How language scholars and activists are keeping multilingualism on universities’ transformation agenda

Published On: 18 February 2022|

South African universities are required to start implementing the government’s Language Policy Framework for Public Higher Education Institutionsfrom this year – a measure that aims to enhance the status and role of previously marginalised indigenous languages in these institutions.

However, “some universities have compliance documents masquerading as language policies,” said Professor Langa Khumalo (left), Chairperson of the Community of Practice for the Teaching and Learning of African Languages (CoPAL), a forum of Universities South Africa (USAf). He said this led to Professor Kwesi Kwaa Prah of the Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society (CASAS) in Cape Town describing them as “pious articles of faith without any force nor any effect”. For universities’ language policies to have value, they need to go hand in hand with “a well-defined implementation framework” and have operational budgets, said Khumalo.

He was addressing a recent symposium on the new language policy framework held as an in-person event at Rhodes University in Makhanda.

Presenting a paper on Complexities of developing responsive language policies for higher education institutions, Khumalo was speaking in two capacities – as the Executive Director of the South African Centre for Digital Language Resource (SADiLaR), an initiative of the Department of Science and Innovation based at North-West University in Potchefstroom; and as the CoPAL Chair.

CoPAL hosted the symposium in collaboration with Rhodes University’s National Research Foundation SARChI Chair for Intellectualisation of African Languages, Multilingualism and Education. Professor Dion Nkomo holds this position, which he describes as seeking “to provide a collaborative intellectual hub for academics working on multilingualism in higher education”.

CoPAL has been at the forefront of creating awareness of this new policy

Professor Nkomo explained in his opening remarks how the symposium, titled Two Decades of South Africa’s Language Policy for Higher Education (2002) and Beyond, was building on the work CoPAL has been doing since its inception in 2017. That is, they were “sharing good practices around the language policy work in our institutions, particularly the promotion of African languages”, he said.

CoPAL had started engaging with the Policy Framework from the moment it was published as a draft in 2020, before organising the Stellenbosch University colloquium in September 2021 – which was part 1 of the Vice-Chancellors Consultation Series, and which brought together Vice-chancellors, Deputy Vice-Chancellors (DVCs) of Teaching and Learning, and DVCs of Research and Innovation.

CoPAL then participated in the session on the transformed university at the large platform of USAf’s Higher Education Conference in October, before holding an online colloquium in November, which addressed the need for accountability, both for what is being done and for what is not being done, so that people do not slow down transformation under the guise of quality.

Professor Dion Nkomo (right) assisting a colleague to set up his presentation at the symposium.

“The new Language Policy Framework has given a renewed impetus to the work of CoPAL,” said Professor Nkomo. “We need insights that inform our way forward … to make multilingualism the reality of our academic project, and a hallmark of our institutional cultures that promote unity in diversity”.

We need to develop African languages by intellectualising them

Professor Khumalo said the new Language Policy Framework for Public Higher Education Institutions, gazetted in 2020, aimed to reverse the legacy of colonialism and apartheid, namely the perception that African languages are inherently shallow and inadequate.

It was now imperative to develop African languages “through an intellectualisation process” he said, which “in our context means the radical transformation of the capacity and role of indigenous African languages in carrying and conveying all forms of knowledge in all spheres of life”.

It needed to be noted, however, that African languages predominantly lack resources. They don’t have exhaustive linguistic descriptions, large and specialised linguistic databases, and machine-readable lexicons or vocabulary.

A series of complexities hinder African languages from being effectively intellectualised to be used in higher education. Khumalo listed these complexities as the:

  • lack of institutional commitment, financial resources and digital infrastructure;
  • absence of implementation frameworks; and the
  • dearth in human language expertise.

It helps to have the quickest route to the executive

He said for an institution to be really committed to developing marginalised African languages, it needed a clear and unambiguous language policy, a dedicated language division, and a directorate or centre solely responsible for language development, such as the North-West University’s SADiLaR and the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s University Language Planning and Development Office (which he used to head).

It was also imperative that this division not be “too embedded in the anatomy of the university”, he said. To make quick, institution-wide decisions, it needed to not be steeped too deeply into the bureaucracy of the university but have the shortest route to the executive.

He said most university language policies are under the custody of a DVC of Teaching and Learning, so ideally the person responsible for leading these policies should be at a level where they report directly to that DVC. At least one university has a language policy headed by a Senate committee, which makes it very easy and strategic because it is the highest decision-making body of the university.

He said he knew he was being controversial, but the higher education sector displayed a disdain towards language policy work with the idea that “anyone in the academy can do that”. Language policy work lacks experts. It is also often not the first love of those doing it, which means their vision, enthusiasm, commitment, and drive is low or even missing, he said.

He concluded by saying that until now, undocumented languages were regarded as endangered languages. Today, those languages outside the digital infrastructure – in terms of linguistic databases, human language technologies infrastructure and teaching instruments – are the endangered ones.

The value of the symposium

Professor Khumalo said the value of the symposium was two-pronged. It provided a reflective analysis of “where we have come from” in the 20 years since the first Language Policy for Higher Education in 2002, which aimed to promote multilingualism in institutional policies and practices of South African public higher education institutions.

“We were reflecting on the milestones, on the amount of progress that has taken place across the academy, across the 26 public universities. And now that we have this new language policy, what are the new imperatives?

“We were saying the new emphasis, the new thrust, can give us a new way, a new implementation strategy, to make more progress than has been the case since the 2002 language policy.

Some of the scholars who attended the language symposium at Makhanda in January.

“These practitioners, this community of practice, drawn from all 26 public universities, must go back and share these best practices that we articulated at the symposium, must share the insights, so that the year of implementation can actually show a lot more progress than has been the case.”

He said some of the 10 universities represented at the symposium had indicated they did not have a strategy or framework for the implementation of this new policy.

“Intellectualising African languages is one thing but getting them to be the vehicles of teaching and learning is a very different strategy, and you need the executive, the universities, to be engaged, to be part and parcel of the process, because universities are very complex spaces,” said Professor Khumalo.

A book is on the cards

Next up is a book to be published early next year. It will include some of the papers presented at the symposium. A publisher has not been secured yet, said Nkomo, but the book’s tentative title is Moving beyond rhetoric: Towards the implementation of multilingualism in education.

“The papers presented in the symposium will be adjudicated, so not all of them will necessarily be published, but we will try our best to offer the necessary support in order to get as many of them published, as feasible. We will also solicit contributions from scholars who could not attend, including international experts,” said Professor Nkomo.

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.