Are universities complying with the revised Language Policy Framework, or are they really committed to multilingualism?

Published On: 25 November 2022|

The stage has been set for universities to uplift the status of previously marginalised African languages. South Africa has revised the Language Policy for Public Higher Education Institutions with that aim. And university kingpins are gathering at the University of Pretoria (UP) this week for the second Vice-Chancellors’ Language Colloquium, to discuss the implementation of this policy. But does this mean that mindsets are changing to embrace multilingualism?

Even if they were, “changing mindsets on their own is not enough,” says Dion Nkomo (left), Associate Professor of African Language Studies at Rhodes University, where he is the National Research Foundation SARChI chair for the Intellectualisation of African Languages, Multilingualism and Education.

“It’s not as if it is the first time we’ve woken up and said: ‘Multilingualism is a good thing’. There’s nothing new in terms of discourse,” he says.

If we rewound to the first Vice-Chancellors’ Language Colloquium held at Stellenbosch University in September 2021, he said, everyone had agreed that multilingualism was important. However, that was followed by statements that it was not so easy to implement.

“We’ve been highlighting challenges or been giving excuses. The question is, are we at a point where we are ready to deal with the challenges, and not to make any more excuses? Are we ready to make sure that we can implement this? I think it’s too early to say, now,” he surmises.

How to stop the policy from being just a symbol

Many universities have established structures to look at the implementation of the Policy Framework, which was gazetted in October 2020 to be put into practice from the beginning of 2022. “But a committee just becomes a custodian if there is no one to actually get their hands dirty,” says Nkomo.

It is all very well for a higher education institution to declare it is committed to multilingualism and to announce which South African language or languages, besides English and Afrikaans, are its official ones. However, if there were not people to provide services in all those languages and to help translate documents, the policy would become symbolic, he said. That was another reason changing mindsets was not enough.

Be wary of compliance without commitment

The 2021 language colloquium revealed that vice-chancellors were really supportive of multilingualism. “As the initiative of USAf (Universities South Africa) and CoPAL (USAf’s Community of Practice for African Language), the colloquium was worthwhile in the sense that we got top university management talking to other stakeholders about the language policy.

“Vice-chancellors were engaging, trying to understand what people who are advocating for multilingualism think, and how multilingualism can contribute towards transformation – which I believe they are committed to. This was important because sometimes we may be committed to an ideal, but as long as we don’t understand it holistically, don’t appreciate its different elements, our transformation may be superficial; it may be window dressing,” the language expert goes on to say.

He continues that it was a milestone to see a move beyond perceptions such as “people are refusing to transform” and towards one of attempting to understand their challenges and perhaps “allaying those fears and proffering solutions to whatever challenges were real or perceived”.

Professor Nkomo cautions even then, however, of compliance without commitment towards implementation. The Language Policy Framework requires each university to submit an institutional language policy that is aligned to the framework. “So, while we see that universities are now updating their policies, that may not be sufficient evidence that the mindset has changed, because boxes need to be ticked that University X has submitted its language policy, University X has submitted its policy implementation plan, and so on,” he says.

Some universities have organised their own colloquia

One way to assess if mindsets have changed was to look at what institutions are doing in practice. For example, The University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) has its University Language Planning and Development Office (ULPDO), which implements the institution’s language policy through a range of activities. These include the Bua le Nna (Let’s Talk) project, started in 2014, of teaching conversational Sesotho to those students in its residences who cannot speak the language.

Nkomo says some institutions have been bringing in internal stakeholders, sometimes external ones at that, to look at how to implement multilingualism. “That, for me, is progress,” he states.

For examples, Rhodes University held a colloquium at the beginning of the year and invited colleagues from different universities to hear their views about the new language policy. In July, Rhodes held an internal colloquium, brainstorming with its academics and other role players such as the communications division “about how multilingualism could enhance their mandate within the academic project and institutional culture,” he illustrates.

Similarly, the University of Cape Town held a two-day hybrid colloquium in September, themed Establishing Common Ground, in collaboration with UKZN and the University of the Free State. All public universities were set to hear more about other institutions’ initiatives when they met at the University of Pretoria, either online or in-person, on December 1 and 2, at the Vice-Chancellors’ 2nd Language Colloquium.

“So universities are busy, trying to align their institutional language policies with the language policy,” he sums it all up.

Multilingualism coming to life at Rhodes University

As the SARChI chair for African languages based at Rhodes University, Nkomo is working to influence policy and practice beyond the institution, to across the sector and even internationally.

He said this facility, the South African Research Chair’s Initiative, is about intellectualising African languages that have been neglected and marginalised from education and other powerful sectors and promoting multilingualism. “Thus, it is also about transforming education, and, by implication, transforming our society,” says Nkomo.

“What the SARChI chair tries to do is to look at ways in which African languages can become functional official or academic languages, just like English and, to some extent, Afrikaans, because it is one thing recognising languages through policy, giving them that status. But it is something else to have those languages serve the functions of an official language. And while the Constitution says the languages should be treated with parity of esteem, we see English is still up there. And, honestly, Xitsonga is nowhere,” he posits.

“At Rhodes University, it is not just rhetoric; we have realised that language is an integral component of our academic project. A major milestone was including the language issue as an objective to be addressed in our five-year Institutional Development Plan (2023-2028),” Nkomo declares.

The university is also planning on establishing a language centre. Nkomo drew up a concept document about its value and possible operations. The vice-chancellor as well as the Equity and Institutional Culture Office and the University’s language committee supported the initiative. The document was about to be tabled before the Institutional Planning Committee enroute to the faculties and Senate for comment and approval, when the plans were derailed by CoViD-19 with its pressing priorities. Now it is back on the table, with Nkomo and his colleagues updating the document to expedite the process. Language centres are critical for driving the policy implementations, he maintains.

It is envisaged that the African Languages Development Unit will provide the foundation for Rhodes University’s language centre. The unit was established under the auspices of BAQONDE (Boosting the Use of African Languages in Education: A Qualified Organized Nationwide Development Strategy for South Africa). This is a European Union-funded consortium also involving UKZN, North-West University and the University of the Western Cape, as well as three European institutions – Salamanca University in Spain, Trinity College Dublin and the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. (Read more about BAQONDE at

Some individual Rhodes University academics from departments such as Economics, Psychology and Zoology have undertaken practical initiatives to develop African languages. Dr Siphokazi Magadla, Head of Department of Political and International Studies, has spearheaded one of the best examples. She has made provision for students to submit essays and write exams for her International Relations Studies course in isiXhosa, Sesotho and isiZulu. “This shows that while we identify the languages of the province in our institutional policy, we also recognise that we draw students from beyond our provincial and even national borders,” said Nkomo. And the increasing number of students willing to utilise such opportunities indicates mindsets are changing, he adds, since students now realise African languages can also serve as academic languages.

The role of the Department of Higher Education and Training

Nkomo finds it positive that accountability for the new language policy framework is shared between universities and the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET). Yet he is concerned about the Department’s progress thus far.

“We are at a juncture where the language policy implementation, or multilingualism, may fail to be realised. Not because universities have not tried to comply, but because the Department of Higher Education has not played its part, a role outlined in the language policy framework – funding. It is required to develop a funding mechanism to support universities. Instead of just monitoring them, DHET has an active role to play, and that we have yet to see.

“And it was ill-conceived. The Policy Framework was gazetted in 2020, implementation effective from 2022, yet it had to wait until 2022 to develop a funding mechanism. As universities need to start implementing, DHET is starting to work on the funding strategy.

“While the mindset is that multilingualism is an integral part of curriculum transformation and transforming our institutional culture, it needs resources. But it is worth investing in, for us to demonstrate the sincerity of our changing mindset.

“It will be interesting to hear at the Colloquium, how far DHET has gone to support us. Mindset change alone will not be sufficient,” said Professor Nkomo.

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.