medium is Norwegian
Singapore – 5.5 million – medium is English (note that vernacular there is English)
Slovak Republic – 5 million – medium is Slovakian
Slovenia – 2 million – medium is Slovenian
Trinidad and Tobago – 1.3 million – medium is English (note that there the vernacular is English)
Uruguay - 3.4 million – Medium is Spanish
Ms Harelle, blind to the advantages of mother tongue medium for high-level multi-lingual education, says, other languages than the mother tongue are “beaucoup plus utiles que le kreol qu’on parle deja a la maison.”
Talking of utility, it would be useful for Ms. Harelle, and the Minister too for that matter, to read the studies that show the harm done to children by the suppression in schools of the mother tongue that they “parle deja a la maison”. The International Hearing on the Harm Done to Children by the Suppression of the Mother Tongue in Schools held by LPT in 2009 showed in its findings that the harm is cognitive as well as emotional. In fact, suppressing the mother tongue is extremely harmful. Which is why Mauritian Kreol should become the medium for teaching of mathematics, science, and all content subjects for at least the first 6-8 years of school. English, after being taught as a subject from the first to the fourth year, can be used as medium for teaching Music or Physical Education which are not linguistically demanding subjects in Std 5. Only after 6 to 8 years of studying English, can English be used as a medium. Other European and Oriental languages can be introduced as subjects, of course. And children whose scaffolding in their mother-tongue development is solid and developed to a high level will be able to transfer their linguistic skills quite easily to other languages, and think in any language much better than than those hurled too soon into a non-mother-tongue medium.
Alain Ah-Vee, Anne-Marie Joly and Lindsey Collen
For Ledikasyon pu Travayer, 25 August, 2015.