This was Lindsey Collen’s speech, given in Kreol, on “The State of the Kreol Language Today” on 28 October at LPT’s The Book Lover. The write-up also relies upon her notes. [Lightly edited for typos on 31 October 2017 at 19:24 am] It was part of the LPT celebrations of the launch of one year of blossoming of the Kreol language.
My talk will be in two related halves: first on the Kreol language, and then on writing in the language. And some on the link between the two.
The Kreol Language
It might seem a far-fetched place to start, but I’m starting in Nicaragua. There, in 1977, there was a revolution that overthrew a dictator. In the freedom that followed, deaf children were for the first time brought together in schools for the deaf. They began to be taught finger-spelling, but were also seen to be what the teachers called “miming”. So, in 1986, an MIT team was called in to help by teaching American Sign Language (ASL). It was in the times of video-filming and the children were filmed throughout.
What the scientists realized was that the children had already in 1986 created a kind of pidgin language. They were fascinated. And went ahead with their formal teaching of ASL. To their amazement, the children, while learning this laboriously, at the same time created a new language – a language that was complete in every way – from the time they spent together (alone) in the bus, in the school-grounds, during games, break and so on. So, by being hurled together in a school, they created a new language.
This confirms the way Kreol languages were born.
Kreol languages differ from all the other families in that they were created in a short time. They are born of a fracture, a total break, often a huge catastrophe, and not from a slow-moving continuum.
The fracture causing the break in Mauritius was when people from East Africa, West Africa, Madagascar, Batavia, India were all hurled together to work as coachmen, dockers, loaders and helpers, carriers, labourers in the fields, skilled craftsmen, domestic workers, in Mauritius. The adults soon cobbled together a Pidgin. And the very first generation of children turned this Pidgin into a fully fledged language, Mauritian Kreol, which has remained remarkably stable ever since.
So, why does this happen, in the case of children in Nicaragua in 1986 and children in 18th Century Mauritius? It happens because human language is not just a “means of communication” that the cliche we use every day claims it is. Language is our means of understanding the world around us, and our inner feelings, and even our thoughts. It is through our language instinct that we understand the past, present and future as they flow, that we understand causality, that we can consider relative differences. Through language we have an understanding in abstract form of all the world outside of ourselves and within ourselves. Humans are defined by having language. If we cannot hear, we invent sign language. If we can hear, we invent spoken language. But we need to be together. We can’t learn language alone. Ever. And the only humans that can invent new languages quickly are children. Adults are laborious at it, and do not completely succeed, but end up with a pidgin.
So, some 25 years ago, Mauritian Kreol was born. Suddenly. And the catastrophe that caused its birth was slavery. Slave society produced a new language. And it is a precious inheritance that we have. It is, in a way, doing very well 250 years later. And it will go on doing well on condition that new cohorts of children go on speaking it naturally in break, in the playground, in the busses and mini-busses, all around the country – naturally.
And here is the rub. Because schools ban written Kreol as medium and teach content subjects through two languages not natural to 95% of children in Mauritius, English and French – of all absurd things. Science, Maths, Geography and History are taught in these languages of the colonizer. Now, the problem starts fairly recently. School is now compulsory. This is a good thing. But if the language policy does not change, it can threaten our mother-tongue.
Because of this gross repression of Kreol in schools, we find that pre-schools and parents – both jointly and severally – believe in good faith that it will help the children in their charge if they were to give them a good start in some French and English before they even get to school. So, they start repressing Kreol. Don’t say lakaz, they say. Say mezon (or maybe lamezon, they can’t quite decide and thus vacillate). Then this means "there goes all the precision of Kreol grammar", where lakaz means maison and lakaz la means la maison. What then is lamaison? or even maison? Is it “house” or “the house”. Nobody knows. That means the parents and pre-school teachers, well-meaning though they may be, are teaching a pidgin. Not a language. Don’t say “vini”, they say, say “vien”. But then what happens to the Kreol grammar of “Vinn lakaz” (with a double nn at the end) or “Eski u pu vini?” It’s all confused.
So, parents and pre-school teachers are inflicting harm on the natural development of human language in the children in their charge, thinking they are sparing them harm that the State will later inflict upon them. Raymond Williams explained how this happened in Wales. What people referred to as “Mothers stopping speaking Welsh to their children”, was in fact a new British Regulation that it was illegal in the 1920s to use Welsh in schools!
But under the surface of the well-meaning actions of pre-school teachers and of parents, there is something sinister. The very same slavery catastrophe that caused Kreol in the first place was in fact a legal framework for labour law, and it transmogrified into the legal framework of indenture and then into the modern wage-slave legal framework of labour law. But the catastrophe is not possible without thought-control. So, ideas are a strong part of class domination – from slavery until today. And one of these ideas is that the colonizers’ language is superior, and this is “because” (and here the racist idea comes in) they are a superior class. If you scratch the surface of the banning of Kreol as written medium in schools, this is what you find. Pure colonial class superiority nonsense. French is supposed to be superior. English is supposed to be superior.
So, people adapt, not by the brave path of challenging this lie. But, by trying, as Fanon so succinctly pointed out, to become the superior class: the English colonizer, the French colonizer. And this is still where we are stuck. True liberation thus comes from refusing to accept the oppressor’s logic, and outright opposing it. Our Kreol language is perfect. As a language it is perfect. Maybe, for its brief history, it is better than perfect. Without going into detail on this last point: older languages are weighed down by centuries of class and gender prejudice that Kreol does not get weighed down by.
Just as speaking a language is natural to all humans – their mother tongue – so the exact opposite is true for writing. For writing you have to have formal instruction. And that is it.
Language, because it is natural, is what we think with. It is what we develop our minds in. It is the conceptualization of the world into something abstract – and which comes naturally to human beings. Now the importance of writing is that it helps organize thinking. It helps storing information and analyses to integrate them later. It is a powerful tool. It advances, formalizes, preserves our language over time. So writing is what often saves a language from destruction. Take note that languages do not “die out”. They get destroyed. By what? By a State apparatus that promotes someone else (who says they are superior)’s language. So writing is vital. But it is not the same thing as the language.
Let’s cast a glance at developments in written Kreol.
There is much progress. This week there are the first-ever school leaving exams in a subject called Kreol Morisien. This means some 20,000 pupils have been through one-to-six years of learning Kreol as a subject. It means their siblings and parents, their teachers and whole social environment know about this, and accept it. So let us look at the dynamics of this.
As you know, police officers have for as long as Kreol has existed, taken down statements in Kreol. They write it any old which way. But once it is in schools, when LPT had a meeting in Casernes with the Assistant Commissioner and a whole lot of top officers, who were considering a course in Kreol at a University, the representative of the CID said that soon these kids would be refusing to put a signature to the police officers’ “badly spelt” witness statements.
Of course, outside the State production has been much more than within the State. There have been brilliant plays written, poetry, stories, novels even. There is a substantial oeuvre now. Not enough, but it exists. Between zero and what we have there is an immense increase. Look at the title on the poster behind me “40 Poet”, is the title of a book. We noted that, and this is so shocking that the ideas that live on from colonialism and are still so strong, that when the book was published, the Press all called the book “40 Poem”. As though without an acute accent on the existing “e” and without an “e” after the “t” and an “s” for the plural [referring to the French “poétes”] it could not be 40 people, but only 40 poems. As one friend put it, a book of FIVE poets is a lot of poets, let alone 40! Imagine that. A book with 40 different people’s poem in Kreol in it.
Meanwhile, there are people who have been analysing the contemporary world – history as it passes through us to the future – in written Kreol. And this for 40 years. I refer to the Revi LALIT, that has come out since 1976 – on average once every two months – and when it was not coming out, there was Lagazet Lalit de klas, a newspaper coming out. It too in 120 issues, of 1,000 copies each or sometimes 2,000. And inbetween there have been perhaps 500 leaflets, each in 200 – 10,000 copies. There have been hundreds of posters. And LALIT’s documentation centre has – Kisna verified for me this morning – exactly 18,141 documents in Kreol in it. LALIT’s site is the site with the most Kreol in it in the world – any Kreol. And universities all over the place are studying it. So, congratulations from LPT, as an association to LALIT, the party, for this!
Other parties contribute. There was the MMMSP. The MMM even had one or two things in Kreol. Les Verts has Kreol publications, even a newspaper. The Rezistans and Muvman Premye Me, have leaflets in Kreol.
And it is not just LPT that has produced in Kreol. There are other organizations. Playgroup, Terre de Paix, Muvman Liberasyon Fam, Muvman Lakaz, Intersindikal, Abaim, many unions, Bambous Health Project, BEC (now SEDEC). And individual artists, as we have said.
LPT is 40, as you know, this year. But it was only after 20 years or so of our existence that we realized something important. In fact, it was in LALIT that this came as a kind of epiphany. Ram Seegobin got it. We used, for the first 20 or so years of our existence, to think that introducing Kreol was an “advantage” for children, that it “helped in exams”, that it helped the working class, less exposed to English and French, and so on. As everyone still thinks, to a great extent. But we realized, as we realized that Kreol was our means of thinking, that if the mother tongue is suppressed by the State, as it is indeed, that the State is inflicting damage on us and our children. Inflicting damage. This is serious. So, it took us nearly 10 years to get to our Tribunal. We called it a Hearing in the end – so as not to make well-intentioned parents and teachers feel their backs against a wall. A hearing into the harm done to children by the suppression of the mother tongue in schools. And the findings were overwhelming. Here is the enlarged poster of the cover of these Findings. 50 people came forward to give evidence from the public. Teachers and parents – some pleading for pardon for the damage they felt they had done – gave evidence. Five former-Ministers gave evidence. the MES sent evidence. And our experienced panel – an international panel – found that there was grave harm being done by the suppression of the mother tongues in school. The damage was:
in terms of human rights
in terms of income to be received in later life.
So, we see that writing in Kreol is important. That is why in LPT we put so much store by it.
We meanwhile write. We produce. We publish. But we also mobilize to force the State to stop harming children.
After LPT’s Hearing, very quickly the National Forum-Debate was organized by Minister Bunwaree, the Akademi Kreol Morisien was set up, the Lortograf Kreol Morisien and Gramer were published. The MIE Unit was set up. Teachers were trained. A subject was introduced. And for 6 years has been taught.
But that is not enough. All the forces of reaction, all the forces hidden in the establishment want Kreol to stay put where it is. They want it limited to where it is. They want it imprisoned just where it is. They want no further development. They will claim all manner of “technical” difficulties. They will change the subject. They will say there are no this and there are no that, as though it is impossible to remedy the situation.
We have to fight every inch of the way.
That is why on Monday at 10:30 am LPT had a delegation meeting with the Ombudsperson for Children. We put emphasis on the continuing harm being done to children in schools through the suppression of their mother tongue. We talked of the psychological violence, as well as the cognitive impairment. We are calling for inclusion in the Children’s Bill of the right to the mother tongue as medium in schools.
And it is the right time, right now for us to produce a lot of good work in Kreol this next one year. So, LPT is launching a “lane epanwisman an Kreol”. In particular, we are calling for translations of classic texts (novellas and stories) for adolescents in particular. Because we now have a potential of 20,000 readers eagerly waiting to become lovers of reading. The first such batch ever in Mauritius.
At the same time, we continue the struggle. Our three aims for the next 12 months –
- that Kreol be introduced as one of the languages in Parliament.
- that Kreol be used as medium (dual medium with English) in schools for Mathematics and Science
- that our association’s collective memories (our minutes) not be illegal when kept in Kreol.
So, we hereby together launch this one year of joyful creation in Kreol.