Are we not “world” enough?

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English is, by any definition of the term, the world language today. Call me compliant to the hegemony of the Anglophone world, or accuse me of being a Macaulite (he who claimed that “English is better worth knowing than Sanskrit or Arabic”). Flagellate me, if you would – but I firmly hold my ground on this.

I cannot deny that the English language came to us, as to many other countries of the world, through colonization – and therefore carries a connotation of “oppression” through this association. Nor can I turn a blind eye to the fact that, in countries like ours, English is often associated with the elite and the privileged. Those with a certain amount of economic and social mobility, who are able to procure themselves the best kind of education to increase their chances of acquiring better English, and those who lead cosmopolitan lives in which they hob-nob with people whose first language is English.

And yet, to reject English in this day and age would be quasi-suicidal. For, despite the apparent “unfairness” connoted through its origins and its linkages, English has been, and remains, the language of international relations and diplomacy (it is one of the official languages of organizations such as the United Nations), academic research (research papers written in other languages are often translated in English for wider dissemination), of the popular culture that percolates the world over, as well as of global travel and trade (for example, in view of improving aviation safety standards, it is now an official prerequisite that pilots should be conversant in the English language).

All of the above clearly point towards how English has become the indispensable social capital that ascertains economic, political and social credence for any country on the world stage – hence my use of the appellation “world language” for English.

Today, more than ever, Mauritius needs to open up to the usefulness of the English language with – among other things – the development and expansion of the offshore sector in the country. In fact, I would argue that Mauritius indeed needs to capitalize on its ability to function in English, along with other languages, in order to secure its spot as a “redoubtable” player in the offshore sector on the world stage.

However, as data collated from the recent CPE results, as well as the SC and HSC results of the past few years show, the level of English literacy in the country has gradually and consistently been dwindling. Relevant educational authorities have often admitted this, and expressed concern on public platforms about how the poor standard of English in the country does not bode well for the future of Mauritius. And yet, rather than tackling the problem, we are brushing the problem under the carpet by looking for alternatives that skirt, rather than address the problem. The proposal, by the Honourable Minister of Education, to introduce bilingual questionnaires for CPE examinations, is one such instance of skirting.

Don’t get me wrong. My problem is not so much the introduction of bilingualism at curricular level. I speak six languages myself and I have been a firm supporter of the initiative by the Minister to introduce more languages in our educational system. What baffles me, however, is the utter inability of the Ministry to introduce any measure that specifically addresses the problem of the poor level of English literacy in the country.Does introducing bilingual questionnaires automatically translate into overall improved quality of educational performance? This might even have been an understandable measure, had the level of French been widely better than English in the country, but can teachers and mentors vouch for the same in this case?

In a perceptive assessment of the importance of the choice of teaching medium, especially in primary education, Oliver Stegen states: “In order for primaryschool teachers to provide a successful learning experience to the child, they have to build on the known foundation of the language and experience of the child.”

Given the pot-pourri quality of our linguistic demography, however, neither English, nor indeed French truly fulfi lls this role for Mauritian children. The languages which arguably do – notably Creole and Bhojpuri – are not (yet?) developed enough to be able to carry the complexity of ideas and notions that need to be imparted through education. Which therefore brings us back to the choice between English and French.

Given the increasing global appeal of the English language, should we not attempt to ensure that we are in step with the world, which acquiesces the usefulness of the English language? Or are we not “world” enough?

A student of Raoul Rivet Govt School collecting her CPE results on 11th December 2013.

The recent CPE results as well as those of the SC and HSC show that the level of English literacy in Mauritius has consistently been reducing.

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