Dedicated infrastructure, resources, and collaboration, must drive multilingualism implementation at universities

Published On: 6 December 2022|

Stakeholder engagement, dedicated infrastructure, collaboration between universities and partnerships with other entities are key to furthering the implementation of multilingualism in public universities.

“We must seriously advance transformation and decolonisation and not just make cosmetic changes and lip service. We need to use African languages to deal with the real issues of inclusion, social justice and access to knowledge. To achieve this, there has to be a shift in universities to using African languages more meaningfully,” said Professor Mbulungeni Madiba (left), Dean of Education at Stellenbosch University.

Professor Madiba was facilitating a discussion on Shifting Paradigms and the Role of African languages in Administration, Research and Teaching & Learning, during the 2nd Vice-Chancellors’ (VCs) Consultation Colloquium on the revised Language Policy Framework for Public Higher Education Institutions, which was held in a hybrid format at the University of Pretoria’s Hatfield campus, from 1-2 December. The Colloquium was held under the leadership of Universities South Africa’s (USAf’s) Community of Practice for the Teaching and Learning of African Languages (CoPAL) in collaboration with the University of Pretoria.

In kicking off the discussion, Professor Madiba asked the audience to suggest strategies to enable institutions to entrench African languages in administration, research and teaching & learning.

An enabling Infrastructure

Mr Khumbulani Mngadi (left), Director in the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Language Planning and Development Office said “language departments must drive the implementation, centrally. But where to locate those departments must be advised here. At UKZN, the language directorate sits with teaching and learning, which enables us to feed from the teaching and learning strategy and get direction from there on how the language issue should be approached.”

The second input moved that Council at all universities should have language sub-committees to influence Council decision making towards the development of African languages. “Every faculty should have their own subcommittee which would form part of the Senate language committees. Currently, only one or two faculties – usually Education and Humanities – generally drive the language agenda.”

Translate documents for inclusive communication in administration

It was suggested that all institutional documents be translated, and that signage, including at emergency exits and similar spaces, should include African languages. Dr Mngadi cited, for instance, that at UKZN, all their correspondence is translated into the languages of the university, currently isiZulu, along with English.

But Dr Jacqui Lück, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Applied Language Studies and Acting Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Humanities at Nelson Mandela University, advocated a consultative approach for broader support, and success. “At Nelson Mandela, we held conversations across the university which included our administration colleagues. Many people did not understand the impact of language until we had these important conversations. We suddenly saw organic change where memos began to come out in three languages. It was not a top-down decision or quick fix – we took people along with us on this journey.”

Regarding translation, Professor Monwabisi Ralarala (left), Dean in the University of the Western Cape’s Department of Linguistics, said even though departments can provide translation or interpretation services, “the challenge goes beyond documents. For example, will university disciplinary hearings accommodate the language of the person at the centre of the hearing? Language has potential to influence the outcome of a process when people are able to articulate themselves in their mother tongue.” He made another example: “If an academic or researcher is being recruited to perform their functions in Afrikaans, let them be interviewed in that language. We must be deliberate and intentional in the decisions we make.”

Professor Nokhanyo Mdzanga, outgoing Deputy Chair of CoPAL and Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at Nelson Mandela University, mentioned as a problematic tendency, the assumption that anyone who speaks a specific language, such as a Xhosa speaking cleaner, can be called in to interprete when a non-English speaking Xhosa person is being interrogated on an issue.

The University of Pretoria’s Secretary for the SRC, Mr Tarik Lalla (right), persuaded that before the use of indigenous languages could be institutionalised for administrative purposes, all stakeholders’ support, including students’ buy-in, must first be secured. “We can have the most excellent policies but unless students embrace them, they will not work. We will be setting the entire project for failure. So, extensive engagement with our student bodies, to explain why we’re pushing for multilingualism, is inevitable.” The session’s chair agreed that it was critical to create language awareness across campuses.

In wrapping up this session, Prof Madiba said “we need to shift from cosmetic use of African languages to deal with real issues of inequality, social access and identity.” He also mentioned that the Pan South African Language Board had a very good set of guidelines for using indigenous languages for administrative purposes.

Language for Research, Teaching and Learning

Turning to research, Professor Madiba asked: Should all master’s and PhDs research in African Languages be conducted in the target language?

Professor Ralarala mentioned that the South African Journal of African Languages was now opening up space for scholars to publish in their languages, and that Routledge Publishers were also open to that idea — something in the pipeline for 2023. “Specialised knowledge will be available in the language of the people which, to date, has been shared through other languages, such as English.”

He however cautioned against forcing people to publish in the vernacular, championing that people be given options. That said he acknowledge that at Stellenbosch University, some of the best scientists, the best engineers and the best legal minds had been trained in Afrikaans and had written their dissertations in that language. “Regarding African languages, we need to start somewhere and, along the way, we will be able to develop the relevant terminology.”

USAf’s CEO, Dr Phethiwe Matutu, expressed concern that not much was being said about looking at language in multi-disciplinary research. “Rather than compel people to research in a particular language, language could be part of multidisciplinary teams — provided the university provides an enabling environment.”

A delegate from the University of South Africa said they had once receiveda research proposal written in isiSwati, but did not have the resources to process it. In response, Professor Madiba said a solution to such challenges could be to develop a database of human resources available in different languages to enable collaborations across institutions. Professor Madiba said we often forget that our people in the universities are our own resources who can promote the use of language across all domains.

Professor Nobuhle Hlongwa, Dean and Head of the School of Arts at UKZN, maintained that African languists “should not be apologetic about using African languages in conducting and writing our research. We have to encourage staff members and colleagues to publish in African languages. Furthermore, we need to incentivise publication in African languages. Unless we do so, in the next five or 10 years, we will still be singing the same song.”

Professor of Law, Caroline Nicholson (right), who is also UP’s Registrar, asked the audience to differentiate between teaching a language and learning in a language. “In the teaching and learning environment, for instance, the teaching of the languages is very important for capacitating teachers to teach in those languages at school. In the research environment, I agree that we give people a choice. But we must also distinguish between research of a language and researching in a language. We need to increase our ability to understand various languages and the cultures that support those languages. We, at UP, are working on developing languages. I would certainly support a central approach to driving the process, particularly on engaging the students.”

Then Professor Madiba asked: What can we do in the short, medium to long term?

Ms Ntsoaki Malebo (left), Senior Director: Teaching and Learning at the University of the Free State said for developing lexicons and formulating terminologies to explain difficult scientific concepts, they had brought stakeholders on board — particularly students and academics. “When we develop a lexicon in Sesotho we don’t work alone; we approach other institutions where Sesotho is predominant. That way, we can then really start working and developing those terminologies that will enable us to teach science in African Languages.”

Dr Nokukhanya Ncgobo, Lecturer at UKZN’s School of Education, moved that publishers be involved in developing terminology. “Our terminology needs to be standardised and found in tangible products, such as research books.”

Professor Hlongwa added that UKZN was about to see completion of the first thesis in Law, developed completely in isiZulu. “We do need these resources in the digital space, for us to contribute to the work of SADILAR [SA Centre for Digital Language Resources].”

Shifting paradigms

As Professor Hlongwa said she saw VCs and DVCs as being critical players for normalising multilingualism in public universities, Professor Mdzanga (left) saw it differently: “The whole process starts with me as an individual because the battle is really in the mind. Let’s not forget that some of us have been socialised to not really appreciate who we are. And the schools that we attended never had an African language as the language of learning and teaching. So now, in your 40s, you have to rethink and realise that you are important; that your language is important and can be used as the language of scholarship. A psychological process needs to take place to convince some of us on the importance of this transformation.”

In conclusion

Professor Madiba concluded: “We need to normalise the use of African languages in university spaces and domains. Vice Chancellors and Deputy Vice Chancellors have the power to make these things happen in executive committees. However, the problem is that there are no uniform structures for coordination of language policies in our universities. It is not an ideal situation.

“It’s a myth that there are no resources in universities; we need to identify them within the system. We have students speaking a variety of languages, who can help facilitate in their own languages. Our lecturers are also resources. We must get them to work together and collaborate.

“Technology is also a game changer when it comes to communication and interpreting. You can copy text to Google and get the gist of what is being said in an email.”

Professor Madiba acknowledged that universities had harped on the issue of language for years. “We must now come up with something concrete.”

Janine Greenleaf Walker is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.