At the International Hearing on the "Harm Done in Schools by the Suppression of the Mother Tongue", organized by Ledikasyon pu Travayer, in Port Louis, Mauritius, from 20-24 October 2009, the International Panel found that "there was no doubt from the evidence adduced that grievous emotional and psychological damage is inflicted upon the children" by the suppression of their mother tongues. The mother tongues are mainly Mauritian Kreol, and also Mauritian Bhojpuri, which, taken together, were found by the panel to be spoken by over 90% of the people and yet not used in schools as medium.
The seven-member panel consisted of Prof. Robert Phillipson, linguist famous for his Linguistic Imperialism", who chaired, Vidya Golam, writer and teacher, Prof. Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, linguist famous for her 800-page book Linguistic Genocide in Education or Worldwide Diversity and Human Rights , Prof. Beban Sammy Chumbow, Vice-Chair of the African Union's African Academy of Languages, Prof. Vinesh Hookoomsing, former Pro Vice-Chancellor of the University of Mauritius, Med Moti, former administrator in education, and Jean-Claude Bibi, barrister and former Minister of Justice.
They heard over 50 witnesses from all walks of life: as diverse as from four former ministers to a little girl pupil of 6, from teachers at all levels in schools to adult literacy students, from Mauritian Sign Language witnesses to mothers, and there were also submissions also from Institutions like the Ombudsperson for Children, Ms. Shirinn Aumeeruddy-Cziffra, the Mauritius Examinations Syndicate and the National Human Rights Commission. One teacher, Patrick Ramdhony said "I plead guilty" to having, as a teacher for all those years, "done harm by implementing official language policy". Another teacher said he was an "accomplice" in causing the harm. A mother said she would never have forced her child to go into a Francophone environment, had she known the damage it did. Highly educated people gave evidence of their having suffered intellectually, and of having taken years at university to overcome the harm.
Evidence often linked corporal punishment with children's failure to understand what was being said.
In one of the appendices to the document, Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, explains why the policy should be mother-tongue-based multilingual education. She says people often ask why children should be taught mainly through the medium of their mother tongue in school for the first 6-8 years? Don't they know their mother tongue already? She explains that when children come to school, they can talk in their mother tongues about concrete everyday things in a face-to-face situation in their own environment where the context is clear: they can see and touch the things they are talking about and they get immediate feedback if they do not understand ("I didn't mean the apples, I asked you to bring bananas"). They speak fluently, with a native accent, and they know the basic grammar and many concrete words. They can explain all their basic needs in the mother tongue: they have basic interpersonal communicative skills (BICS). This may be enough for the first standards where teachers are still talking about things that the child knows. But later in school children need abstract and intellectually and linguistically much more demanding concepts; they need to be able to understand and talk about things far away (e.g. in geography, history) or things that cannot be seen (e.g. mathematical and scientific concepts, honesty, constitution, fairness, democracy). They need to be able to solve problems using just language and abstract reasoning, without being able to do concrete things ("if I first do A, then either D or E happens; if I then choose K, X may happen but Y may also happen; therefore it is best to do B or C first"). The cognitive-academic language proficiency (CALP) that is needed to manage from Standard Three onwards in school, in higher grades, upper secondary school and later in life, develops slowly. Children need to develop these abstract concepts on the basis of what they already know in their mother tongue. If the development of the mother tongue CALP (which mainly happens through formal education) is cut off when the child starts school, s/he may never have an opportunity to develop higher abstract thinking in any language.
If teaching is in a foreign power language that a Kreol-speaking child does not know (e.g. English), the child sits in the classroom the first 2-3 years without understanding much of the teaching. S/he may repeat mechanically what the teacher says, without understanding, without developing her capacity to think with the help of language, and without learning almost anything of the subjects that she is taught. This is why many Kreol-speaking children leave school early, not having learned much English, not having learned properly how to read and write, not having developed their mother tongue, and almost without any school knowledge.
If the child has the mother tongue, here Kreol, as the teaching language, s/he understands the teaching, learns the subjects, develops the Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency in the mother tongue, and has very good chances of becoming a thinking, knowledgeable person who can continue their education.
Parents want children to learn English (and French). If children are taught mainly through their mother tongue the first many years, how do they learn English (and French)? This is a question often asked by parents.
All Mother-tongue-based Multi-Lingual Education programmes should teach English as a SECOND language subject from grade 1 or 2. The teachers know both the children's mother tongue and English. In the CALP part of language, much is shared in the Mother Tongue and English (and other additional languages such as French). The child needs to learn reading and writing only once in life, and it is easiest to learn it in a language that one knows well. When the child has understood the relationship between what one hears and speaks, and the reading/writing system, in the mother tongue, this can easily be transferred to other languages (even if the script may be different). When the child has learned many abstract concepts in the Mother Tongue, s/he just needs to learn the "labels", new words for them in English; s/he already knows the concepts (even if there are, of course, cultural differences and nuances). In this way, only parts of the language (English) is new; the child already knows the content in various subjects (e.g. in mathematics). All languages share a common underlying proficiency. When the child develops this proficiency in the language she knows best, the Mother Tongue, it is easily transferred to other languages. And when the child is already high-level bilingual in the Mother Tongue and English, s/he learns French and other languages faster and better than if she starts French learning as monolingual in the MT. She needs fewer years of and less exposure to French, to learn it well. All research studies in the world show that the longer the child has the Mother Tongue as the main medium of education, the better the child learns the subjects and the better s/he also becomes in the dominant language of the country and in additional languages. The number of years in Mother Tongue-medium education is also more important for the results than the parents' socio-economic status. This means that Mother-tongue-based MultiLingual Education also supports economically poor children's school achievement.
Parents, she writes, also ask: Isn't it enough if children have the first 3 years in the MT and then the teaching can be in English?
3 years of Mother Tongue-medium teaching is much better that than having all the teaching in English, but 3 years is NOT enough. The CALP development is nowhere near a high enough level in the Mother TOngue after 3 years. 6 years in the Mother Tongue is an absolute minimum, but 8 years is better. Ethiopia, one of the poorest countries in Africa, has a decentralised education system where 8 years of mother-tongue-based Multi-Lingual Education is recommended. Some districts have chosen to have only 4 or 6 years of Mother Tongue-medium. Comparing results from the whole country, a large study shows that those who have had 8 years of mainly Mother Tongue-medium and who have studied Amharic (the dominant Ethiopian language) and English as subjects, have the best results in science, mathematics, etc, and also in English. Those with 6 years are not as good, and those who have switched to English-medium already after grade 4, have the worst results, also in English.
Parents want English-medium schools. But, what are the likely results?
Many studies in India show that children in English-medium private schools initially know English better than children in Mother Tongue or regional language medium government schools. But at the end of grade 8, the knowledge in the various subjects of the students in English-medium schools is lower than in government schools, and their English is no better. In addition, they do not know how to read or write their Mother Tongues and do not have the vocabulary to discuss what they have learned in any Indian languages. They have sacrificed knowledge of Indian languages and much of the knowledge of school subjects but they only get a proficiency in the English language that is not at a high level. This is partly because the English language competence of teachers is generally not very high, but also because the children have not been able to develop a high-level CALP, neither in the Mother Tongues nor in English.
Mother-tongue based Multi-Lingual Education for the first 6-8 years, with good teaching of English as a second language and French as a foreign/second language, and possibly other languages too, with locally based materials which respect local knowledge, seems to be a good research-based recommendation for Mauritius.
(Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, www.Tove-Skutnabb-Kangas.org)
The International Panel also noted that Mauritius is in an exceptionally favourable position when compared with virtually all other postcolonial countries. Nearly all its citizens speak one language, namely Kreol. Yet this resource for national unity and development is systematically marginalised in education. Failure to do so results in the education system failing large numbers of Mauritian children. Prejudice and ignorance about the language are widespread.
The Panel also said that a second major Mauritian advantage is that its teachers, like most of its citizens, are bilingual, if not multilingual. Most teachers, if not all, can speak Kreol. This is a great advantage.