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Language: For Thinking? or for Rote-Learning?


Things are changing at last. So that there is now at least one line in Prof. Surendra Bisoondoyal's article in L'Express on 4 January on the language issue that I can agree with. But it's unfortunately only at the level of his words. Not what he actually means. It's not only him, but also almost everyone who has supported the status quo on the language issue in the past, who have now reversed on to this same line: "There is no doubt," he says, "that teaching young children in a foreign language will hamper their understanding and development." Agreed. You may think LALIT and others promoting the use of the mother tongue in schools have won him over. But, no. Not quite yet. He only feigns capitulation. What he actually means, when you read his article is that it suffices for schools to use the mother tongues orally only, and to do this only in the first few years of primary school - something which was not even outlawed by the repressive Education Regulations of 1957 in any case! So, he supports the status quo.

This is the new line of the reaction. And we will soon learn to spot it a mile away. They say this, while they believe that. They sometimes deform the meaning of the word "medium" in order to get by, pretending it means each teacher just does impromptu translations of English printed material into Kreol. And then they accuse us of trying to push open an already open door, because all teachers already do this!

But this new line of argument should not give people a licence to ignore all the research done. Nor to hide behind vague assertions. The use of the mother tongue orally only is just not enough. In fact, it is not only not enough, but it implies, assuming they are in good faith, that they are suffering from a misunderstanding, a misunderstanding of what human language actually is. They are trapped in the cliché that "language is a means of communication" only. They miss the point that children's language is their natural means of thinking. They miss the point that excellent English and French, come from building upon a child's excellent mother tongue proficiency to a high level of literacy and linguistic competency. And it has been proved.

And they cannot face the fact that what is necessary is something very specific and clear: mother-tongue based multilingualism. (Note that the definition of "multilingualism" is competence in your own language plus others.)

Surendra Bisoondoyal refers vaguely to "the present debate". But he was himself, like rather too many of the other commentators and even policy-makers, not present at any of the recent debates: not at the Public Lecture given by Prof. Skutnabb-Kangas at the MIE, nor at the one by Prof. Beban Sammy Chumbow at the Municipal Chamber in Port Louis, nor that given by Prof. Robert Phillipson at the University of Mauritius. And he seems blissfully unaware of what hundreds of people were discussing at the talks. There are other teachers and other intellectuals who seem to relish their ignorance. They display it. Article after article in the press, radio talk after talk, has them parading their outdated ideas.

Prof. Bissoondoyal was not present at any time at the Ledikasyon pu Travayer Hearing into the Harm Done by the Suppression in Schools of the Mother Tongues. The moving testimonies might have humbled him. Nor does he reply to the Findings of the Hearing, available on the web at and written about in The Guardian Weekly of 11 December.

In his article, he does not confront Prof. Jim Cummins, the world expert on the advantages of using written mother tongue for as long as possible in school, and oppose his research which proves it. That would be the scientific way to proceed. In fact, he seems unaware of this work. It is available on the web. Nor does he confront the world-famous theoretical linguist, Derek Bickerton, who testified by DVD film for the Hearing, and who could give him the latest thinking on what human language actually is. Prof. Bissoondoyal could have kept up with the latest thinking in the Academy of African Languages so easily when the Vice-President, Prof. Chumbow was in the country.

So, the three questions that Surendra Bissoondoyal poses in his article, though reasonable questions all three, are replied to by him through a rather thick veil of ignorance about the recent research and thinking. Let's answer the three questions properly.

Prof Bissoondoyal's Question One: Do we need the mother tongue as written medium, not just resorted to orally as a support language?

The first thing to clear up is that at least 92% of children's mother tongues are Kreol and/or Bhojpuri.

On the question of the use of the written mother tongue, it is addressed in the work of Jim Cummins. He has shown (and it has been repeated in longitudinal studies all over the globe for the past 20 years) that there are two kinds of linguistic proficiency a child develops. One is OK for ordinary daily communication and for rote-learning. It is now commonly known as BICS or Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills. This level of proficiency is something a child can acquire through the erroneous language policy used in Mauritius. The other level of proficiency, CALP, or Cognitive-Academic Language Proficiency, develops well when the mother-tongue is used for teaching both literacy and content subjects, as full medium.

An important new thing to note is that it is not only the so-called slow-learners who are suffering, but all children. The strange U-Curve that the MES studies show in examination results, indicates that too many children fail - and this is clearly because they have developed little or no proficiency in their subjects - and rather many "do well" by means of pure rote-learning, which is what is being tested for.

When little children first go to school, they can already speak in Kreol and sometimes in Bhojpuri, too. What they can speak about are the concrete things around them in face-to-face situations in their own environment and where the context is evident. They can speak about what they can see and touch. And they get an immediate reply when they misunderstand something: "Pa sak la. Mo pe rod ti tant la." They speak fluently, in natural rhythms, and they have a good accent and know all the basic grammar and already have a fair vocabulary of concrete words. They can explain all their basic needs in Kreol. This is what basic interpersonal communicative skills (BICS) means. This level of language proficiency may suffice for lower primary, while teachers are still talking about things the children know. But later in primary school, children need to handle concepts that are abstract, concepts that are intellectually and linguistically much more demanding; they need to be able to understand and talk about things in geography and history that are not in the here-and-now; they need to be able to converse in other subjects about things that are "invisible", like magnetism, minus 5, the truth, a law, fairness and democracy. They need to be able to solve problems without having recourse to concrete reality, and by using only language and abstract reasoning ( "Si dabor mo fer A, lerla swa D ubyen E arive; Si apre sa mo swazir M, kapav-et X arive, me posib ki Y osi arive; alor mo bizin konsider fer B ubyen C plito ki A" . The cognitive-academic language proficiency (CALP) that is needed to manage from standard 3 onwards in school, then in secondary and tertiary education, develops slowly. Children need to develop 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, children may never have an opportunity to develop higher abstract thinking in any language. It is possible they will pass exams where there is enough rote-learning. But they will not be at ease dealing with high-level abstract academic matter.

If teaching is in a foreign language like English or French, children end up sitting in class for the first 2-3 years without understanding much of the teaching. They will just repeat mechanically what the teacher says, without developing their capacity to think-in-their-natural-language, and without learning almost any content. This is why many Kreol-speaking children leave school early, not having learned much English or French, not having learned properly how to read and write, not having developed their mother tongue, and almost without any school knowledge. It is also why those who do pass and do well do it through rote-learning that they acquire in private lessons with experts in "getting results", but without the ability to write an argument or even an analysis.

If teachers teach in a language that is their mother tongue and the children's, the children understand what is being transmitted, learn the content, develop the CALP in Kreol, and have very good chances of becoming a thinking, knowledgeable person who can continue education, including learning other languages to an equally high level.

Prof Bissoondoyal's Question Two: For how long do we need to use the mother tongue as main medium?

A world renowned academic, Kathleen Heugh (2009) poses the question how long it takes to learn a foreign or second language before you can use it as medium for teaching, and, listing many studies, writes: "From 1953 to the mid 1980s, most literacy/language education specialists thought that it would be possible to provide early literacy (learning to read) in the mother tongue and switch to a second or foreign language (reading to learn) by years 2 or 3. We now know from comprehensive studies in Scandinavia, Australia, Russian Federation, India, North America, and, especially in Africa that it takes 6 - 8 years to learn enough of a second language to be able to learn through the second language".

What we need is mother-tongue-based multilingual education. What is this? It is something very specific and clear: it is "education where the children's mother tongues are officially used as the languages of instruction, initially in all subjects. Foreign languages are introduced as subjects, first orally, later also in writing." Some teaching can be done through the medium of these foreign languages after three years as a subject, initially in subjects which are not intellectually or linguistically demanding (e.g. physical education, music, etc) and where the children can use the context to understand the teaching. Children should NOT be taught through the medium of these foreign languages in intellectually or linguistically demanding subjects (e.g. history, science, mathematics) before they have studied these languages at least 6 to 7 years as subjects and before they have had at least 3 to 4 years of teaching through these languages in "easy" subjects. In this way, children go from the known (the mother tongue) to the unknown, from the "easy" more concrete subjects/ concepts/ knowledge, to more demanding subjects/ concepts/ knowledge. They can build all further knowledge on what they already know. They can use the common underlying proficiency (CUP) for all languages. It is easier, for instance, to learn to read and write in a language that one knows; children need to learn reading only once, the realisation of the relationship between what one hears and what one sees on a page, needs to come only once, and is then easily transferred to other languages. Mother-Tongue Based Multi-Lingual Education is a secure way to ensuring that children learn 2-3-4 languages at a high level.

Prof Bissoondoyal's Question Three: How do we relate internationally?

LALIT agrees with Prof. Bissoondoyal that English is an important world language. We think Mandarin, Arabic, Spanish and Hindi are also very important at an international level. We want children to be able to learn these and other languages. French is also very important both internationally and in Mauritius. But the point is that all the studies show that children's results in these foreign languages are better when the children learn through the full medium of the mother tongue, the longer the better. So, it is really strange that people continue to pretend it is either/or.

What we suggest is that a mother-tongue-based multi-lingual education program in Mauritius should teach English as a SECOND language, as a subject, from standard 1 or 2. The teachers know both the children's mother tongue and English, so it is not difficult. They just have to have a course in written Kreol, and Kreol grammar. In the CALP part of language, much is shared in the mother tongue and English (and other additional languages such as French, Hindi, etc). 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 learned many abstract concepts in the mother tongue, he or she just needs to learn the "labels", new words for them in English; they already know the concepts. In this way, only 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 (CUP). When children develop this proficiency in the language they know best, the mother tongue, it is easily transferred to other languages. And when the children are already high-level bilingual in the mother tongue and English, they learn French and other languages faster and better than if they start French assuming it is their language. All research studies in the world show that the longer the child has the mother tongue as the main medium of education, the better children learn the subjects and the better they also become in English and French. The number of years in mother tongue-medium education is also more important for the child's results than the parents' socio-economic status.

So, all three questions are answered, from a scientific point of view. Not just by casting vague aspersions against Seychelles, nor by flattering Singapore. In fact, Prof. Bissoondoyal's examples are both inappropriate and also poorly argued. Inappropriate, because countries like Holland and Sweden would be better examples to take, where they produce the highest level of foreign language competence, compared with his examples of Singapore and Seychelles. And poorly argued because Singapore is a hideous police state, and Seychelles has rather higher literacy rates than Mauritius since the use in education of the written mother tongue there. He does not quote any studies, strange to say.

As Prof. Skutnabb-Kangas has pointed out: Many studies in India show that children in English-medium private schools initially know English better than children in mother tongue medium government schools. But by the end of the 8th year, 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 conclusion, perhaps we can quote from the Findings in the LPT Hearing, "Mother-tongue based 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."

Lindsey Collen

Written on 9 Jan 2010.
Sources: Submissions and Findings of LPT Hearing, 2009