Madagascar is unique in several ways. One is that there is only one language for the more than twenty million people living here. On mainland Africa south of Sahara, Somalia is the only country that can compare in this respect. And in most countries in the world, several languages are spoken, by different ethnic groups. This has brought many governments to decide on a common language, used in education, in business or in administration. Often this will be the language of a former coloniser, a majority group, or a group with enough power to decide.
In Madagascar, in spite of their common Malagasy language, French is the language used for instruction, administration, media and generally as the common, official language. Children are taught in French from class one in primary school, even if they have only used Malagasy until then and don’t know any French. How is it to learn to read and write, having to learn it in a new language? This was mentioned in the workshop today as a drawback for students coming into higher education. Being bilingual from the early years may develop understanding and mastery of concepts, research says. But children should learn to read and write in their first language.
It is good, and necessary, to know a language that is used internationally. But the foreign language that was introduced, or imposed on the people of Madagascar the way it was done by the colonial power, has not been a good influence on the society. As has neither of the many other influences the colonisers had on Madagascar and on Africa.
In the quiet evening here I am reading Paul Theroux: The last train to Zona Verde, on his travels from South Africa through Namibia and Angola in 2011. He also made another overland journey from Cairo to Cape Town in 2001. He is a keen observer and a very good writer, and one of his returning issues is the Western influence. And I wonder, how would these places have been had they been allowed to continue on their own premises? It is impossible to know, but a challenging thought.