Advancing African Languages in Education: Prospects and Progress for Teaching and Learning

Published On: 2 July 2024|

The increased need to integrate African languages in South Africa’s basic and higher education system to improve learner performance and foster inclusive teaching and learning environments was the central message from speakers at Universities South Africa’s USAf Community of Practice for the Teaching and Learning of African Languages (CoPAL) meeting on Friday 21 June 2024, online. The gathering brought together academics, educators, policymakers, and language experts to discuss integrating African languages within basic and higher education. Key presentations outlined ongoing efforts and future directions in implementing language policies in basic and higher education.

Challenges and strategies for promoting African languages

Professor Mantoa Motinyane (left), Director of the Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society at the University of the Western Cape, spoke on the topic Promoting African Languages in Education: Strategies for Integration and Advancement. She echoed the advocacy for Mother Tongue-Based Bilingual Education (MTbBE) in basic education, as highlighted by Doctor Naledi Mbude-Mehana later in the discussion, emphasising the critical role of linguistic diversity as the cornerstone of cultural diversity within the education system.

Professor Motinyane outlined persisting challenges in South Africa’s basic education system, attributing them to historical policies prioritising English and Afrikaans over African languages. She emphasised that these challenges are compounded by a “lack of stakeholder support and socio-economic factors, particularly impacting schools that use African languages.” She elaborated that “many South African learners struggle with the transition to English-medium education after initial years of instruction in their home language, significantly affecting comprehension and outcomes, especially in under-resourced schools.”

To address these issues, she proposed various strategies to promote the use of African languages in education. These include “utilising social media platforms to share success stories and research findings, collaborating with influential figures to endorse African languages, organising teacher workshops, conducting parent seminars, and holding community meetings.” She emphasised that these strategies are intended “to mobilise community support and enhance the role of African languages in teaching and learning.”

Implementation of mother tongue-based bilingual education

Dr Naledi Mbude-Mehana (right), Deputy Director-General of Language and Transformation at the Department of Basic Education (DBE), addressed the group on findings from her study: IsiXhosa as the Language of Teaching and Learning Mathematics in Grade Six: Investigating the Mother Tongue Based Bilingual Education MST Pilot in the Eastern Cape Province in South Africa. She reflected on the success of this study in generating findings that focused on the success of MTbBE assessment strategies for Grade 6 learners in the Eastern Cape. 

Mbude-Mehana said there was a “32% performance advantage for learners taught in their native language, IsiXhosa, in Grade 6 compared to those taught in English or Afrikaans.”  Elaborating on the transformative impact of this approach, Mbude-Mehana said “the study’s analysis of test scripts, which included low, medium, and high-order questions, demonstrated that MTbBE learners excelled across all question types compared to their peers.”

Strongly championing the adoption of African languages in teaching and learning, Dr Mbude-Mehana said “instructing learners in their home languages, with English playing a supportive role, is crucial. We need translanguaging practices to enhance teaching effectiveness, reduce anxiety, and foster inclusive learning environments.” She also pointed out the detrimental effect of denying learners of this opportunity: “If you remove the child’s language, you are hurting their ability to read, write, and learn Mathematics.”

Currently, the Eastern Cape is the only province offering bilingual question papers in six subjects—Mathematics, Physical Sciences, Life Sciences, Agricultural Sciences, and Accounting in matric trial examinations. Anticipating expanding this initiative to all provinces in 2025, the DDG: Language and Transformation advocated establishing national and provincial language units to ensure proper planning and implementation of language policies, supporting the broader adoption of MTbBE in South African basic education.

Towards funding for implementation

Mr Simon Goitsimodimo Motlhanke (left), Deputy Director: Higher Education Policy Making and Management in the Department of Higher Education Training (DHET), updated CoPAL members on the state of funding for language policy implementation at universities. He said the Language Policy Framework for Public Higher Education Institutions, which took effect from 2022, is backed by a budget allocation of R70.2 million over three years from 2024 to 2026. 

Motlhanke said the University of the Western Cape (UWC) was requested to coordinate the budget, as the first institution to implement this policy, having started preparatory work in 2023. He said since institutional project coordinators were appointed, public universities have provided substantial support for developing language development proposals. With nearly all universities’ funding submissions approved, disbursement began in April 2024. He added that the funds are being paid in phases: R1 million in the first year and R1.5 million in the second and third years.

He further reminded the attendees of focus areas deemed essential for implementing the Policy Framework, underlining “development workshops, terminology development, technology use, accessibility for visually and hearing-impaired students, and multilingual pedagogies.”

Other updates to CoPAL

CoPAL’s Deputy Chairperson, Professor Lolie Makhubu-Badenhorst, who is also Director: Multilingualism Education Project in the Centre for Higher Education Development of the University of Cape Town, shared insights from her presentation at USAf’s Teaching and Learning Strategy Group meeting on 31 May 2024. She had highlighted feedback from the recent CoPAL meeting held at Walter Sisulu University (WSU) on the language policy implementation process and its current status. CoPAL is responsible for guiding the USAf-supported language resources audit coordinated by the South African Centre for Digital Language Resources (SADiLaR), that is housed at the North-West University.  

Still on 21 June, the CoPAL meeting established an International Funding Opportunities task team, mandated to explore securing funding from international sponsors and institutions.  This team comprises Doctor Yanga Majola, Lecturer and Academic Manager for the Faculty of Humanities at the Tshwane University of Technology, Professor Hilda Israel, Dean of the Faculty of Education at the University of Mpumalanga, Doctor Dolly Dlavane, Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Education at North-West University, and Professor Nobuhle Hlongwa, Dean of the School of Arts in the College of Humanities at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Additionally, Professor Dion Nkomo, Associate Professor at Rhodes University, who is also an NRF SARChI Chair: Intellectualisation of African Languages, Multilingualism & Education, advised the group on current unavailability of NRF grants for collaborative applications through CoPAL. However, he encouraged applications for individual and international collaborative grants, advising institutions to monitor the NRF website for future calls. The NRF would continue to consult with the NRF regarding future funding opportunities for CoPAL members.

Monitoring and evaluation

Also noteworthy in the DHET input was Mr Motlhanke’s update on impending monitoring and evaluation visits to institutions, which would be carried out by an advisory panel constituted from representatives of the DHET and the Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB). In terms of another (2022) DHET brief, this advisory panel would rope in experts in language, policy making, project management and other skills to assist the panel in evaluating institutional plans for their conduciveness to achieve the goals of the Policy Framework. 

Scheduled between 2 September and 18 October 2024, the advisory panel visits aim to assess current progress in the implementation of the Language Policy Framework, and to address challenges early in the process. These monitoring and evaluation visits, according to Motlhanke, would be undertaken frequently throughout the three-year implementation cycle. “By the end of the financial year in March 2025, universities are expected to submit progress reports to track their achievements against set deliverables.”

CoPAL is chaired by Professor Nobuhle Hlongwa, Dean of the School of Arts in the College of Humanities at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. She is deputised by Professor Lolie Makhubu-Badenhorst, who, among her numerous credentials, also chairs the PanSALB.

  Kayley Webster is a Communication Consultant contracted to Universities South Africa.