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Linguistic slavery in the 21st C: Multilingualism and the languages of learning and teaching

What is in a language? This is a fair question indeed, but the one often treated with skepticism because matters of language operate at subconscious levels. That is why conversations around language can to a degree be illogical and emotional. We don’t reason; rather we feel and think we know all about it! But there is more to language than the mundane and casual conversations people often have. After visiting Le Morne Mountain in Mauritius I froze at the thought that languages of the people of the islands are still consistently being referred to as “Creoles”. From language contact studies, we know that the first entity that emerges as a result of two people speaking different languages is called pidgin. Pidgin by its definition means that there are no mother tongue speakers, yet speakers in contact situation combine words and phrases to make sense of their encounters. But once the speakers begin to use the pidgin as their primary language- children born speaking this variety- then it graduates into a creole, which also becomes a fully functional language. While creole is a transitional language, it becomes conveniently stationed there so its development is questioned. This question can stay for more than 300 years with a negative outcome: speakers have no access to it as the language of learning and teaching. The so-called developed languages, on the other hand, gain clout over its speakers and rob them of their sense of being- their human experience.

I visited Le Morne in Mauritius and understood the story of slavery. It follows that the colonial masters forced the local people of Mauritius- the AfroMauritians (also referred to as Kreol- from a linguistic concept of "creole", which means pre-language and may have connotations of incomplete state of being) to work in the plantations. Many fled and took hiding in a tall gorge and exiled themselves there. One day when slavery was abolished, the soldiers went up the mountain to announce the good news. The idea would have been too good to be true of the people who brutalized them, killed relatives, lynched fathers and raped their mothers. Before hearing any word from the soldiers, the AfroMauritian exiled slaves were convinced that the soldiers were coming to re-claim them and send them back into the sugar plantations. They quickly went to the highest peak and intentionally fell hundreds of meters down the gorge, causing unprecedented mass suicide! They would rather die than be enslaved in the sugar plantations. Why is this a language and literacy issue? The pain of not being taught in the language one understands surpasses any form of incentives about job creation beyond schooling. Massive protests through underachievement is an induced suicide in the same way that the slaves felt about the choice of being alive or working as slaves in the plantations!

Today, the AfroMauritians' language is still named "Creole" and it is not used for learning and teaching. Neither it is taught as a school subject beyond early grades because it is still seen as a “half language” even after centuries of being used as a mother tongue. The irony is that it is spoken by over 90% of the Mauritian population as a ‘mother tongue’. Linguistic slavery is still rife and it is in today's terms causing "menticide" and "identicide" in our schools. Crudely speaking: the exclusive use of foreign European languages: English and French in the island destroys minds and sense of being. Without confidence and competence, the children's humanity is removed to the extent that life becomes meaningless. They drop out from hideouts (schools) and are pushed out of education. All we say is include Mauritian (don't call it Kreol/Creole) alongside English and French (if needed) and use these languages simultaneously in the same lessons. That's what multilingual education is about and it is the only way to become truly inclusive and to respect people’s humanity- an outcome created by ways of being and knowing. Yet we continue to "le morne" our learners and students with the mistaken belief that they only need "one language" in our lessons and in their lives. Far from the truth. Le Morne Mountain is a tall giant winning the title of a World Heritage Site, but we surely need not inherit educational suicide, menticide and identicide which still loom large while masquerading under globalization. I washed my feet at the heel of the mountain, Le Morne beach mourning, but reimagining a multilingual-centred world! This and many stories in the world need imaginative leaders to face the truth: true education is only possible in languages one understands and that using more than one language in our classrooms is a competence that innovative teaching needs to embrace without fear! Anything less of this is linguistic slavery.