Is English on the decline in Mauritius?

Sometime back, the English Speaking Union organized a stimulating forum at the Aberystwyth University at Quartier Militaire to mark the English Language Day (25th April 2016).

It was chaired by Dr Roshni Mooneeram with experts from MIE, MES, the British Council Director Dr Tris Bartlett, Dr Natallie Roberts from Aberystwyth University, Prem Burton former Director of PSSA and currently Chairperson of the English Speaking Union, and Dr Satish Mahadeo, Associate Professor at the University of Mauritius as panelists.

The topic – “The Decline of the English language in Mauritius” was meant to shock. Somebody said “it seems we have a love-hate relationship with English in Mauritius!” Is the English language then on the decline in Mauritius? If this is so, definitely that’s not the case in the rest of the world. According to a Newsweek survey some years ago, two billion people if not more are currently studying English across the world. It is believed that nearly three billion people are speaking some sort of English whether it be Hinglish (India), the American English or Spanglish (English-Spanish) hybrid spoken in USA and Mexico, Japlish, Englog or Tagalog.

Increasingly, It is being emphasized that to succeed on the global front two things are crucial: (1) English, and (2) E-technology! No wonder the English-learning industry in India alone is a more than $ 100 million-per-year business. The Indian English-learning industry is “on the front line of a global revolution in which hundreds of millions of people are learning English.” In fact Associate Professor Dr Satish Mahadeo did jokingly say at the forum of the English Speaking Union that “the last Englishman in the world will be an Indian!”

Certainly, the planet’s language for commerce, science, technology, communication and empowerment is increasingly identified with English.

China which is a growing world economic player lags behind India, the other giant economic player from Asia which has a competitive edge over China because of India’s mastery of English. But the learning English fever has caught on in China and risen to epidemic proportions after China acceded to the World Trade Organization and organized 2008 Olympics! As for India, long after the British Raj of 200 years, where Macaulay saw to it that the Indian natives mastered English so as to run the Establishment, and even after Independence in 1947, in their wisdom the Indians have maintained English as the official language along with Hindi. Tuition boards in English spring up like mushrooms in the remotest corners of the sprawling villages and shanties of the vast subcontinent.

English is also seen as the language of mass migration. Governments from Tunisia to Turkey are laying great emphasis on English along with E-technology viewing it as “the turbine engine of globalization.” Immigrants in Europe from Turkey and Russia are most eager to access to the world. And they feel that learning English will open this world to them.

More non-native speakers of English

The growing phenomenon of English is such that non-native speakers of English outnumber native English speakers by three to one, according to English language expert David Crystal. The globalization of English is no more now seen as the language of imperialism or colonization. That perception is overshadowed by the new language revolution taking place which is unprecedented in the history of languages. There are currently some 3000 languages in the world. Somehow English is set to touch each one in one way or other, aided by TV and ICT. David Crystal says that “in future there could be a tri-English world (1) one in which you could speak a local English – based dialect at home, (2) a national variety at work or school, and (3) an International Standard English to talk to foreigners.

To achieve fluency in English

To be fluent in English, non-native speakers are learning English from a very young age indeed. Nowadays, in China’s major cities English language is increasingly offered from the Third Grade of the Primary Sector, rather than from the middle school as was the norm. Many parents are getting their preschoolers enrolled in the new sector of English courses. More than 400 foreign English-teaching companies are trying a breakthrough in China. What is more amazing is that some pregnant women are even speaking in English to their fetuses, so great is the English language fever! In Prague English is being introduced through songs and colour games early to pre-schoolers aged two years and three years.

Jennifer Jenkens, expert in world Englishes at King’s College, London says “Owning English is a very big business.” So great is the desire for the importation of English teachers in China and the Middle East that the demand is exceeding the supply. The result: China and the Middle East are now importing English teachers from India!

Why such enthusiasm for English?

The world has opened up and ENGLISH is its language. It means more job opportunities. Formerly only elites like diplomats and CEOs needed to master English for work. Today with growing call centres all over, no longer is speaking English one of the important skills. It is THE skill!

Governments all over the world, even the most “linguistically protectionist ones” have started to agree to that. Malaysia has decided to start teaching school-level math and science in English.

In the most protectionist country of native language — France – the home of the prestigious Académie Française which defends the purity of the French language, a commission recommended that basic English be given the same treatment as basic math, as part of the mandatory core curriculum in primary school. For that matter, 96 percent of French children are studying English in French schools. In Germany, kids begin to learn English as early as the second grade. In nearby Reunion Island, French-speaking children go on vacation courses to Australia and not to nearby Mauritius to polish their practice of English.

Eighty percent of electronically stored information in the whole world is in English. About 70 percent of world’s scientists use English, according to a British Council report. As a result of this interconnection between English and IT, English-usage tips are provided to Uruguayan, Japanese and Chinese students on their mobile phones. Nowadays English courses are focusing on more expert-niches: business English, phone manners and English as a medium for presentations.

What about Mauritius?

In a country whose official language is English and which has been maintained since the British take over from the French in 1810 and retained in post Independent Mauritius, it is generally wondered why pupils are not able to express themselves academically and creatively in English? In fact, the general feeling is that English is not really on the decline but it is stable. According to Toshanand Beekarry, Research and Development Officer from MES, 70% of our students do manage to score grade six and the pass rate has gone up to 97%. People in Mauritius do manage to read and write English generally. But it is the quality which is in question. As Dr Satish Mahadeo noted, ex-President Li Kuan Yew of Singapore decided in his wisdom and strategy to make English the official language because he felt it is the gateway to “economic growth.” He invested himself personally in raising the standard of English, without diminishing the importance of other native languages such as Malay, Mandarin and Tamil. So if we want to become a Singapore and aspire to compete as a world player and make our voice heard globally is it not time to re-assert our linguistic wealth and give English, de facto the official language of the country and the “common linguistic denominator” of the world, all the importance it merits?

The beach hawkers selling their wares manage to communicate marvellously in English with tourists on the beach, though they may not be that literate. Exposure to the language and the force of the market are making them adapt. The Government should be wise to reconsider its policy towards English as English and world economic development are moving in pairs.

Is there a Ministry for English, asked Tris Bartlett, Director of the British Council at the English Speaking Union forum? We may ask ourselves: Are we bogged down with the island mentality of “nombrilism”? When the whole world is looking outside of the well, are we burying our head in the sand like the ostrich, refusing to see the global linguistic reality?

* Published in print edition on 6 May 2016

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