The Mother Tongue as an Optional School Subject in Mauritius: Impacts and Effectiveness
Updated: Oct 29, 2018
By Joseph Jean Noel Jolicoeur
Although an estimated 34 million more children attend school following the 2000 Dakar Framework for Action, 40% of the global population still cannot access education in a language they speak or understand. This is the case for many students in Mauritius where English, the mother tongue of only 0.3% of the population, has been maintained as the medium of instruction since the British colonial era. Irina Bokova, Director General of UNESCO, has suggested that such language policies contribute to educational inequalities, which leave the most disadvantaged pupils five times more likely to not complete primary school. Policies that facilitate early learning in the mother tongue have therefore been proposed as an important tool for tackling exclusion and achieving Sustainable Development Goal (#SDG) 4.1 - all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary education by 2030.
Launched in 2012, the introduction of Mauritian Creole as an optional language subject for primary school students was intended “in line with internationally accepted best practices, [to] encourage the use of mother tongue to facilitate teaching and learning” according to the Mauritian Assembly. The first cohort of Mauritian Creole learners sat their primary school certificate examinations in 2017. Having worked in the Mauritian education system for ten years, and being a Mauritian Creole speaker myself, I was keen to explore the impact of the new optional language subject and the overall effectiveness of the policy.
Adopting a mixed method approach, my research explored three principle questions:
Do students participate and interact more actively when taught in Mauritian Creole?
Did Mauritian Creole learners score higher in grade 6 examinations than those who did not study the subject in 2017?
Have teachers observed differences in the learning and achievement of Mauritian Creole learners since the project was launched?
Data was extracted from a sample of five schools falling into the following categories:
Rural location (high concentration of Creole-speaking students)
Urban location (mixture of Creole- and French-speaking students)
Large, heterogenous school population
Small, homogenous school population
Differences in pupil engagement and interaction were explored through observations; behaviours were compared across Mauritian Creole and English-mediated classes to determine whether learning was enhanced through mother tongue instruction. To evaluate impacts on achievement across the curriculum, an analysis of test score means in French, English, Maths, Science, History and Geography was carried out. The grades of students who studied Mauritian Creole at grade 6 in 2017 were compared with the grades of students who did not study the language. Finally, interviews were conducted with teachers and headteachers to explore perceived effects on student learning and achievement, as well as practitioners’ views of the policy.
Immersion in Mauritian Creole-mediated classrooms revealed that interaction and engagement in the learning process was much improved by mother tongue instruction. Mauritian Creole teachers had more opportunities to use learner-centred approaches compared with English-mediated classes where teachers had no choice but to translate content into Creole or French, thus producing a heavily teacher-centred mode of instruction. Although cross-curricular learning happened through the interconnection of Science and Creole for example, doubts persisted around the project. Two schools of thought emerged among the interviewees. Some questioned the effectiveness of the policy in its entirety, while others suggested that issues emerged due to inappropriate implementation. Interviewees’ views on impact tended to converge as teachers and head teachers remained sceptical as to how the policy would improve achievement in subjects still examined in English.
A statistical analysis of the test scores confirmed interviewees’ doubts; Mauritian Creole students did not score higher on average in the English-examined subjects (Maths, Science, History and Geography) than students who did not study the language for the Primary School Achievement certificate in 2017. However, t-test analysis revealed that literacy in Mauritian Creole had a significant impact on achievement in French where Mauritian Creole-literate learners scored higher on average than students who did not study the language. Broken down school by school, the results for French also showed that linguistic inequalities were much more visible in schools located in urban areas, where the percentage of learners with French as their mother tongue is significantly higher. It appeared these learners were able convert their linguistic competence into educational credentials, while Mauritian Creole natives were less able to do so.
Overall, my research found that the policy had limited effectiveness and educational inequalities were not being successfully addressed by the introduction of Mauritian Creole as an optional language subject. The development of mother tongue language policies is intended to reduce exclusion and ensure inclusive and equitable quality education. My findings raise concerns that the new policy only superficially addresses the aims of SDG 4. If such policies are used to display commitment to the SDGs on the global stage but remain pedagogically ineffective, then educational inequalities will persist and the fundamental purpose of SDG 4 is undermined. More than 60 years after the educational ordinance of 1957, the use of English as the medium of instruction for subjects such as Science and History and Geography continues to prevent learners from expressing their full cognitive potential. As demonstrated in a recent L’express Maurice article, pupils lacking the necessary linguistic skills appear to be underachieving across the curriculum, producing unnecessary and damaging results. I would argue that until the gap between Mauritian policy makers and schools is bridged in order to refine and inform policy development, then attempts to improve equity in our education system are unlikely to prove effective.