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Mauritius - Language

The official language of Mauritius is English, although most Mauritians are more comfortable speaking French. The language of the people, however, is Creole.

Although the Mauritians working in the tourism industry speak good English, the English-speaking visitor should not count on being understood everywhere on the island. English is the medium of teaching in schools and the working language of government and business, but beyond school and work it is rarely used. Fewer than 3,000 Mauritians speak English at home.

French, however, is spoken at home by about 35,000 Mauritians. It is used in polite and formal circumstances, although not at government level. The daily newspapers are predominantly in French with occasional articles in English.

Creole is the lingua franca of Mauritius, understood and spoken by all Mauritians. It is the mother tongue of about 80% of the population but, incredibly, is not officially recognised as a language, and has no popular written form. It was not until 2011, after much debate, that Creole was added as an optional subject to the primary school curriculum. It is a patois, structurally distinct from French but borrowing most of its vocabulary from that tongue, although pronunciation is different. It evolved from the pidgin used by the French masters of the 18th century to communicate with their slaves, also incorporating words from African and Malagasy dialects.

Its popularity stems from the ease with which it can be learnt. Since the African population was disinclined to learn Indian or Chinese languages, the new immigrants of the 19th century took to Creole as a simple means of communicating. It requires little intellectual effort to speak, and English, French and Indian words can be adapted by ‘Creolising’ them. There are no grammatical rules and foreigners settling in Mauritius soon speak it without embarrassment at making errors.

Creole’s lowly origins have caused the language to be treated with contempt in the past but its unifying value as the one language that all Mauritians speak and understand is clear. While it shares characteristics with the Creole spoken in the Caribbean and the bayous of Louisiana, a Mauritian would not immediately understand, for example, the Creole of Dominica. Even the Creole of neighbouring Réunion is not identical.

For the visitor wanting to speak Creole, there are several locally printed Creole phrase books on sale in Mauritius. The language is written phonetically and the hardest part seems to be to understand the odd spelling used, such as ahn-kohr (meaning ‘more’). Although it sounds an aggressive language it is very colourful, rich in clichés and ribaldry.

The main mother tongue of the country’s largest ethnic group is Hindi and is spoken at home by over 100,000 people. While Hindi is the medium for religious ceremonies and is looked on as a sign of education and prestige, the Indian equivalent of Creole is Bhojpuri, spoken by around 12% of the population. Tamil was actually the first Indian language spoken in Mauritius and today is spoken at home by about 35,000 people. Other Indian languages spoken as mother tongues are Urdu, Telegu, Marathi and Gujarati.

Arabic is also spoken, although most of the preaching in the mosques is in Creole. Less than a third of the Chinese community speak Chinese languages, including Hakka, Mandarin and Cantonese.

Mauritius - Language

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