Implementing multilingualism can cost millions but the benefits outweigh the challenges—Stellenbosch University

Published On: 8 November 2022|

Professor Deresh Ramjugernath of Stellenbosch University (SU) just provided a taste of what can be expected at the forthcoming 2nd Vice Chancellors’ Language Colloquium.

Primarily a Vice-Chancellors’ gathering, the Colloquium, to be held in hybrid format at the University of Pretoria (UP) on 1 and 2 December, will reflect on the progress of the new Language Policy Framework for all Public Higher Education Institutions, and dissect the challenges of implementing multilingualism.

Ramjugernath (right), Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Learning and Teaching at SU, was speaking about the University’s experience of updating their language policy at a recent meeting of Universities South Africa’s (USAf’s) Community of Practice for African Languages (CoPAL), which is co-hosting the Vice-Chancellors’ Colloquium with UP.

He said SU was probably one of the most contested spaces in higher education when it came to language, “so contested that matters of language at this institution go all the way up to the Constitutional Court”. He was referring to how the University’s decision in 2016 to change its primary language of instruction from Afrikaans to English had ended up being challenged in the Constitutional Court. The ruling had been in the University’s favour, with the court saying the policy change was in line with the Constitution and served the broader goal of nation building and opening access to higher education.

When Professor Ramjugernath joined SU at the beginning of 2021, he was tasked with revising its language policy because its existing one was going to lapse at the end of that year. In October 2020 the government had gazetted a new language policy framework to promote multilingualism and address the underutilisation of official African languages, and this impacted on the revision of the university’s language policy.

The DVC: Learning and Teaching said they realised that language is contentious. “We know that language cuts to issues of culture and cuts to issues of identity,” he said. So, they embarked on two public consultative processes.

The process of changing the language policy

His predecessor had kickstarted the process by creating a task team in October 2020, intentionally representative of as many stakeholders within the institution as possible. The task team had looked at the promulgated new Language Policy Framework and had tried to tie in the issues to develop a draft policy. This had then gone through all the institutional structures – the faculty boards and committee and subcommittees of Senate – before being presented to the highest decision-making body at the university, the Council.

Their inputs had led to a second draft, which went out for public consultation for one month. They received close to 400 unique submissions, and about 6000 to 7000 actual submissions, including one petition from the Democratic Alliance (DA) political party with 6000 signatures.

That draft went for a second round of consultations through all the academic structures, and after revisions, went through all the internal structures again, and then for public approval again. “So, two rounds of consultation within the institution, and two rounds of external public consultation. Eventually we had the policy that was approved by Council in December last year,” he said.

“It was a quite a mission,” said Professor Ramjugernath. He said he had to negotiate continually with stakeholders, most of whom were external to the university, namely, interest groups concerned primarily about Afrikaans not being recognised as an indigenous language in the higher education policy framework.

The three principles of their policy

“The promotion of multilingualism is key in terms of what we want to achieve as an institution,” said Ramjugernath. The policy aimed for multilingualism to:

  • be a resource at the institution;
  • broaden access to the institution while enhancing student success; and
  • facilitate sound learning and teaching.

How the policy works in practice

The University’s academic offerings are in either English or Afrikaans, or both. “Or it can be about sitting in a class that is a mixture of English and Afrikaans, and then materials that are available in English and Afrikaans, and other languages. It’s a complex offering,” he said.

Every faculty decides how every single module will be offered.

The term “reasonably practicable” is a central focus of the policy because the institution does not have infinite resources to do whatever it wants, he said. For example, it is restricted by the number of lecturers who are able and willing to lecture in both English and Afrikaans.

When Afrikaans and English are used in the same lecture, all information is available in summaries in Afrikaans. In all lectures, questions are answered in the language in which the student asks the question. If the lecturer is proficient, they will respond in whatever language the students asked the question. “So, you can see the challenges and the complexities,” said Professor Ramjugernath.

First-year modules have simultaneous interpreting services, whereby a lecturer speaks in English and an online service translates it into Afrikaans.

“We are working towards developing isiXhosa as an academic language as well. In several our programmes, some of the tutorials take place in isiXhosa,” he said.

Assessments at undergraduate level are in Afrikaans and in English, and at postgraduate level at least in English, but there are instances where there is a translator.

The cost of multilingualism

“There’s a huge cost attached to being able to offer academic offerings in multiple learning language modes,” said Professor Ramjugerath. “If you take the direct cost that we put into a Language Centre that facilitates the language policy of our institution; if you look at all the time that’s invested by our lecturers, translation, all those kinds of things, it is not an insignificant number. I would say it is probably in the region of R200 to R300 million rands per year – direct and indirect costs. That is how much we are spending as an institution in terms of driving multilingualism.”

The direct cost of the Language Centre, which directs the investment in language implementation, is about R30 million.

Ramjugernath said access to resources was critical to implementing a language policy. “Even with the huge resources that we have at Stellenbosch University, which I think many universities in the country may not have, we still have challenges. And that’s important to appreciate. No matter how well resourced you are as an institution, you are still going to have challenges regarding language implementation, because there is not an infinite quantity of resources,” he said.

The spirit of translanguaging

Professor Ramjugernath credited Professor Mbulungeni Madiba’s contribution to the task team as advocating for the “flexible use of multiple languages in the spirit of translanguaging”.

On a simplistic level, translanguaging is about using different languages together.

Ramjugernath said they had to understand it was not just about multilingualism but also about “translanguaging, about developing the kind of multilingual mindset that needs to take place within an institution. It is about individual multilingualism and institutional multilingualism”.

It’s not only about the language used in lectures

He said that in 2021, the University had faced a major issue which had blown up nationally regarding the alleged prohibition of the use of African Languages at some of its residences. This had meant they needed to consider that the language policy also related to what took place outside the classroom. And they had asked their student communities to develop plans about how to use language to ensure everyone is included and can participate, does not infringe on their rights, and allows them to speak any language they want at the university.

How to ensure compliance

The language policy includes a compliance mechanism whereby complaints can be submitted to faculties, which have various procedures to address and escalate them. As part of their biannual reporting, all institutional entities must record the complaints they received, and how those were resolved. This mechanism also exists within the student community space.

There are also institutional mechanisms for the university’s ombud, as well as a provision to report issues to any senior leader within the institution.

“Overall, the benefits of the language policy far outweigh the challenges we have had with regard to implementation. This is going to play a huge part of in building community. That has critical implications in the way we look at language policies, especially the issue of multilingualism,” said Professor Ramjugernath.

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.