Mauritian Creole, French, and English: A Complete Traveller’s Guide to the Languages of Mauritius
After three months in Mauritius and talking to a bunch of people about it, I think I’ve figured out a little about the languages of Mauritius. As usual, there’s politics and class involved. Language is a somewhat sensitive issue, so I’ll try to tread lightly.
But trying to understand the situation of the languages of Mauritius was very difficult before arriving in Mauritius. I didn’t understand — what exactly was the spoken language here? Is it Mauritian Creole, French, or English?
There are various guides online (like the brief passages in Wikipedia). But Mauritius isn’t a big enough country for people to have done in-depth work on it. On top of that, there’s sensitivity about the history of various ethnic groups and their relationship with language.
We were wondering, and sought answers for:
- What’s the best language to use for travelling around Mauritius — French or English?
- What is Mauritian Creole?
- Should we learn Mauritian Creole?
- How hard is Mauritian Creole to learn?
- Is Mauritian Creole a language or a dialect?
After spending a few months in Mauritius we figured a few of these things out, and wanted to share.
Languages of Mauritius — In a Nutshell
Before coming to Mauritius, I did know a little about the languages of Mauritius via my Mauritian friends. Never investigating too deeply (despite knowing two of them quite well), I thought of them as French speakers.
I thought they were primarily French speakers because I had heard my friends speaking French to people (both to other French-speaking foreigners in non-French speaking parts of the world, or in France itself), and because when speaking English they had what I considered to be a quite strong French accent (I now know this to be a Mauritian accent).
But in doing research on Mauritius, I also knew, from some cursory searching on the Internet that by far, the most widely spoken language on Mauritius is Mauritian Creole.
“What’s Mauritian Creole?” I thought. It was quite hard to find out much. All I could figure out is that while it’s not an official language, it’s widely spoken, and unique to Mauritius. It has some similarities to Haitian Creole in that it has French origins and a simplified structure, but it’s entirely different.
Landing in Mauritius, I quickly realised that most people use Mauritian Creole for most things — speaking at home, with service people, and even in the workplace.
However, you can also use French or English in Mauritius. The degree to which I could use each was what surprised me.
The “Official” Languages of Mauritius
Even this is a sensitive subject. But technically, the official language of Mauritius is English.
Government communications are mostly in English, and English is the language of diplomacy.
The Constitution of Mauritius doesn’t mandate a language for the general public, but it does mandate one for the Assembly.
The official language of the Assembly shall be English but any member may address the chair in French.Constitution of the Republic of Mauritius, clause 49
Other clauses in the Constitution mention English but not French. It does not mention Creole. But importantly, nowhere is an “official” language for the country specified.
According to other official resources, English is the official language of Mauritius, with French extensively used and Creole widely spoken.
So the official language is English. What’s the reality?
Languages in “Real” Mauritius
The general summary of most Mauritians is that they speak Creole first and most easily, French second, and English third.
But there are some Mauritians who speak French, then either Creole or English. Additionally, there are many who speak Creole for day-to-day affairs, but because of education and experience, feel more comfortable in English or French for professional topics.
It depends a little on where you grow up and how you’re educated. There are families in which only French is spoken. They are often more well-off and send their children to private schools where only French is spoken.
People who grow up in those environments feel 100% comfortable in French. They may also feel 100% in Creole, but there are people who don’t really speak Creole (by choice), though they understand it.
As for English — many people speak English at an advanced professional level. If you go to a doctor or dentist (which I had to), you can assume they speak English naturally and confidently.
Moreover, many people in the service industry, even at random little restaurants, speak good English. But you can’t assume it’s the case. We even encountered people in high-end resorts who weren’t comfortable in English (and misunderstood and then misinformed us about things).
And finally, whether someone speaks French or English better (in addition to Creole) also depends on generation and how people grew up. Some older folk may have had more exposure to one language than another in their lifetimes, and this will dictate which they’re more comfortable with. Generally, I let others decide.
Should you use French or English in Mauritius as a visitor?
As a traveller, you presumably don’t know Mauritian Creole. There are very limited resources to learn it, and it’s not the most practical language to learn unless you commit to Mauritius long-term (which is a separate topic), though it’s not hard either (also another topic).
So the question becomes — what should you speak in Mauritius, French, or English?
I would say: Speak French even if you don’t speak it natively. Speak English if you don’t and you’ll be fine.
You can also use French for most things and it’s widely understood. The reason it feels natural to speak French is that many people understand it, and Kreol derives so much from French that in group situations, it feels much more natural to have a mixed Creole / French environment than a mixed Creole / English environment.
For example, a group setting I’m often in is my gym classes where the coach is instructing us on a certain move. He speaks English and in private sessions we speak English. But in group sessions, he addresses everyone in Creole and I try to get by. When I have a question, I ask him in French and he responds in French. This ensures maximum inclusion.
English, while well understood in written form, is less well understood colloquially. Depending on whom you’re speaking with, you might struggle to a degree to communicate in English.
In public schools, teachers usually speak Creole to children. And in private schools, they may use either French or English. Only a minority of people can afford to go to private schools.
However, in school, people always learn English, sometimes learn French, and often learn a “heritage” language, like Mandarin Chinese, Urdu, or Hindi (but they may not learn these last ones fluently unless they’ve taken it very seriously).
If you speak English best, you should generally have no trouble in Mauritius speaking transactionally with people. People will understand and be able to communicate about what you want to buy or to help you out.
Of course, there are many highly educated people who speak English well in Mauritius, particularly the professionals you’d encounter in metropolitan areas, though not exclusively. Many people I met just know English from watching TV shows, YouTube videos of things they’re interested in, and so on. So I can talk to them about hobbies / mutual interests in English if needed.
But with people on the street, you can only be sure to be able to get through basic transactions in English. Going further may be possible, but not guaranteed.
So if you want to speak English to really connect with people on a personal level, you’ll be more limited in who you can communicate with. It’d only be with people who are well-travelled or who have a good education (or who just tried hard to learn English well).
If you want to connect with people, I would suggest you use French (or Creole). French isn’t an official language of Mauritius, but it’s widely spoken and understood for historic reasons. People also learn it in school.
The reality of the way I use language in Creole is that
- I speak French to people and they mostly understand.
- They may choose to speak English to me, if they’re more comfortable in English (depends on the generation)
- They may also just speak back to me in Creole and I mostly understand.
- After they realise I don’t speak Creole, they may speak to me in French … or just speak to me less.
There are some rare situations where we’ve tried speaking English to people. But we’ve found that even in places like touristy destinations (we spent a few days on a resort, for example), most people are much more comfortable in French than English.
What is Mauritian Creole?
Mauritian Creole is a simplified colloquial language with a vocabulary largely derived from French.
At first blush, Mauritian Creole sounds a lot like French (especially to a non-native speaker). But if you speak French, it just sounds like a foreign language with a lot of French loanwords.
Local speakers call it Creole, or Kreol in written form. We’ll call it Creole, following the convention of writing about it with its English name, much like we call French just that, and not “français“.
Mauritian Creole has a lot of words that come from French but are written quite differently. To me, someone who speaks French fluently but not as a native speaker, here’s how I relate to Mauritian Creole after a couple of months of hanging out with Mauritians:
- I can 80% understand Mauritian Creole when it’s spoken to me in passages, but I will often not understand brief phrases.
- I can only understand the gist of Mauritian Creole when it’s spoken between other people (e.g. banter)
- I can only speak basic Mauritian Creole phrases and it feels artificial / unnecessary to do so (other than greetings and slang).
- When other people speak with each other in Creole, I barely understand a thing other than occasional words. It’s a bit like listening to Portuguese as a Spanish speaker for example.
Here are some examples of how Mauritian Creole relates to French. See the below words and phrases I’ve picked up in my time here:
|I don’t understand||Mo pa konpran||Relates to french comprendre with the pas negator|
|How are you?||Ki manyer?||Sounds French, but isn’t related to any common phrase|
|Fine||Korek||Like French correct, which is not used this way|
|Thank you||Mersi||Like French merci|
|Please||silvuple / silteple||Like s’il vous plâit / s’il te plâit|
|Do you speak Creole?||To koz kreol?||The verb koz/koze is like the slang French word for “to speak”, causer|
|It doesn’t matter||Peu import||Like the French phrase peu importe which is more formal and more used for “regardless”|
|Today / yesterday / tomorrow||Zordi / yer / demin||Similar to aujourd’hui, hier, and demain|
|I need||Mo bizin||Like besoin in French|
|You can’t||Ou pa kapav||French pas negator, plus the word kapav which seems related to capable|
|Water||Delo||Like French de l’eau, but always written / said as one word|
|Car||Loto||Like l’auto, now old-archaic, as French say la voiture.|
Many other things in Mauritian Creole sound French, e.g. everyday greetings, times of day, numbers, and so on.
However, there are plenty of words that don’t have any obvious relationship to modern French when you first hear them. Some of these are derived from lesser-known French ways of articulating things. For example:
|To look||Gete / get|
Related to a lesser-used word in French, guetter
Related to “à cette heure”, an older way of saying “now”, still used in some parts of the French speaking world. Thanks to the reader who pointed this out!
|A little bit||En tipe|
Related to “un petit peu”, spoken quickly
(may be related to quelque chose à faire)
Of course, these may have roots in French. But they’re just Creole now.
Even though Mauritian Creole has its roots in French, it’s much simpler. For example
- There is no conjugation in Mauritian Creole. Hooray! There is what sounds like an “infinitive” but really it’s better understood as a verb stem with sometimes -e (pronounced like French -er) at the end.
- You express continuous present tense, future tense etc. with particles.
- There’s no gender in nouns (e.g. la table, le frigo in French… no such concept in Creole)
- There’s no plural form of words — though there are plural marking words (meaning like “many”)
- There’s no “to be” word, like être in French. So you say mo isi to say “I’m here”, rather than je suis ici as you would in French.
Fun tip — many other advanced languages also don’t have a “to be” word. Arabic and Russian are two examples. It’s amazing what you can do without.
And Chinese and Korean also lack conjugation, gender, and plurals, as may some other Asian languages.
I really like the simplifications that are present in Mauritian Creole and wish most languages could evolve that way. There’s sometimes elegance in the complexity of other languages — but you really don’t need all that fanciness to communicate.
When it gets too complicated, like in the case of Arabic, nature finds a way, and people speak in simplified forms of the standard language.
Should you learn Mauritian Creole?
Here’s the question! I wondered if I should, but ultimately I didn’t have enough time amidst all my other commitments.
There’s no harm in learning! Many French-speakers who live in Mauritius long-term learn to understand Creole, and speak French back to people.
The advantage of learning Mauritian Creole, aside from 1:1 situations, is understanding Creole in group situations. For example, when I hear announcements or when our coach speaks to us in a group, he uses Creole for maximum comprehension, and I just have to get by. (I sometimes clarify later for critical points.)
The biggest challenges with learning Creole are that
- You don’t really “need” to — it’s possible to connect quite well with people just using French
- The resources are very limited — you’ll find teachers, but few experienced teachers and very few quality learning resources.
If you’re staying for any period of time longer than a month and you already speak French, I’d definitely suggest learning to understand the basics of Mauritian Creole.
There are very few books around on Amazon and on the internet. Contact us if you’re interested and we’ll share what we have.
We’ll put together a quick guide to Mauritian Creole phrases soon.
Is Mauritian Creole hard?
Mauritian Creole isn’t too hard. While I haven’t formally learned to speak it and just tried to learn to understand it, I can describe for you the challenges you’re likely to find.
If you’re a French speaker, it’s easy to learn to understand Creole. The fact that the vast majority of the vocabulary comes from French means that you mostly would have to learn the way sentences are constructed and become familiar with pronouns and common verbs to understand Creole.
For example, the first time I heard the phrases mo pas konpran, pankor, and korek? I knew from context what they meant. The last one is derived from correct? and is colloquial for “all good?”
But if you don’t speak French, you’ll find yourself in an upward battle to learn Mauritian Creole, as you’ll have to learn many words from scratch, and learn to pronounce them in the Mauritian Creole accent, which is roughly as difficult as the French accent.
If you don’t speak French and you are committing to Mauritius for a while, I think it’d be beneficial to learn
- A bunch of 100-250 handy phrases in Mauritian Creole, including all the greetings, basic shopping phrases, and numbers (which are the same as French, and include wonderful Frenchisms like describing 95 as quatre-vingt quinze, or “four-twenty-fifteen”)
- Then French properly
- Mauritian Creole as you learn French
You could skip learning French, but I’m not suggesting learning French just for fun. Sometimes, it’s literally the best lingua franca. And sometimes even official government communications are in French.
And since French is the basis of Mauritian Creole, it’ll put a lot of Creole into context. Since French is a widely spoken written language, learning it has many other obvious benefits too.
Is Mauritian Creole a Written Language?
Mauritian Creole was only recently codified in terms of orthography and grammar in 2011 and 2012. So I see written signs, public announcements, and advertisements in Mauritian Creole.
See here for an official dictionary of Mauritian Creole
Writing things in Mauritian Creole has maximum effect, especially as you can use slang and it’ll hit home.
E.g. this little note for free candies at my gym:
To a French speaker who sounds this out, it sounds like it might mean Ne pas faire gourmand… 1 seul par personne (dimoun being related to “du monde” and implying people).
But the word gourma actually means, according to my helpful friend Umayr (thank you!), someone greedy and rude and who tends to take too much food.
So things are written in Creole regularly. Quite often, I see signs written in either a) English or French, b) English + French, or c) English + French + Creole.
Sometimes they’re just in Creole though. For example, this sign in a park:
This sign is entirely in Mauritian Creole and is about respecting Mauritius by throwing out trash and recycling correctly, and advising of fines. I presume it’s written in Creole for maximum effect.
However, even though I’ve seen a lot of other written Mauritian Creole, I’ve noticed that there are differing interpretations of the standardisation. I’ve seen common words spelled differently, even mo and mon for “I/me”.
By and large, here are the general rules I’ve noticed to be common for writing Mauritian Creole.
Firstly, it’s phonetic. Forget de l’eau of French; it’s delo in Mauritian Creole. Similarly, bonsoir is more written bonswar in Mauritian Creole.
Secondly, in Creole, Mauritians often use a letter “z” to denote the soft “j”. For example, “Bonzour!”
Finally, don’t worry about silent -er endings as you’d find in French; an -e will suffice.
Where is Mauritian Creole going to go?
I’m always interested in the evolution of languages, particularly primarily spoken ones that don’t have official status, like Egyptian Arabic.
Since Mauritian Creole was standardised, more and more people speak it. But it’s difficult to do proper census studies on them. I’ve read a few attempts, but they themselves admit that it’s hard to get honest answers on the percentage of Creole speakers because
- The census studies themselves were done in English or French, priming a certain response
- French and English are widely considered more “prestigious” than Creole, and so people may prefer to be associated with them
- The studies were done in schools, which excludes people who don’t go to school (a minority, but existent nonetheless), and further complicates the “prestige” problem
The above are generalisations. But despite these, various researchers have found that Creole is becoming more widespread.
I took a written test in Mauritius for example for a non-profit that has official status. The test was in English, but I was given the option of responding in English, French, or Mauritian Creole.
A friend I met here who left Mauritius decades ago (but who frequently visits) told me she was quite shocked at how much Mauritian Creole changed. She said many more people speak it now than 20 years ago, and there are so many new words and phrases that she has had to learn.
So I do see Creole as getting broader acceptance in Mauritian society. I suspect that in the next decades we’ll see it getting official status. But given English’s dominance worldwide and the fact that Mauritius is such a small island, it has a rocky path ahead of it, and it may just stay as the local language spoken in homes.
For now, it’s fine to speak English and French as a visitor. But just as with many other local languages — learn a few phrases of Mauritian Creole and you might just earn a smile.