| It is among the members of the population who can speak French, notably
because of a good training at school, that we find a frequent strategic utilisation of
French. Depending on what is at stake in the situation, people who manage French can use
this language when they want to place themselves in a position of superiority. Speaking French can thus be a matter of prestige among ones peers by
revea1ing one's education and status (1).
This works for the interaction between native islanders but interaction with people born
in France is different. Here, the practice of French cannot depict any superiority because
it is the expected language of communication. It is important to stress that while
visiting this French department or living there, French metropolitans (who are in a land
officially called La France de lOcéan Indien) often do not realise
how the practice of French can be a difficult exercise for the natives whom they
spontaneously address in French.
It is interesting to notice that the linguistic situation is different jn another French Island that does not .have the status of a "Department" but that of a "territory": Tahiti. Here, French is also the dominant and normtive language but, because of a completely different colonial history, it has not the same aura of prestige among the Polynesian population. Except for the growing population of so-called demis (literally : 'half') who have a mixed origin, Tahitians still speak their vernacular language, that of their ancestors before the coming of the French. Not being able to speak French does not create a sense of inferiority. It is rather a matter of pride, the pride to have remained "Polynesian" without being too much infected by French culture. Indeed, the local politicians, although they are demis, make it a point to address their electors in Maori. The use of Maori allows easy and discrete criticism of aliens. French metropolitans living in Tahiti are unaware of this criticism unless they make an effort to learn the language.
On La Reunion, after few months of settlement, French metropolitans eventually become accustomed to the new sounds and the new syntax and are able to understand most of Creole. Yet, a psychological problem may occur when it comes to speak it. As Creole is close to French, it is relatively difficult for a native from France to speak it without having the underlying feeling of speaking a "little French", full' of "mistakes". That cannot be the case with Maori in Polynesia. Moreover, the colonial history of these two societies is quite different : there were people in Tahiti before the coming of the French but there was nobody in La Réunion before the French decided to establish themselves there three hundred years ago (2). Besides the entire population in La Réunion has its origins outside the Island This explains why the dominant model (that of the colonial and neo-colonial power) is the one that is most valued. A manifestation of the valorisation of the French language and implicitly of French ways can be found in the effort that native middle class people in La Réunion often make to encourage their children to speak French at home, even if they do not manage this language very well and still speak Creole between themselves. Thus for people who have learnt Creole during their early socialisation, French is the language of high status. With the same logic, the use of Creole in public contexts exhibits a certain deficiency.
Despite this ideological context, some local intellectuals have, since the seventies, been claiming a specific identity and advocating the use of Creole instead of French in everyday life in La Réunion (Armand 1983; Saint-Omer 1990; Marimoutou, J.C. 1992) (3). They revalidate Creole by writing about its literature (Cornu 1976; Armand & Chopinet 1984; Sam-Long 1989, 1990) and, for some, by using it during public settings (on television, on the radio, at the university, etc.). Before, the only place where the public use of Creole was not disparaged was in folksongs. These intellectuals, fully trained in French and for most of them in France (some teaching today French literature at the French University of the Island), also write novels and poetry in Creole. Their ideological position has progressively justified and revalued the usage of Creole in political discourse. Nevertheless, this usage is still often relegated to the last sentence of the discourse because too much Creole in a speech could be perceived by the electors as a sign of incompetence. Creole as a language is also used to define a "Creole identity", distinct from the French one (Gauvin 1977; Chaudenson 1985; Cellier 1986; Marimoutou J-C 1988; Armand 1990). Local intellectual leaders consequently also advocate Creole at school (4). Meanwhile, and this is an interesting detail, most of people from La Réunion do not want their children to receive an education in Creole at school. This very issue expresses the gap between a new generation of intellectuals and the larger population conditioned by the dominant ideology placing French above Creole. For most parents, the use of Creole at school would not favour a good educational training and, therefore, the acquisition of a higher status in society.
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Copyright © Christian GHASARIAN - 2002