Language in Mauritius

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We first encountered French-speaking people of South Asian descent in Madagascar, in the coastal town of Tulear in 2005.  It felt like quite an oddity—similar to when one hears an East Asian person with an southern American accent.  I subsequently learned that there’s a country basically full of French-speaking Indians:  Mauritius.

Since then, I’ve been curious to visit Mauritius, largely because of its mixed colonial and ethnic history.  Mauritius was controlled by the Dutch, French, and English, before it became an independent country.  Uninhabited until colonial times, its population is entirely composed of people who came to settle or work:  largely Indians (68%), but also Africans, Chinese, and Europeans.  It was hard for me to imagine what a country with such a composition would look or feel like.  (I was also intrigued by its beaches and its status as a sort of tax haven for corporations.)  Mauritius has proved as interesting as I had hoped.

The most obvious remnant of its mixed French and English history (the Dutch period was early and brief) is language.  When the British took over Mauritius from France during Napoleonic times, they assured the local population that it could maintain its language, customs and laws.  To this day, almost all Mauritians speak a Creole French as their primary language.  With outsiders, however, Mauritians seem quite comfortable in both standard French and English—more than, I would say, the typical Quebecois, who probably feels significantly more comfortable in one language than the other.  Signs are often bilingual, but many are written in just English or just French, assuming bilingual literacy of consumers and drivers.

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The occasional advertisement is in Creole.

A quadrilingual memorial to the nation’s founder, located in the botanical garden in Pamplemousses.  The Chinese population is small, but concentrated in the capital and economically powerful.  Perhaps also due to the economic power of China, there is more signage in Chinese than I would have guessed.

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