Challenges confronting the teaching of African languages at South Africa’s universities require dedicated attention

Published On: 4 July 2022|

The possibility of a shortage of supply of African languages teachers across South Africa’s education landscape by 2030 became a subject of fierce debate among members of Universities South Africa’s Community of Practice for the Teaching and Learning of African Languages (CoPAL) recently.

At their third meeting for 2022, on 22 June, members of CoPAL expressed concerns around admission requirements, the rigour of programme offerings across institutions and current perceptions around studying African Languages as a distinct discipline. This debate was sparked by a statement made by Professor Mbulungeni Madiba (left), a Professor of African Languages who is also the Dean of Education at Stellenbosch University.

Professor Madiba had stated to CoPAL members that if South African universities were required to double teacher production to meet a spike in teacher demand by 2030, the need would probably be even higher for teachers of African Languages.

According to findings of a Demand and Supply of Teachers Study for South Africa that was completed in 2020, the demand for teacher graduates is expected to double from the current annual production of 25 000 to about 50 000 by 2030. This implies that universities need to double their teacher supply to counter the effect of the anticipated retirement of the current generation of teachers in the years leading up to 2030.

The study also found that the demand for teachers would likely taper off after 2030, albeit temporarily, for about a decade. In that period, teacher supply capacity might need to be downscaled to avoid saturating the system.

The Demand and Supply of Teachers Study for South Africa was commissioned by the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) in 2020 to investigate the past, current and future supply and demand of teachers in South Africa and to explore appropriate policy responses to the situation. Two economics professors undertook the study at Stellenbosch University. Following the DHET’s presentation of the findings of this study to Universities South Africa’s Education Deans Forum (EDF) in 2021, the EDF continues to contemplate the implications of the study’s findings and is expected to comment on the recommendations of the 2020 report, in due course.

As a member of the EDF and CoPAL, Professor Madiba raised this issue as an early warning to CoPAL for the members to consider a timely and appropriate course of action. He did mention, however, that whether South Africa faces an imminent crisis in teacher demand and supply by 2030 or not remains a subject of debate among education stakeholders.

Teachers’ supply and demand question opens a can of worms in CoPAL

Dr Elias Malete, Senior Lecturer and Head of the Department of African Languages within the Faculty of Humanities at the University of the Free State (UFS), responded by saying that the challenge of teachers’ demand and supply was not confined to basic schooling. He said the shortage of African Language lecturers was likely to be felt at the university level, thus urging his peers to take a serious look into universities’ admission requirements for post-graduate education qualifications. This would necessitate strengthening engagement between Faculties of Education and Humanities. Professor Nokhanyo Nomakhwezi Mdzanga, CoPAL’s Deputy Chairperson, agreed with the latter proposition.

As the debate extended to quality matters, Professor Madiba said “Foundation-phase teachers are being blamed for the inability of 8-to-10-year-olds to read for understanding. That brings into question the quality of teachers our universities produce. We need to look more closely into strengthening our training of language teachers.”

From the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Mr Khumbulani Mngadi (left), Acting Director in the University Language Planning and Development Office, introduced a perspective on the calibre of students being admitted to study languages, saying universities need to determine the type of attributes they expect in those students. “In the past, we attracted people who just wanted to get a foot into the university system yet had no interest at all in African Languages. We must prevent this abuse of our discipline.”

He also had an issue with admission requirements into language programmes. “Institutions offering teaching methods at the post-graduate level must re-examine their requirements for language teachers. Some admission requirements have a bearing on how African Languages are perceived.”

In support of this view, Professor Mdzanga added that the varying language requirements and programme offerings at different institutions also pose a problem. “We, at Nelson Mandela, expect a 60% pass at 3rd-year undergraduate as a requirement for entry into our Honours programme.

Transcripts of students from other universities suggest different approaches. Secondly, teachers going into teaching practice are expected to teach, for example, mathematics, in an African language at rural and township schools, yet all their training is done in English.” She said unless universities correct these practices, they are setting up teachers for failure.

Echoing Dr Malete’s views, Mr Mngadi also urged exploring synergies between higher and basic education. “We need to address the intellectualisation of languages in basic schooling so that this does not come as a surprise to new university entrants in this regard.”

Mr Mngadi also posited that the university language curriculum is not attractive to students. However, Dr Sylvia Zulu (left), Head of the Department of Media, Language and Communication at the Durban University of Technology, begged to differ. “We receive volumes of applicants from students seeking to pursue Language Practice. Perhaps we can look at our entrance requirements which are relatively low compared to those concerning other fields of study. When trying to raise the entrance requirements, we face resistance from the Centre for Quality Promotion and Assurance officials, who argue that the Programme is limiting access to students.”

Dr Zulu mentioned that many students resort to Language Practice after failing elsewhere to stay in the university system. “Some come to us after failing to articulate themselves properly in disciplines such as Tourism and Management Sciences.” She said language departments should be prioritising students for whom languages are the first choice in study programmes. “There are many factors we need to consider in resolving this issue. But this would require much more time and a dedicated focus.”

Ms Shilela Nkadimeng, Research Manager at Umalusi, lamented the absence, in South Africa, of linguists who could intersect language competence with research and assessment skills. “From a quality council perspective, we plead with CoPAL to also consider the direction that the National Education Collaboration Trust (NECT) is taking in capacitating teachers to become researchers. Universities could also consider this in teacher training. We need teacher expertise in examiners and moderators. Because they use scientific instruments for quality assurance, we spend long periods of time training them in basic scientific constructs on assessment, for instance. We must train teachers to become researchers to develop the competence to see the relationship between curriculum content, practice and assessment. They must show scientific rigour in dissecting the subject matter.”

Funding matters also came to the fore. Dr Sithembile Xeketwana, Lecturer and Researcher in Curriculum Studies in the Faculty of Education at Stellenbosch University, asked CoPAL to look at the funding issue. She mentioned that students pursuing the post-graduate certificate in Education tend to struggle to secure tuition fees – necessitating collaboration between departments of African Languages and Education.

Professor Stanley Madonsela (right), who is the Chair of the Department of African Languages at the University of South Africa, cited working in silos at colleges or faculties as the most significant challenge.  “In our Programme Qualification Mix (PQM) structure, we tend to reduce Humanities modules, especially African Languages. For example, students who are enrolled in Education programmes are required to take only levels one, and two, i.e. NQF5 and NQF6 of African languages, yet the expectation is that our graduates have to teach at FET phase and TVET colleges without any consideration of the sufficient skills acquired to teach at that level.

“Lack of funding for other fields in Humanities also tends to attract students to Education [which offers bursaries and other financial assistance]. These dynamics require robust discussions among our institutions to design a curriculum that reflects the kind of students we seek to produce. Colleges or faculties need to work together to produce the type of graduates that the labour market will absorb.  Do our students acquire enough skills to go out and teach languages, or not?” Professor Madonsela challenged his peers.

In response to these deliberations, the Chairperson of CoPAL, Professor Langa Khumalo (right), said he welcomed the idea of incorporating the agenda concerning the next generation of African language teachers into the CoPAL discourse. He added that as the teaching world was increasingly digitising, CoPAL must begin “to examine the value we are creating for the teaching of African Languages from a digitised perspective.”

The CoPAL Chair agreed that the group needed to look seriously into malpractices in teaching African Languages, including the disconnectedness between higher and basic education in language approaches. “Failing to invest time and effort in the Department of Basic Education might undermine the inroads we’re making in higher education,” Professor Khumalo said, adding that this was one of the areas that the envisaged DHET Advisory Panel on Multilingualism, once constituted, could be asked to investigate.

Considering all inputs made at the meeting on 22 June, Professor Khumalo agreed that the question of supply and demand for African Languages teachers did warrant its dedicated symposium. As intimated by Professor Madiba, CoPAL might need to investigate the extent of supply and demand of African language teachers in the period leading up to 2030 and beyond, before contemplating a response.

CoPAL is one of nine active communities of practice of Universities South Africa (USAf). Its broad aim is to promote and strengthen the teaching and learning of African Languages in South Africa’s public universities by, among other activities, promoting the development and implementation of language policies across universities with the intent of intellectualising them and elevating them to mainstream media of instruction. CoPAL regards the equitable use of African Languages in mainstream teaching and learning as central to South Africa’s broader transformation project.

The Education Deans Forum, also a USAf community of practice, seeks to foster research in the broad field of Education towards continuous improvement of teacher education; to promote South Africa’s education interests by providing a platform for deans to discuss matters of common concern in the delivery of teacher education, and, finally, to bring to the attention of policymakers, emerging issues on the Education discipline.

In the pursuit of their respective mandates, CoPAL and the EDF often invite policymakers from the government to their meetings to share insights on emerging policy considerations and developments and to jointly explore solutions to national challenges.

‘Mateboho Green is Manager: Corporate Communication at Universities South Africa.