Interview with Linguist Fabiola Henri

August 2, 2018 10:30 am

Fabiola Henri has been an Assistant Professor at the University of Kentucky since 2014. She received a Ph.D in Linguistics from the University of Paris Diderot, France in 2010. She is a creolist who primarily focuses on the structure and complexity of morphology in creole languages from the perspective of recent abstractive models, with insights from both information-theoretic and discriminative learning. Her work examines the emergence of creole morphology as proceeding from a complex interplay between sociohistorical context, natural language change, input from the lexifier, substratic influence, unguided second language acquisition, among others. Her main interests lie within French-based creoles, and more specifically Mauritian, a language which she speaks natively. Her publications and various presentations offer empirical and explanatory view of morphological change in French-based creoles, with a view on morphological complexity, which starkly contrasts with exceptionalist theories of creolization.

1. When and why did you decide to study creole languages?

For as long as I can remember, I have always been passionate about languages. After graduating high school with arts and language A-levels, I registered for a French BA at the University of Mauritius, where I was introduced to linguistics and research on the complex diglossic relation among languages on the island. I am myself a native speaker of Mauritian (Kreol), a French-lexified creole, spoken by an estimated 90% of the population. Growing up as a creolophone, I was painfully aware of the prejudices that plague creole languages time and time again. You would be scolded for using it in the classroom and on the playground, choosing French over Kreol would mark you as educated and sophisticated. The fact that creole languages were the subject of scientific research created a sense of pride and empowerment. The ongoing debate on the status of Kreol and language policy fascinated me, yet I was driven towards grammar. People routinely insinuated that creoles were broken languages devoid of grammar or complexity. I thought that if I emphasized how creoles actually possessed complex grammars, these languages could come to be regarded differently. I went on to pursue the type of formal training I sought at La Sorbonne Nouvelle Paris 3 University and later at Paris Diderot Paris 7 with research on the nominal and verb morphosyntax in Mauritian.

2. What status do creole languages have in linguistics and the educational system in Mauritius?

Despite its use by Mauritians of different ethnicities, kreol, akin to other creole languages, is routinely described as a broken language devoid of grammar. It is argued that it cannot be used in prestigious domains and does not make headway toward socioeconomic advancement or the global society. This negative perception echoes the widespread claim in linguistics that creole languages emerge through complexification of a pidginized colonial language. Some linguists even go on to argue that creoles (and pidgins) are typologically different from other natural languages.

The Mauritian education is built on the British colonial system, with English as the medium of instruction, French as mandatory next to other subjects and an `ancestral’ language, which has included Kreol since 2011. The strict correlation between languages and ethnic identity in Mauritius, makes Kreol the language de facto associated with Creoles—Mauritians of African descent. Before the introduction of Kreol in state primary schools, Mauritian pupils of African ancestry took chapel and etiquette classes instead of the rigorous language courses offered to students from other ethnic backgrounds.

The introduction of Kreol as a medium of instruction has been the subject of fiery debates and is highly politicized given the relation between language and identity. However, there are reasons to believe that the percentage of failures and dropouts is mainly due to proficiency in the language of instruction. In fact, English remains so foreign to Mauritian pupils that teachers usually resort to explaining new concepts in French or Kreol and dictating notes in English. Acquiring a Mauritian education is clearly a considerable struggle for creolophones.

3. Your research on the morphological change in French-based creoles contrasts with the exceptionalist theories of creolization; can you please give us some insights?

I previously mentioned that one of the common beliefs in Linguistics is that creoles emerge through nativization of a pidginized colonial language. Pidgins are themselves said to result from a `break’ in language transmission causing the stripping down of complex (morphological) features that colonial languages exhibit. Exceptionalist theories extend this idea by claiming that creoles are typologically distinct from other languages. In my work, I have shown that the type of morphological change seen in verbs from French to French-based creoles is expected, given the organization of the French paradigm. Their exaptation to assume their respective function is compatible with the view that language is a complex adaptive system and language learning is essentially discriminative.

4. Why is it important to study creole languages? What contribution does the study of these languages make to linguistics?

I believe that because they count among the youngest languages to have emerged, we may be able to trace their development. Creole languages might be the key to uncovering how languages emerge and the complexity of language acquisition.

5. What is special about linguistics work in Mauritius? Are there specific difficulties you face, or specific advantages you have? In addition, have these changed through the years?

It’s always nice to conduct fieldwork in your own country and on your own language. You are familiar with it; you can make predictions about particular linguistic phenomenon and interview other native speakers to empirically assess these hypotheses. But, the continuous prejudice that kreol faces always saddens me.

6. While reading one of your articles, I recall you mentioning that one pupil complained about lessons in English while you were teaching in Mauritius. Could you elaborate on this particular situation?

After graduating from my Masters in 2004, I went back home to teach in an underprivileged Mauritian high school. Kreol speakers were continually penalized in an education system still so foreign to them. I thought that students would benefit from conducting the class in English and stimulating its use in discussions. After two weeks or so, one pupil complained to me about conducting my Sociology lessons in English, “If you had been on TV”, he said in Kreol, “I would have switched channels.” Already struggling students gained little knowledge from being instructed in a foreign language and subsequently found classes boring. Excluding children’s native languages from the classroom has proven to lead to academic failures, with many dropping out of school at an early age.

7. What are the most crucial traits that a linguist has to possess nowadays and what, in your opinion, lies in the future for linguistics?

There is an ongoing reconceptualization of the field of linguistics, addressing its objects of inquiry, its research methodologies, and its principles of theory construction. Linguistic research employs more and more experimental, statistical and computational methods in identifying hitherto undetected regularities. In addition, the pledge for AI has brought linguists to the forefront of this new era. Together with other engineers, they contribute to better the human-computer interaction.

Interview conducted by Raginee Poloogadoo – Terminology Study Visitor at the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament (Luxembourg) and a student of the Master´s Programme in Learning and Communication in Multilingual and Multicultural Contexts at the University of Luxembourg. She holds a Bachelor of Law from Northumbria University, UK and a Post Graduate Diploma in International Trade and Commercial Law from the Nottingham Trent University, UK and Diploma in Professional Mediation Practices, France. She speaks Mauritian Creole, English, French, Hindi, German and Luxembourgish.


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