How universities are transforming their language policies and why this is critical

Published On: 2 November 2022|

Language has the power to change higher education in this country and lead to better social cohesion. This is the message from Professor Langa Khumalo, Chairperson of the Community of Practice for the Teaching and Learning of African Languages (CoPAL) and Executive Director at the North-West University-based South African Centre for Digital Language Resources (SADiLaR).

He believes that to be taught in one’s mother tongue is a basic human right.

“Language is the most critical, humanising resource, specific to us as humans. By embracing multilingualism and the multiple tongues that South Africans are endowed with, we are affirming every one of us. By enabling students to speak their own languages in a classroom, you are ensuring a sense of belonging. That is different from a sense of inclusivity. For emphasis, inclusivity means the power resides in somebody else to give you a seat at the table. Belonging means there is already a seat or place for that person,” he said.

“I know inclusivity in this country has been fashionable but I want to argue that everyone must belong. We cannot innovate in a borrowed language; we cannot innovate in a second or a third language. This is how important language is, specifically in higher education, a space that enables innovation.”

Professor Khumalo (right) was speaking ahead of the second Vice-Chancellors’ Language Colloquium – under the theme Moving the Conversation Forward – which takes place at the University of Pretoria’s Future Africa campus and online on December 1 and 2 this year. The Colloquium is, again, primarily targeted at the Vice-Chancellors of South Africa’s 26 universities, even though their deputies and other senior leadership from policymaking departments and statutory bodies will be in attendance.

The first Vice-Chancellors’ colloquium took place in September 2021, following the publishing (in a gazette) in 2020, of the Language Policy Framework for Public Higher Education Institutions. The Policy Framework became effective from 1 January 2022. The meeting unpacked the policy’s philosophical framework and implications, and drew the VCs’ attention to the broader systemic issues affecting and foregrounding multilingualism, transformation and decolonisation within the context of the CoPAL and the sector agenda.

Professor Khumalo says that meeting was successful: “It brought this country’s academic leaders – the Vice-Chancellors and the Deputy Vice-Chancellors – into one space, and in one fell swoop, the issue of language was moved from the periphery to centre stage. It became a central theme that universities keenly engaged with and that, alone, was a significant milestone.

“The Achilles heel of higher education is our attrition rates, which are clear for everyone to see; hence the drive to use language as a vehicle to improve both student access and student success. Academia has to be more relevant and accessible, not just in terms of epistemic access, but also accessible in terms of the communities identifying with the institutions. For example, signage at an institution should reflect the local languages while personnel at the universities should engage with stakeholders in the language that they are familiar with.”

He continued: “Last year’s debut event explored the philosophical underpinnings of what a multilingual effort is all about. It helped universities prepare for 2022 when the policy framework was coming into effect and aided them in developing and aligning their language policies with the new framework.

“The first colloquium started to unpack what multilingualism actually is and how it can be used as a resource to drive better results — and not only as a perceived threat. We showed that it accentuates, and not threatens teaching. This Community of Practice (CoPAL) also allowed for the sharing of knowledge especially for those institutions hamstrung by a lack of resources. We soon came to realise that we need to learn from each other.”

He however believes that it is too early to tell whether sufficient progress has been made by universities since the policy framework came into being in January this year.

Most universities now have language policies and implementation frameworks in place

“It’s too early to tell but I think there has been sufficient discourse and engagement. As CoPAL, we have had robust engagements with representatives of all the 26 universities; understanding where they are at in developing their language policies, talking about benchmarking and sharing the experiences of those universities that have made excellent progress towards driving multilingualism compared to those who are still in the starting blocks. I would say right now that most universities, bar a very few, do have language policies and implementation frameworks in place.

Giving a brief overview of CoPAL as a sub-committee of Universities South Africa (USAf), Professor Khumalo said this community of practice aims among other things “… to provide a structured opportunity for members of the Faculty to collaborate, network and exchange ideas on issues of common interest or concern, as well as recommend strategies for the sector to enhance access and success in the teaching and learning of African languages in the public universities”. It engages in issues that range from policy and infrastructure to the resources available for the teaching and learning of African languages and how effective the use of African languages can be, especially when it comes to epistemic access as well as students’ success in critical thinking.

Common ground among the universities

He explained the challenges facing both CoPAL and the universities: “Within CoPAL, it is easier because we are practitioners who are working with languages. It gets more complicated when we go back to our respective institutions to share our experiences and the lessons that we’ve learned from each other. Then you see the differences. Some universities have made more progress and are open to the idea of multilingualism and the benchmarks that need to be set. Others are still grappling with the type of language policy that best suits their particular institution.

“One of the starting points of creating a language policy is the demographics of that institution. For some universities, this is very complex as they don’t have a clearly dominant language, while for others it is far simpler as 70% of the student body speak the same language.”

The 2022 Language Colloquium

Professor Khumalo unpacked what attendees at the upcoming December seminar can expect: “Now that we understand the Policy Framework and what it stipulates, we want to define, identify and access the critical resources required for the successful implementation of multilingualism in the academic world.

“We have to engage with the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) on the commitments they have made regarding this policy framework, what resources are available and how universities can work with them. We also need to critically engage with the challenges that confront some institutions and see how we can navigate and overcome them.

“Finally, we want for the higher education leaders themselves – the Vice-Chancellors and Deputy-Vice Chancellors, especially of teaching and learning as the custodians of their respective institutional language policies – to reflect on this year’s progress. Then we can come up with a shared framework and what universities can do to help one another.”

Two main outcomes envisaged

He said the organisers are hoping for two main outcomes: “An appreciation of the advances that institutions have made in year one of implementation and secondly, and most importantly, to collectively develop a model that will enable the sharing of resources to implement the new language policy framework effectively.”

Why it is important to attend

“Language is a resource that we take through all facets of our life, that we bring to academia from our homes and from our communities. So, affirming language in the way we are doing in higher education is affirming a very important and critical resource. We are saying ‘you have full access to our institution in its totality’. This affirmation enhances social cohesion.

“Language also belongs to communities, so we want communities, as key stakeholders, to also attend. We would love the media to attend as well as political stakeholders. However, most importantly, we want the student voice. Sometimes we create these policies and we forget that the people who are going to take these policies into the future are young people, our students. Their voice is critical.

This year’s speaker line-up

“Our envisaged keynote speaker is a retired justice. We will bring in legal voices to the upcoming colloquium because many of our institutional language policies have been contested in the courts of law so we want to present very clear, legal perspectives. We will also hear from the Vice-Chancellors – including the host, Professor Tawana Kupe, who is Vice-Chancellor and Principal at the University of Pretoria – because they are leading the conversations and are the decision makers. They live with the implemented policies and need to lead the way. There will also be experts from CoPAL sharing their knowledge and experience as well as student leaders giving their perspective,” he said.

A preliminary report on progress to date, undertaken by SADiLaR, which is funded by the Department of Science and Innovation, will also be presented.

“Finally, we will have DVCs of teaching and learning sharing experiences on how to actually transform these policies into practical instruments for teaching in university classrooms. They will share nuanced perspectives on teaching multilingually and innovatively in two or three languages for student success, depending on what the policy says for a particular institution. We need a model to access and share these resources across the 26 universities, resulting in an implementable policy.

“We must unlock barriers for particular communities. Multilingualism will eventually change higher education, the way we look at knowledge and how we develop into the future, ” he concluded.

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