From theory to implementation – the tools needed to make the Language Policy Framework workable

Published On: 15 November 2022|

Promoting South Africa’s indigenous languages at universities as required by the Language Policy Framework for Public Higher Education Institutions is not only about teaching and learning. How will institutions ensure that African languages are part of the culture and governance of the university?

“The policy is about what we do, how we do it, who we do it with, why we do it. We should at least have the opportunity, even if we don’t utilise it, to know that we can access knowledge in a language that we understand best,” says Professor Nokhanyo Mdzanga, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at Nelson Mandela University.

Mdzanga (left) is the outgoing Deputy Chairperson of Universities South Africa’s (USAf’s) Community of Practice for the Teaching and Learning of African Languages (CoPAL). She was discussing the Policy Framework in the light of the forthcoming second Vice-Chancellors’ Language Colloquium, to be held at the University of Pretoria’s Senate Hall on the main (Hatfield) campus from 1 to 2 December. The Colloquium will address the implementation of the Language Policy Framework at South Africa’s public universities.

Together with Professor Langa Khumalo, Executive Director of the South African Centre for Digital Language Resources (SADiLAR) at North-West University, and outgoing chair of CoPAL, she was instrumental in setting up the first Vice-Chancellors’ Language Colloquium, held at Stellenbosch University in September 2021.

They were motivated by the belief that the Policy Framework, gazetted in October 2020, “can work if there is buy-in and support from university leadership, if they understand the goal, if they understand the importance of multilingualism, especially the promotion of African languages. We believe the policy is implementable, and from what we heard from the Vice-Chancellors last year, there is hope in terms of their commitment to the process,” she said.

This year’s colloquium is themed Moving the Conversation Forward. Professor Mdzanga says universities have language policies. What is less certain is whether those policies support the promotion of multilingualism and SA’s indigenous languages, and whether that standpoint is prevalent in all facets of university life such as scholarship, research innovation and community engagement.

Embedding indigenous languages in knowledge development

“As long as the languages used in universities do not act as a barrier to opportunity, access and success, especially to people who speak English and Africans as additional languages, then it would mean we have achieved something,” she said.

Universities need to see the value of the knowledge embedded in African languages and their pedagogical value, Mdzanga went on to state. One example is an isiXhosa module she teaches at Nelson Mandela University, where one of the minimum requirements to become a teacher is conversational competence in an African language. They cannot graduate without having passed this module, which is stated on their certificate.

“Why have there always been only two languages that are fully developed in South Africa? That is now becoming a social justice issue,” said Professor Mdzanga. “I do understand it’s not an easy thing to shift, to understand what this means. That is why we are having conversations with the universities, and in our own institutions — to enable understanding of why this is important and why it must be translated into action as part of an institution’s implementation plan,” she said.

One way to translate the policy into action is by providing people a choice over which language they want to access content in, for example, from a university website.

The four fundamental tools for implementing multilingualism

Professor Mdzanga identified four tools that need to be in place for multilingualism to be implemented successfully. These are:

  • policy;
  • strategy;
  • infrastructure; and
  • funding.

The link between the Policy Framework and each university’s language policy

Professor Mdzanga said policy is informed by ideology, power, and knowledge practices.

The Language Policy Framework was a guide for universities to draft a set of guidelines or steps to be taken to direct decisions towards multilingualism and the promotion of African languages in their institutions. As such, each university’s language policy needed to be clear in terms of all aspects of the institution’s key operations — teaching and learning, research, community engagement and communication.

“Without an implementation plan, that policy is null and void,” she said.

Linking the Policy Framework to each university’s strategic plans

She said each university has a long-term strategic plan, such as Vision 2030, and each faculty or department also has a strategy. “This Policy Framework, which is an overarching document, has to be translated into the strategy of each faculty so that they have a detailed plan of how multilingualism and the promotion of African languages will be effected,” she said.

State funding is essential

She also added that funding is key to the implementation of this Policy Framework. “If the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) does not put more funding into the process, then it will take a longer time for institutional language policies to be implemented,” she said.

She quoted what Professor Khumalo said at the first Vice-Chancellors’ Language Colloquium in 2021: “The question of funding and support for language policy development is being addressed by the Department of Higher Education and Training. And a series of complexities hinder African languages from being effectively intellectualised in higher education. One of those complexities is the lack of institutional commitment, financial resources and digital infrastructure, the absence of implementation frameworks, and the dearth in human language expertise”.

African languages and 4IR

Infrastructure is linked to funding.African languages need to become part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), which needs a lot of material and infrastructure suchas specialised linguistic data bases and machine-readable lexicons or vocabulary, which needs to be funded. She said the DHET is working on that and kept CoPAL members informed about it at their meetings during 2022.

Not only academic staff matter

Professor Mdzanga said the language policy implementation needs to be appropriate to all university employees. “Are we saying that the university issues affect only academics? What about the rest of the people?” she asked, adding that cleaners, gardeners, and those who work in administration also need to be able to access knowledge in their context, such knowledge being “anything written on email, or in documents.” She gave an example of ‘how to apply to be a member of a medical aid.’

Recognising that auxiliary staff may not require that high a level of competence in English, she added, nonetheless, that, they have a right to apply to belong to a medical aid. “But if the information is accessible to you only in one language, then it means the opportunity of being able to function in more than one language does not apply to you,” she said. So, the implementation needs to be inclusive and encompass all.

How language is influenced by perceptions

Students need to see the value of multilingualism. Studying in more than one language needs to advantage them in a competitive job market. Mdzanga said it would help if multilingualism were seen to be contributing to the economic and developmental needs of the country, otherwise students will not see the benefits if they perceive the job market demanding competency in only in one language, English.

“When you think multilingualism, you are nottaking English away from anyone. All you are saying is you can access information and function in the context of a variety of languages, one of which is an African language,” she said.

“I think we also need to educate the community about the importance of multilingualism and the promotion of African languages,” she said. There was a perception that being highly educated equated to having access to English, exclusively. “Only in Africa are people still arguing whether their home language is the right language or not,” she posited. Many people who visit South African universities cannot speak good English because they are not familiar with it. For example, they speak only German, yet they are successful people, she said.

“Yet here we are, still trying to figure out whether we can be ourselves – and whether we can think and reason in our own languages,” Professor Mdzanga concluded.

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.