The Progress of the Mother Tongue - Sart lor Lang Maternel (draf)
The Progress of the Mother Tongue
For many years the Lalit position on education and the use of the mother tongue remained marginal. It was deliberately marginalized and often repressed. For example during the National Seminar on Language organized by the MMM Government in 1982 34 at the University of Mauritius, the organizers prohibited the Lalit representative and others who had prepared speeches in the mother tongue, from speaking in Kreol. They even resorted to turning microphones off when Rex Stephen, Lalit representative was addressing the assembly.
Not that repression discouraged us. On the contrary, we became more determined, and continued publishing leaflets, posters, newspapers, books, magazines, program in Kreol. We have even set up a website with a lot of text in Kreol. No one would deny that Kreol has made immense progress 35. It has made progress not only for itself, but also for freedom. Today Kreol is used in all kinds of diverse places: in ads, in stand-up comedy, in literature, in films and television serials, on posters, in theatre, in the Courts of Justice, in dictionaries and on banners 36 . Even boat skippers now have an examination in Kreol. Policemen in the UK can pass a written exam in Kreol, in order to get overtime jobs as translator in the Courts when Mauritians whose English isn’t too good are called as witnesses. Many Ministries use written Kreol. Bosses have used it for their Codes of Ethics, and any number of other campaigns. LPT even has a Unit especially for translating all kinds of texts into Kreol, or perfecting someone’s orthography. And today thousands of people accept the importance of the mother tongue as medium.
The publication in 2005 of a standardized orthography, “Grafi Larmoni”, is part of this ongoing progress. This makes introduction of Kreol in schools much easier for people to imagine. All this progress is certainly in part due to the relentless political pressure that Lalit has built up, together with numerous associations and movements in favour of Kreol and Bhojpuri 38. This struggle will continue until the mother tongues get full recognition, in school, and in society as a whole.
Institutional divisions amongst children
Historically, the Catholic Church has had an important role within the national education system, and this has had two contradictory effects: a positive contribution in terms of developing the system, and also a potentially, and often real, source of division amongst pupils, on the basis or race, religion and class. These divisions have been accentuated by the ambient communalism in society as a whole.
Prior to the Church’s opposition to the Government Notice (GN) 114 39 , it had been implicitly, and even explicitly, accepted that the Church’s schools were a part of the national education system. During the course of the battle over GN 114, the Church relied on an argument to the effect that it had a “specific” type of education that it dispensed in its schools, and this position, then contributed to a long-lasting and destructive battle between Church, State and others, against the general back-ground of a country fraught with communal, language and class tensions. When Education Minister, Armoogum Parsooramen in the MMM-MSM Government set up two Select Committees 40 (with Madun Dulloo as President of one and Jean Claude de L’Estrac as President of the other), this further communalized debate from 1993 onwards. The two Select Committees were equivalent to the State offering a kind of trade-off between two very unlike objects: “Oriental languages being counted for CPE examination results” v/s “The Catholic Church being able to keep 50% of its places for its own choice of pupils” especially relevant for its “star schools” (i.e. not off the national list). This Government decision put the communalists of two “communities” on head-on collision course, and a number of collisions took place, both in mass mobilization on a communal basis, and also in Supreme Court litigation. In the first round the Church side gained important victories, so the barter seemed unfair. Then when Suttyhudeo Tengur of the Government Hindi Teachers’ Union took cases on appeal to the Privy Council in London, his side won both halves of the barter.
When S. Tengur finally won his victory and the Oriental languages could be counted for the purposes of CPE ranking (an eminently reasonable decision), then the MMM-MSM Plan that Obeegadoo came up with was one that aimed to “escape crisis by fleeing forwards” (also a good thing). He abolished ranking for CPE altogether. However, it was also rather normal that the supporters of S. Tengur should be angry, because their victory after years of struggle was suddenly a Pyrric one. So that the Gokhool Plan was finally seen by people on the S. Tengur side as being a way of salvaging some of their victory. In addition, they knew that many who had been in favour of competition before and who are in favour of competition in all other aspects of life, were suddenly very against the competition around the A+. So, around S. Tengur were people who found themselves opposing progressive measures, not so much because they were against them, but due to the weight of history around the issues. And they are not without reason in questioning the credibility of some of those who are so thoroughly against the A+.
So, the Gokhool Plan got a bit of much-needed support for a while from the reaction against a whole history of elitism that had ruined all rational debate, even more so after the 1993 Select Committees were set up.
The challenge before us today is to transcend all these weighty, past sources of division.
Failure of schools to teach literacy
Literacy is obviously key to all education. Reading and writing are skills that children have to learn, and be taught, quite consciously. This may seem self-evident, but many people confuse the acquisition of language and of literacy. Languages are acquired naturally when they are in the home and the environment, while literacy must be taught. So, the education system has a specific duty to impart literacy to children. In addition, it is also important that adults learn to read and write, when in Mauritius some half of people over 12 years old can’t read nor write according to the UNESCO quite restrictive definition.
We would like here to include a very brief outline of the thinking behind Lalit’s giving so much importance to literacy. We realize that as a person learns to read and write, he or she is also learning to put thoughts and words that were part of them, out there into the world 41 . This process then, in turn, contributes to one’s ability to learn to think in an organized way, to be able to analyze one’s own and others’ thoughts. Language, once in written form, is not just for communication, but intrinsically linked with learning to understand the world. We develop a new capacity, which we cannot develop very far very easily without literacy. We learn a new language proficiency altogether, not just ordinary interpersonal communication 42 skills. Knowledge, science, analysis, intellectual creativity, all of this develops through this new capacity to handle language at a high level, a level that surpasses that of daily communication.
In schools in Mauritius, unfortunately this capacity to handle language at a high level is not developed at all. We go through primary, secondary and tertiary education, without developing this high level language proficiency. We just learn enough reading and writing for daily communication. Taken together with suppression of the natural language of the child in the education system, this actually stunts the development of high-level language proficiency. In fact, our LPT colleagues tell us that adult literacy students who have never been to school almost inevitably have better developed language skills than those who have been to school for six or seven years.
The concept that we have two different language skills (one for ordinary communication, and another for cognitive academic development that is linked to literacy), in turn, has further significance for us in Lalit. It is through intellectual work on the part of large masses of people in any given society that permits them to be able to challenge the dominant ideology 43 , which keeps such a huge majority of people living under the yoke of others. If the broad masses are not increasingly conscious, that is to say that all of us are not in a process of increasingly understanding quite abstract concepts, then it is not easy for people to understand and contribute to the kind of common understanding of the way in which we can change society that is a necessary precondition to changing it.
If now we take this idea together with Paolo Freire’s idea that literacy (adult literacy, and also that of children), if the process works well, is a process of reading the world, not just the word, and of writing a new world, not just taking other peoples’ words at face value. Literacy is not just reading words, but understanding the world by means of working with ideas about the world 44 . While an adult is learning, there is a process whereby he or she also, at the same time, teaches the teacher new ways of seeing the world, thus multiplying the learning experience.
Literacy as it is taught in schools, even more so when it is in a language the child does not understand, is an extremely minimal skill. It does not involve the liberation that true literacy brings.
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