Mauritian multilingualism: Both beautiful and useful

Undoubtedly, a most efficient way to preserve the vitality of a language is to speak it as often as possible, especially in a context which exposes its native speakers to other languages. From what we observe in lots of families in the villages, Bhojpuri is mostly the language of communication among Hindus and Muslims of Bihari origin. It is widely used in homes, in the streets, buses, shops and market places, among family members, neighbours, acquaintances and friends.

In the public sphere, some conversations may start in Creole, but then, folks naturally come back to Bhojpuri. It seems that it is much less used in the towns, at least in public places. – except Port-Louis which draws in crowds from rural areas, and there is increasingly less reluctance to resort to Bhojpuri, though in Hindu homes in urban areas elderly folks still converse in Bhojpuri. Maybe only Muslims of Bihari origin understand and speak Bhojpuri while families hailing from other parts of India, and probably of different ethnic groups, hardly understand a single word of Bhojpuri, Hindi or Urdu in the urban areas in Mauritius. Bhojpuri speakers have a fair understanding of both Hindi and Urdu. The first language you hear in a bakery, retailer or hardware store run by Muslims and Hindus in Triolet and Grand Baie is Bhojpuri. Among other groups who are conversant in or understand Bhojpuri, there are Marathis and Telegus owing to constant exposure to the language and because of mixed marriages in some cases.

Over the decades, there have always been Creoles who understand Bhojpuri and Hindi while a few of them could actually converse fluently in Bhojpuri in the villages. The number has increased over the years owing to constant interaction in public places, with Bhojpuri-speaking neighbours, and workplaces, mainly on construction sites among masons and in the fields. What we observe in Triolet, Pointe aux Piments, Trou aux Biches, Cottage and Goodlands is surely true in other villages as well. From watching Hindi films, some Creoles can discuss about the differences between Hindi and Bhojpuri. Others will tell you that they meet Hindus from Curepipe and other towns who have never spoken a sentence in Bhojpuri in their whole life.

Multi-lingual proficiency is generally taken for granted – so much are we used to switch from one language to another, but when we pause and think about it, this is quite impressive. In a bus heading north, the conductor converses with the driver in Bhojpuri. They are both barely 30 years old. Then he strikes a conversation in French with a young woman whom he believes to be French but in fact is a white mulatto Mauritian who lives in France and is on holidays. In perfect French, he tells her that he used to live in Paris, but he finally decided to quit the metro-boulot-dodo life he had there, and come back to Mauritius.

A little while later, to visitors inquiring about the bus time-table from Port-Louis back to the North, he answers in English. To top it all, he speaks Hindi with Indian visitors who get on the bus later. Only in Mauritius!, one can conclude – it’s simply natural the ease with which people over here slip from one language to another. Thinking that the doctor might be Indian in Quatre Bornes, we ask him if he would rather we spoke English. ‘Whatever you want…’ from the five languages: Bhojpuri, Hindi, Creole, French and English. In fact, he is Mauritian. Just amazing compared to other countries.

The onus is on leaders of Bhojpuri and cultural associations to encourage and promote the use of Bhojpuri mainly among native speakers, mainly Hindus and Muslims by sensitizing the public to value of the linguistic legacy handed down to them by their forefathers and not to shy away from speaking it in the public sphere. Special attention needs to be given to its promotion among the younger generation who should be made aware of the worth of their cultural heritage and not to throw its blessings away. Often, children who are raised by their nanis or dadis are mocked at by their peers when they speak Bhojpuri at school. Parents should be made aware of the absurd bias so that they would not refrain from encouraging their children to use their own language in public places.

Similarly, Hindi lovers surely agree that Hindi deserves a more significant and active role in everyday communication among Hindus than mere listening to it in Hindi films. Hindi can be heard at trade fairs in Mer Rouge, for example. Interaction with Bangladeshi workers gives Mauritians an opportunity to speak Hindi. We love the sound and rhythm of the language, and we should do our best to promote it. Drama clubs staging plays in Bhojpuri and Hindi are unheard of, if they do exist at all.

Members of the former government, MPs and ministers often used Bhojpuri in meetings with villagers, which is a most natural thing to do rather than stick to Creole only and promote one-language policy out of laziness. A few ministers also addressed the public in perfect Hindi on the occasion of religious festivals. We expect those who are fluent in Bhojpuri and Hindi in the present government to do the same and set the right example to the public.

Hindi has a greater number of phonemes than European languages, which makes it easier for Hindi-speaking Mauritians to adapt and learn the pronunciation of European, Asian, Middle-Eastern and other languages. It is most impressive how Bhojpuri- and Hindi-speaking Mauritians in the villages and coastal regions, who did not have the benefit of going to school and were illiterate in English and French,- quickly grasped the rules, vocabulary and syntax of the two European languages from their daily contact with tourists in the hotel industry. How they then moved on to be conversant with Italian and German is laudable.

From personal observation locally and abroad, it seems that among different groups in Mauritius, Hindus are the most versatile in language learning. This is partly due to the superior number of phonemes in Hindi as already mentioned. To a larger extent, it is due to the mental landscape and mindset of Hindus which creates open-mindedness, interrogation and curiosity about other cultures and languages. A mental landscape which is not gated by iron curtains and guarded by sectarian philosophical neophytes. This open, enlightened mental landscape enables Hindus to even show interest out of curiosity in other religions that have cropped up in the course of history. This, however, does not add anything more enriching to the already rich plurality of philosophical traditions sown in the fertile landscape they have inherited.

While westerners struggle hard to learn the basic rules and pronunciation of any foreign languages, it is all too easy for our local versatility to gain command in speaking any European languages in a short span of time. Turks are surprised at the quick grasp of Turkish we display in communication compared to westerners. For obvious historical reasons, Hindi and Urdu-speaking people are familiar with the ‘jh’ and ‘tch’ sounds, for example, in ‘saat kach?’, ‘what time is it?’, ‘aabijhim’ meaning ‘friend’. For the same historical reasons, Arabic is within reach though the writing is quite challenging. Some vowel sounds are longer in North African Arabic, such as ‘lehekin’ to say ‘lehkin’ translation of ‘but’. The ‘za’, ‘jh’ and ‘sh’ sounds running through Arabic and Persian are too familiar to Hindi and Urdu speakers. Mandarin is a most difficult language, and quite a headache when you try your hand at writing it.

Foreigners increasingly take up Hindi courses given by Indian embassies in Africa, the Middle-East and other places. Mauritius can also be a hub for intensive courses in Indian languages for neighbouring regional countries.

Bilinguals and polyglots are less prone to Alzheimer’s disease, according to one among many American reports on the disease. Never mind that. Let us not listen to the siren of romantic ideology in language policy resurfacing in Mauritius among the least ambitious of decision-makers. Be demanding and ambitious. We are not competing with the West, China and India in space technology. Let us keep and promote what we are best at. Languages are also a pleasure beside keeping the intellect alert. If we are not aware of our own worth, nobody is going to take the trouble to remind us of it. If we throw our blessings away, nobody is going to bend down and pick them for us. The onus is on ourselves.

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