The MES discovery that children are leaving primary school unable to generate written ideas is shocking. The question is why? And what might this mean?
HOW HARD IT IS TO GRASP A NEW IDEA
It is well known that most of us don't accept new ideas easily. When people ask Lalit members what we think about language in education, we can reply one thing and people happily understand something else. Often they "hear" what they expected to hear. And this was based on what people say we say, not on what we say.
So, here goes. In plain English.
Let's start with the concept of "language", itself. This is the key. When we say "language", we are talking about "human language", not any of the thousands of existing different languages on the planet. We are talking about our genetic capacity, as human beings, to be able, collectively, to generate language.
WHAT IS LANGUAGE?
So, let's look at the question "What is language?" Most people would say "Language is a means of communication". We say, "Fatal error! Language is not just a means of communication." We say this popular phrase is a misleading cliche. In turn, it leads to a mountain of subsequent conceptual errors and policy traps. A useful side-effect of language is certainly that it is a means of communication. But that is not what language is. It is much more than just that.
"Language" is a genetically handed-down form of representation of the outside world, of our thoughts and of our feelings, in our brains(1). This capacity to represent the world comes naturally to humans, on condition they live in society with other humans. And it is this representation of external and internal reality in each individual that, in fact, permits us to think, understand, care, create. Language is not just a means of communication, like a telephone. Nor is it some well-developed, highly evolved system of shrieking, laughing, crying out or bellowing. Language is the natural means of our shared understanding of the world. It is a kind of template, to use a computer metaphor. The more proficient we get in using our natural language, the better we think. In turn, the better we think, the more proficient our natural language ability gets.
In this way, language is the essence of our humanity, and, importantly, it manifests itself only when we live in society. Which is why we say it is "shared".
Language is thus a natural, inborn feature of each human. When we are between the ages of, say, one and five years old, our capacity for individual language production is at its most active. So much so that, should we fail to learn to generate "language" until after this age, we may never learn all its grammatical niceties properly. This has been seen to be true in the few "foundling" children, brought up outside of human society, and who never learn to use language well. Our language-generation capacity continues to operate in a highly mobile natural form until puberty, after which it slows down.
IS THERE A HIERARCHY OF LANGUAGES?
Imperial nations invariably pronounce the languages in their colonies "inferior". This is not because the languages are, in fact, inferior, but because the people who speak them are being treated as inferior. Just as there is not a hierarchy of races or religions, so there is no hierarchy of languages.
All languages are equal. Not because of anyone's hollow opinion, but because linguists in universities study the grammars of languages and find them not to be in any hierarchy.
Today it is rightly considered unethical, even taboo, even to pose the question "Is your language inferior to mine?" and it is considered being "colonized" to pose the question "Is my language inferior to yours?"
The definition of a "dialect" by a group of the most distinguished of linguistics professors is "A language without an army"(2). Either one speaks the same language (with perhaps regional variations) as another person, or one speaks a different language.
For the Creole languages, the prejudice has been even worse. Not just inferior. Not just a dialect. The old-garde colonialists think Creole languages are charabia, baragouin(3), gutter talk, broken French, broken English, a patois, anything but not a language.
They are wrong. They have been known for 40 years to have been scientifically wrong. But some, of course, persist. Just as others persist in believing the earth is flat.
All languages, including Creole languages, are equal.
Their literatures may differ and do differ. English literature is vastly bigger than French. French literature vastly bigger than Mauritian Kreol's. Mauritian Kreol's literature is vastly bigger than that of three-quarters of the languages existing on the planet today. This does not mean that English is superior to French, French to Mauritian Kreol, nor Mauritian Kreol to unwritten languages. Writing does not improve a "language" at all. It can enrich its literature. It can make science available to more of its speakers. Writing can, on the contrary, in certain circumstances become a straight-jacket that is so tight it kills a language off.
WHAT IS THE EDUCATION SYSTEM SUPPOSED TO DO?
The school system then comes along and, in theory, formalizes, systematizes, organizes and intellectualizes our ongoing natural language development.
It does this, in large part, through the means of teaching children to read and write. The acquisition of "literacy", unlike the generation of the mother tongue, is not natural at all. All children have to be taught to read and write otherwise they won't know how to. In turn, this new formally acquired skill called "literacy" permits the accelerated development of what we can call academic and cognitive language proficiency(4), which takes place in a dialectical relationship with the ever-growing natural language (or mother-tongue) proficiency.
The school system also teaches mathematics. It is best taught in the natural language of the child. Anything else is madness. It means you are inadvertently introducing fences for the child to jump over before even getting to the mathematics.
The school system also teaches us about our universe: science, history, geography, social studies, literature. It does this best through the natural language of the child, that is to say the mother tongue, which in turn becomes more proficient as a representation of the world outside us.
Good education systems, unlike those in the USA for example, also introduce all children to second and third languages.
With the best of education, the second and third (even up to 10 and beyond) languages only ever really develop to the level of proficiency of the natural language or mother tongue. If the mother tongue is suppressed in school (for example, by absence of textbooks in the mother tongue), the child's learning of other languages is handicapped.
When the mother tongue is suppressed, more importantly, its own development is also hampered. And when the mother-tongue is suppressed, the natural development of intelligence is severely damaged. Expert linguists estimate that it takes SEVEN YEARS at post-graduate level to undo this damage. Lalit has witnesses who have done very well at school in Mauritius, despite the system, who say it took them six years of fairly conscious effort before they were equally at ease as their other university friends abroad, at manipulating concepts, abstract thoughts, philosophical debates, questions of logic and so on.
WHY HAS THE MES FOUND CHILDREN SO UNSKILLED?
Main reason: Because the mother tongue is suppressed and thus interfering with natural cognitive development and failing at formal academic development. The school system thus risks doing more mental harm than good.
WHAT MIGHT THE MES FINDINGS MEAN
The MES findings might mean that the State is guilty of "genocide", in the sense defined by the UN Treaty Against Genocide. The State is both destroying groups of people on the basis of their language by destroying what makes them a "genus" (the genus of people speaking Mauritian Kreol and Bhojpuri, i.e. the vast majority of children); it is also, and this is what this article is about, doing serious mental harm or damage to people on the grounds of the language they naturally speak. The damage is being done to our children.
Lindsey Collen, for LALIT
24 July, 2006
1 Prof Derek Bickerton's work on this subject is seminal. See his Language and Species. The ideas are also clarified by the philosopher Wittgenstein and the linguist Noam Chomsky.
2 Quoted by Prof. Tove Skuttnabb-Kangas in Language Genocide.
3 Words used at a Bible Society meeting in around 1983, by a participant firmly against the Kreol language.
4 Prof. Jim Cummins differentiates between Basic Inter-personal Communication Skills (BICS) and Cognitive and Academic Language Proficiency (CALP). See his website.