English Usage in Mauritius
By Eugene Chiba
The sunny island nation of Mauritius is the most linguistically fashionable place on the planet. Its people switch languages according to the occasion in the way other people change clothes. Over the course of a day a typical Mauritian might use English to write a school essay, Kreol Morisien to chat with friends, French to read a novel and Bhojpuri to spend a quiet evening with the family. So while English is nominally the island’s official language, Mauritians never use it exclusively across all registers as comparatively dowdy Ontario Anglophones might. This article will examine where Mauritians use English and how it is used.
Mauritius’ sophisticated language situation has its roots in a complex history of immigration and colonization. In 1722 the French settled the island, located in the Indian Ocean east of Madagascar, and brought with them slaves from Madagascar, Mozambique and West Africa. Consequently French was entrenched as the language of business and government; Kreol, derived largely from French but comprising a lexicon drawn from Malagasy and other languages, developed as a means of communication between the French and Africans, and between Africans of different language groups. English was introduced when France ceded Mauritius to Britain in 1810 and it gradually replaced French as the language of administration (Stein 67). When slavery was abolished in 1833 South Asian labourers arrived to work the fields and brought with them Bhojpuri and other Indian languages. Finally in the mid-nineteenth century Chinese tradespeople added Cantonese and Hakka to the mix.
Until its independence in 1968 Mauritius’ economy was based largely on sugar production (Emmerich 11). Employment was segregated along ethno-linguistic lines and this perpetuated segregated language communities: a Franco-Mauritian landed gentry owned the sugarcane fields and factories and held white-collar jobs; Kreol-speaking Créoles and Blacks worked as teachers, civil servants, fishermen and artisans; South Asians worked in agriculture; and the Chinese were the island’s merchants (Emmerich 160). Kreol was used when one group needed to speak to another (Baker, Kreol, 30). As for English, because no significant Anglo-Mauritian community settled the island (Prabhu 15) it never became a widely spoken language. It was essentially restricted to the two places where its usage could be enforced: government administration and schools.
Overview of English Usage Today
Because all Mauritians are exposed to English in schools, either as a subject or as the mode of instruction, most (73.23%) consider themselves to be functional in English (Emmerich 72). Comprehension is higher in urban areas and amongst members of certain ethnic communities – those descended from Bhojpuri speaking immigrants are 87% functional, compared to 69% of Franco-Mauritians (ibid). Comprehension levels are higher amongst the young (79% for those under 19) than the old (15% for those over 63) (Emmerich 73). This disparity is an issue not of language acquisition but of retention: many older Mauritians have simply forgotten English, having used it sparingly or not at all since leaving school.
Despite high comprehension levels, very few Mauritians (0.3%) choose to speak English at home (Stein 74). On this island, where describing yourself as trilingual impresses no one, language use is highly registered. The major languages per register can be described thusly:
Home: Kreol and Bhojpuri
Government and schools: English
Business: French and Kreol
Literature, newspapers and television: French
Casual speech: Kreol
It must be emphasized that this table is only a generalization. For instance, English is neither the only language used in government – speeches are often delivered in French – nor is it completely absent in the media. English usage by register is described in greater detail in the sections below.
Language usage also varies by its employment in speech or text. For instance, Kreol is primarily a spoken language; it has no standardized orthography, although an initiative was launched in 2004 to develop one (Hookoomsing). Meanwhile Mauritians are more likely to read and write in English on a regular basis (45-55%) than they are to speak in it (25%) (Emmerich 134).
While written Mauritian English does not differ from that of standard Canadian English, spoken Mauritian English does. However, there is no single representative phonology since English can be affected by any of the island’s other languages. The following transcription exemplifies the pronunciation of a fluent English speaker and is taken from a presentation made by delegate Sok Apadu to United Nations climate change conference:
On bihalf of pa:tis fo:miŋ pa:t ov ðis kɔntækt grup maI koɫʃeə stɛfãn roslənd …
On behalf of parties forming part of this contact group my co-chair Stephane Roslund …
His pronunciation differs from a standard Canadian one in several ways. His r’s are non-rhotic: he drops /r/ from parties, forming and chair – this characteristic may be influenced by British English. Several vowel sounds are altered: he pronounces on with an /o/, not an /a/; behalf with an /a/, not an /æ/; and this with an /i/, not an /I/. The <a> in Stephane is pronounced with a French nasal vowel: <ã>, instead of /æ/. Diphthongs are sometimes replaced by monophthongs: later in his presentation he pronounces data /dɛ:tə/, not /deItə/. Less than fluent English speakers pronounce consonants differently. Peter Stein observes of an average elementary school graduate that he drops stops after fricatives: first is pronounced /fœ:s/. Dental fricatives are replaced by alveolar fricatives: the is pronounced /zɛ/, not /ðə/. These characteristics are influenced by Kreol (Stein 87).
English in Schools
Virtually no children entering the school system have any knowledge of English, while virtually all speak Kreol; consequently, in the first three years of elementary school the mode of instruction at most public schools is Kreol, the exceptions being elite city schools where it is French (Tirvassen 65). But English technical terms and textbooks are employed from the start. From the fourth grade English is taught as a subject; moreover, it is officially designated as the mode of instruction (Ministry). However, in many schools teaching continues to be carried out in Kreol beyond the fourth grade; in some rural areas it continues through secondary school (Tirvassen 65). As a result, while secondary school final examinations are written in English, only 30% of students receive a credit in the English subject section of these examinations (Gokhool).
Because graduation marks the last time many Mauritians use English with any frequency, its usage has been called more a hindrance to educational development than a help. Various government committees have suggested that English be replaced by Kreol as the standard language of schools (Stein 70), though the lack of a standardized orthography has thus far made this untenable. English’s continued presence here is also aided by its prestige: virtually all parents approve of their children studying in English (Tirvassen 68).
English in Business
During the period of British colonization few Mauritians used English for business purposes since as an agricultural economy only those working in higher white collar positions had regular contact with English speakers or needed technical knowledge. Since 1968 Mauritius has transformed into an industrial economy with large food processing, textile manufacturing and tourism sectors (Emmerich 16) whose largest export partner is Britain (External). The emergence of jobs in hotels and factories requiring technical expertise has broken down segregated hiring practices (Emmerich 160), and the resulting integration bodes well for an intercommunity language like English. So too does the increase in foreign contact, especially in the tourism sector: English is used by 64% of workers in that industry on a regular basis (Emmerich 164).
Another effect of the internationalization of Mauritian business is that it has expanded the usage of English within Kreol. Many English words integrated into Kreol’s lexicon are adoptions of nouns used over the course of a business day: biznes for business, expor for export; ekonomiks for economics; akawn for account; and djam for traffic jam (Baker, Contribution). As a general rule, these are international terms, not local ones, which were introduced by outside sources and not by the island’s small Anglo-Mauritian community (Baker, Contribution, 215).
Nevertheless, English has yet to become a major business language: about 21% of Mauritians use it at work on a regular basis, whereas 70% use French and 66% use Kreol (Emmerich 157). French is used in higher administrative areas – for instance, supplier/client relationships – and Kreol in lower administrative areas and in labour. Because of the growth of tertiary industries French has actually gained in usage as a business language since 1982 (Emmerich 159).
English in Government
English is now the language of politics, administration and of the courts (Rajah-Carrim 320), but French did not relinquish its position without a struggle. British efforts to cement English usage in government began in 1832 when Colonial Secretary Lord Gomrich requested of the Governor of Mauritius that he stop sending correspondences to him in French, complaining that it was “not convenient” (Stein 67). Britain’s subsequent decree that administrative posts require the knowledge of English was ignored. But Britain persevered: in 1841 English was declared the island’s sole official language; in 1847 Justices of the High Court were required to present rulings in English; and by 1914 official government publications were published solely in English (ibid). Its status in this register was assured when laws barring South Asians from politics were struck: they now dominate politics, comprise the majority of the population and are friendlier toward English usage than are Franco-Mauritians (Stein 74).
English in the Media and Literature
English language media is limited; the Mauritian Broadcasting Corporation provides the evening news in French, and French language newspapers dominate the market (80%). But English terms (“business,” “hi-tech”) are employed by the French media and English quotes are integrated into articles without translation:
“Le Premier ministre par intérim n’a rien trouvé de mieux que de rappeler que “it has been the practice under the previous Government for parliamentary private secretaries and ministers to receive members of the public in the Citizen’s Advice Bureau” (From L’Express, 7 December 2005).
Mauritian literature tends to be written in French (Pirbhai 52) with some in Kreol. French is actually tightening its grip as the island’s literary language: until recently an author from a non-French, non-Créole background would often write in English or in an Asian language as a reflection of their ethnicity, but this is no longer true (Emmerich 39). As literary consumers, Mauritians prefer to read French language literature over that of English (Baker, Kreol, 29). However, they are actually more likely to read non-fiction works in English (ibid). This phenomenon may arise from the fact that English is associated with technical terms, being the language of school textbooks.
The Future of English in Mauritius
Speculation as to the future of Mauritian English usage must be specific to a particular register (business, casual) since the only general characteristic of Mauritius’ language situation is that usage in one register never affects that in another. Otherwise, English with its place in schools and government would have become the dominant language across all registers long ago.
One possible development is that casual English usage will increase alongside that of Mauritius’ other languages. Perhaps a beacon of this development is the internet blog: virtually all employ English alongside French and Creole – not one in place of another. The first entry might be in French, and the next in English; however, in some cases all three languages appear in the same entry:
“went to lunch at black steers n mamzelle irene kine paye "bill"
ti sup al cinema apres but no interesting film at al!!!
donc ine ksa ene ti poz codan hehe...” (From black steers; French is in bold, Kreol in italics).
A second possibility is that English will replace another language’s use in a particular register. In fact, its role as an intracommunity language, used within a particular ethnic group, is already growing at the expense of languages like Bhojpuri (Rajah-Carrim 329). Some South Asian Mauritians now communicate with relatives in India and Pakistan in English (Stein 73). However, English has not made inroads against universally understood Kreol as the island’s most commonly spoken language. Surprisingly, Kreol’s competition here is French. Because of its association to the Franco-Mauritian upper-class French was once considered an elitist language (Baker, Kreol, 15). Historically the majority South Asian communities, barred by the same Franco-Mauritians from voting and from the upper echelons of government administration (Baker, Kreol, 10), were more comfortable with the expansion of ‘neutral’ English, a prestige language but one unassociated with any social class. But French is no longer the language of the elite (Emmerich 37) because of what might be called a second creolization of the language: its pronunciation has become distinct from that of standard French (ibid) and it is often used in casually instead of Kreol.
In the media and in business English usage may expand at French’s expense. It will be aided by the further internationalization of the economy: the island’s industrial and agricultural bases are being complemented with banking and information technology sectors – including the construction of a new “Cybercity” at Ebene – which will involve more interaction by more Mauritians with non-French speakers. France has been surpassed both by China and South Africa as Mauritius’ largest import partner (External) and India is forging closer ties by making significant investments in the country. In these cases English is more useful as a lingua franca. English remains a more accessible language than French too: some commentators have noted that Mauritians are more comfortable speaking broken English than French (Baker, Kreol, 24, Bilkiss 30).
A third possibility is that English usage will decline. The register where this is most likely is in its schools: Kreol may someday replace English as the official mode of instruction. With a standardized orthography textbooks could be written in Kreol while maintaining the use of English technical terms.
History of English Usage
Baker, Philip. Kreol. London: Hurst, 1972.
Prabhu, Anjali. Creolization in Process. Ph.D. thesis Duke U. 1999. Dissertation Abstracts International.
Stein, Peter. “The English Language in Mauritius: Past and Present.” English World-Wide 18.1 (1997): 65-89.
Current English Usage
Atchia-Emmerich, Bilkiss. La situation linguistique à l’île Maurice. Diss. Friedrich-Alexander-U., 2005. OPUS Erlangen-Nürnberg. 8 November 2005. http://www.opus.ub.uni-erlangen.de/opus/volltexte/2005/142/pdf/Doktorarbeit%2028.2.2005.pdf
“External Trade: 3rd Quarter 2005.” Central Statistics Office Homepage. 20 December 2005. http://ncb.intnet.mu/cso.htm
Gokhool, Dharambeer. "Launching of the National Debate on Curriculum Reforms." 30 November 2005. Government of Mauritius Ministry of Education Website. 18 December 2005. http://www.gov.mu/portal/site/education/template.MAXIMIZE/menuitem.c950fa6430e567472b6cf110a0208a0c/?javax.portlet.tpst=62d51e31bc2a1847772cfc10a0208a0c_ws_MX&javax.portlet.prp_62d51e31bc2a1847772cfc10a0208a0c_viewID=sp3011&javax.portlet.begCacheTok=token&javax.portlet.endCacheTok=token
Government of Mauritius Ministry of Education homepage. 14 December 2005. http://www.gov.mu/portal/site/citizenhomepage/template.MAXIMIZE/menuitem.2393425ed92cceb10927d523f6b521ca/?javax.portlet.tpst=716b9390feae86d79812e3a3a0508a0c_ws_MX&javax.portlet.prp_716b9390feae86d79812e3a3a0508a0c_viewID=education&javax.portlet.begCacheTok=token&javax.portlet.endCacheTok=token
Hookoomsing, Vinesh Y. "A Harmonized Writing System for the Mauritian Creole Language." Government of Mauritius Ministry of Education Website. 18 December 2005.
Rajah-Carrim, Aaliya. “Language Use and Attitudes in Mauritius on the Basis of the 2000 Population Census.” Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 26.4 (2005): 317-32. 21 December 2005. http://www.multilingualmatters.net/jmmd/026/0317/jmmd0260317.pdf
Tirvassen, Rada. “Les Langues et l’éducation à l’île Maurice: Convergences et divergences.” Etudes Creoles 15.2 (1992): 63-80.
Virahsawmy, Dev. “Le Système éducatif mauricien.” Etudes Creoles 7.1-2 (1984): 116-25.
Characteristics of English Usage
Baker, Philip. The Contribution of Non-Francophone Immigrants to the Lexicon of Mauritian Creole. Ph.D. thesis U. of London, 1982. Dissertation Abstracts International.
Baker, Philip and Vinesh Y. Hookoomsing. Dictionary of Mauritian Creole. Paris: Harmattan, 1987.
Examples of English Usage
Apadu, Sok. “Overview of the Draft Conclusions on Research and Systematic Observation.” 12 June 2003. Linkages Homepage. 12 December 2005. http://www.iisd.ca/climate/sb18/june12.html
“black steers.” A*Bel Homepage. 9 December 2005. Mauritius Interactive. 12 December 2005. http://www.mauritius.ca/miblog/?uid=8943&internal=1
Meetarbhan, Raj. “Au-dessus de la politique.” L’Express 7 December 2005. 20 December 2005. http://www.lexpress.mu/display_archived_news.php?news_id=55601