Second language learning is quite a recent field of study in the Maritian context. Second language learning has been defined “as the study (of) the way in which people learn a language other than their mother tongue, inside or outside of a classroom.” (Ellis 1997). However, second language learning in Mauritius starts mostly in a formal setting. In Mauritius, English has no social functions within our community and learning English as a second language is basically for communication outside our own society. Although English is our official language, it plays only an institutional role, and is restricted to the classroom situation.
The objective of studying SLA is to show how an L2 is acquired, but in Mauritius, it will be referred to as “learning”. It is important to highlight the distinction between “acquisition” and learning because in Mauritius, English as an L2 is learned in an educational setting. If we had acquired the L2 in a natural context through interaction with native speakers of the mentioned language, then it would have been referred to as “acquisition.” It is a fact that English is not used for social interaction in Mauritius, except in rare cases of native speakers of that language.
The reasons why Mauritians study English are: to pass their examinations (most exams being set and assessed in English) and the official medium of instruction being in English, for career purposes, and to climb up the economic ladder or for further studies.
Status of English as a second language (L2)
English in Mauritius has an ambivalent status as, despite being the official language of Mauritians, it is not widely spoken as a mother tongue. It is the recognised language of the law, the government, the administration and education. On the other hand, since Mauritius is a multicultural society, Creole is the mother tongue or the first language (L1) of most Mauritians so that the population do not really interact in English on a social level.
However, the use of the L2 by Mauritians might vary between French or the Oriental languages or even Bhojpuri, which is mostly spoken in the rural areas. Therefore, the sociolinguistic scope of English is fairly restricted. For the majority of Mauritians, exposure to the English language starts in an academic setting, that is to say, at school. Furthermore, as mentioned above, a study of our educational system shows that English is supposed to be a medium of instruction, but, the fact remains that in some classroom situations, teachers and students are supposed to interact in English, but they occasionally switch to Creole and French.
In the aftermath of globalisation, English in Mauritius has been associated with a privileged group and it may happen that learners of English may be motivated to form part of the elite by sharing this common language. From the pre-primary level onwards, children are supposed to be exposed to the English language. However, in such a postcolonial setting as ours, we all know that in practice this is hardly the case, as most postcolonial nations struggle to develop a national consciousness by fighting to preserve their pre-colonial languages and cultures. At the primary level, children are assessed in English and all the subjects, except for French and the oriental languages, are taught in English.
On the other hand, Mauritians are becoming increasingly conscious of the growing importance of the English language as the key to opportunities in the education sector and in the workplace. It is a fact that students at any educational level are compelled to learn English so as to receive most forms of academic instruction. Hence, this explains the fact that there is a pressing need to explore the ways in which this second language is learned in Mauritius and the factors which affect the learning of that L2. This spirit is reflected through secondary level students who realise the importance of learning English as a second language, as a “credit” in that language, or a pass is required for a certificate to correspond with the basic requirements for entry into the civil service. The interest in the learning of English as an L2 can also be explained by the fact that Mauritians have become conscious of the fact that to be able to keep up with the effect of globalisation, monolingualism can no longer be the norm and hence the dominant monolinguality of our society.
In my dissertation, both external and internal factors which affect the learning of an L2 will be taken into consideration. These include the role of the social environment, the age at which learning takes place, the motivation and attitude of the learner towards the learning of an L2, personal ability, teacher’s attitude and the exposure to the target language. The aim of my research is therefore to analyse these factors which influence the learning of English as an L2. The selected learning environments are a ‘star’ school: Sir Veerasamy Ringadoo Government School which is found in an urban region as opposed to a ‘low-achieving’ school: St Mary RCA School with a lower level of proficiency in English and which is found in a rural region. Accordingly, the purpose of the study is to find out in what ways there is a correlation between our Mauritian home background and our academic achievement as far as learning a second language is concerned. According to researchers like Ellis, the age of the learner is an important determinant in the learning of an L2. The” critical period hypothesis” states that :”target-language competence in an L2 can only be achieved if learning commences before a certain age, for example before the onset of puberty is reached.(Ellis.1997:138)”The primary sector has been chosen for this study as students are usually of age 5 to 13 years old when they attend primary schools and as the acquisition/learning of an L2 is most favourable before the age of puberty, the study would be most relevant.