SA universities claim to be multilingual yet have monolingual websites; a recent language symposium heard

Published On: 18 February 2022|

With South Africa’s new Language Policy Framework for Public Higher Education Institutions set to enhance the role and status of marginalised languages scheduled to kickstart this year, a scholar’s insights into what universities’ websites reflect now, are apt.

Dr Yolisa Madolo (left) of the Department of Arts at Walter Sisulu University did a little survey – with intriguing results. She visited all 26 websites of the country’s public universities and found that “almost all reflect English as the language of communication.”

“Only three universities displayed more than one choice for navigation language apart from English. Of those three, one is multilingual, the other bilingual, and the third one monolingual,” Dr Madolo told her fellow African Languages scholars at the recent language symposium that was hosted at Rhodes University. The symposium, which was mainly attended by Universities South Africa’s Community of Practice for the Teaching and Learning of African Languages, was hosted by Rhodes University’s School of Languages and Literature and the NRF SARChI Chair: Intellectualisation of African Languages, Multilingualism and Education.

North-West University’s website, www.nwu.ac.za, is trilingual. Immediately below the search function are the three entries into the website in English, Afrikaans and Setswana.

Stellenbosch University’s website, www.sun.ac.za, states on the home page, as part of its logo, that it is Stellenbosch “University, iYuivesithi, Universiteit”. It also welcomes visitors in both English and Afrikaans, hints at trilingualism with its English, Afrikaans and isiXhosa slogan “saam vorentoe ●masiye phambili● forward together”, and then has clearly marked options to navigate the site in Afrikaans or English. Hence it is bilingual.

Madolo singles out the University of the Free State’s website, www.ufs.ac.za, as presenting itself as trilingual, but being essentially monolingual. Its logo features the English, Afrikaans and Sesotho words “University of the Free State, Universiteit van die Vrystaat, Yunivesithi  ya Freistata”, but the rest of the website is exclusively in English.

This shows that “11.53% of the South African public universities are aware of the need for multilingual websites” she said, but “only 7.69% of the institutions display information in more than one language”, she said.

Madolo presented her observations in a paper titled The websites say it all: Language policy display of the public South African Universities at a recent symposium on the new language policy framework.

Titled Two Decades of South Africa’s Language Policy for Higher Education (2002) and Beyond, it was held as an in-person event at the Continuing Education Centre at Rhodes University. The symposium was hosted by the Rhodes University’s NRF SARChI Chair for Intellectualisation of African Languages, Multilingualism and Education in collaboration with the Community of Practice for the Teaching and Learning of African Languages (CoPAL). This community of practice works closely with, and reports to the Teaching and Learning Strategy Group of Universities South Africa (USAf), the umbrella body of South Africa’s universities.

Dr Madolo outlined the important role websites play in universities: they are the easy and cost-efficient way the institutions communicate with stakeholders such as students, academic staff, and visitors.

Quoting from Black South African English: where to from here? by Vivian de Klerk, Professor Emeritus of the Department of English Language & Linguistics at Rhodes University, Dr Madolo said English was perceived to be “functionally attractive, providing access to higher education, the international arena, wealth and power”.

Despite the history of alienation of Bantu languages in South Africa, and the changes in language polices of SA public universities, the language disparities were in favour of English, sometimes Afrikaans, with the information “almost always produced in English and translated into Bantu languages”, said Madolo. Universities claim multilingualism, yet websites are monolingual, she said.

Besides participants from Rhodes University, the symposium was attended by representatives from nine other universities, all of whom presented papers.

We share brief synopses of some of the presentations made at the symposium, below.

University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN):

According to Dr Phindile Dlamini (right), of the Department of African Languages at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, the University’s Language Policy, adopted in 2006, is based on the understanding that “the university’s capacity to generate and disseminate knowledge in its research and outreach activities is linked to its ability to mobilise isiZulu fully”. A plan was developed which set out its implementation details in two phases with milestones. The university is now in phase two, which is from 2020 to 2030.

In a presentation titled Reflections on UKZN Language Policy Implementation: A Long Walk, Dr Dlamini said that prior to 2014, part of phase 1 was Communicative isiZulu / English sessions offered to staff. The feedback was very positive as staff felt it led to a better understanding of their students and other Zulu-speaking people they encountered.

In January 2014, UKZN introduced a compulsory isiZulu module to new entrant undergraduates through the BR9 Rule. Its objectives were for eligible students (including non-isiZulu-speaking African students) to be able to hold a simple conversation in isiZulu; understand basic isiZulu grammar and be able to appreciate certain aspects of Zulu culture and history.

One of the problems, especially from students in specialisation degrees, was the expectation they would pass without putting in any effort. Some still view the module as unimportant to their degrees but there is now a realization, among staff and students, that this rule will not go away.

The module is being enhanced by becoming more interactive and engaging with videos, games and quizzes. And UKZN is working on offering it as a fully online module by 2025, both for its students as well as a course for the broader community nationally and abroad.

In November 2016, Senate approved the Doctoral Rule change (DR9b) to require all doctoral dissertations to have an abstract in both English and isiZulu. There is a team of translators, comprising professors and doctors, to do this. A few challenges have been noted: some abstracts come in different formats from the expected, others come unedited and there are those that come with more formulae than words. The translators use their skills and expertise to mitigate such challenges.

UKZN is now looking at collaboration. KwaZulu-Natal has four universities, and the main indigenous language is isiZulu so there is concern about possible duplication in their language policy implementations. Arguing that there will never be enough resources, UKZN is proposing they all maximise what they have, apply for funding as a collective, and share resources. Each university could focus on one aspect of language development they are strong in. For example, the University of Zululand could focus on heritage and culture, the Durban University of Technology on literature, the Mangosuthu University of Technology on Human Language Technologies and UKZN on terminology development.  They need to agree on the terms of reference and execute the plan.

UKZN is already collaborating with the other provincial universities to create a platform for the development and study of isiZulu. A project, funded by the National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIHSS), is looking at the intellectualisation of isiZulu. Professor Nobuhle Hlongwa, from UKZN is the principal investigator of the project, which includes creating a bilingual English-isiZulu curriculum and online dictionaries. When the project is completed, its review will be important because it will inform future collaborations. “It’s a long walk … but we are walking.”

University of Cape Town (UCT):

In an input titled Theory to Practice: A review on the language policy implementation at the University of Cape Town by Professor Lolie Makhubu-Badenhorst from the Multilingualism Education Project (MEP) and Professor Abongiwe Bangeni of the Academic Development Programme (ADP), the work done by the MEP and divisions in the Centre for Higher Education Development (CHED) and other faculties on language policy is “commendable,” but there is room for improvement. It is under review to ensure that it is not fragmented, and that the university does not operate in silo. There are plans to align the present policy with the new language policy framework.

Further meetings are planned throughout this year until October. It has been recommended that each faculty appoint a language pioneer.

UCT’s multilingual initiatives includes an app that has economics jargon in all 11 official languages. And a course, Masithethe isiXhosa, offered by CHED, aims to equip staff with basic communication skills in isiXhosa.

Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT):

The Cape Peninsula University of Technology was represented by Ms Nomxolisi Jantjies and Ms Linda Manashe of the Centre for Innovative Educational Technology (CIET).  Speaking on the Language Policy review at their institution, they told other language practitioners that CPUT’s Language Unit (LU), which is accountable to the Senate Language Committee, is responsible for the language policy. The unit, together with Faculty Language Coordinators (FLCs) and relevant linguistic communities, has the task of strengthening language development, multilingualism, and multiculturalism at CPUT.

The unit and the coordinators make up the Language Working Group that consulted the CPUT community through platforms such as Newsflash – which sends announcements to staff and students daily – and meetings with stakeholders such as faculty staff and student forums. However, Newsflash produced fewer responses than anticipated.

Faced with a wide variety of comments from stakeholders, one of the principles guiding the Language Working Group on what to include in their policy was realising they could not cover every detail relating to language. So, they did not include all the student forum’s suggestions, such as its call for Afrikaans not to be used at CPUT at all because the students believed it provided an advantage for only a few of them while disadvantaging the rest.

University of the Free State (UFS):

Dr Hloniphani Ndebele, Senior Lecturer in the Department of African Languages at the University of the Free State, argued that African languages are often “ignored and discarded as inadequate to deal with university knowledge” even though most students in South African higher education speak these languages.

In his talk titled Embedding African languages in disciplinary discourses: A strategy of implementing multilingual policies in higher education, he said most higher education institutions have attempted to respond to legislative requirements by developing multilingual policies, which commit to the development and use of an African language(s) as a language of teaching and learning. However, some of these commitments are significant only on paper rather than in practice.

As Angelina N Kioko, Ruth W Ndungu, Martin C Njorogo, and Jayne Mutiga, said in Mother tongue and education in Africa: Publicising the reality (published by SpringerOpen in 2014 in volume 4 of the journal Multilingual Education),African languages have often been viewed as an impediment to effective learning because of their presumed inability to communicate complex meanings. This stems from the need to perpetuate the status quo and entrench the dominance of English. Universities need to relook at their curriculum and provide full qualifications in these languages, such as the University of Limpopo’s BA degree in Multilingual Studies (MUST) offered entirely in Sesotho sa Leboa (Northern Sotho), and UKZN’s Bachelor of Education Honours module that uses isiZulu as the language of learning and teaching.

Dr Ndebele said African languages must be visible in high status domains such as research, conferences, public lectures and seminars. This will help debunk the myth that these languages lack the capacity to function as the language of the academy.

Other linguists who spoke at the symposium were Dr Godfrey Vulindlela Mona, from the Language Centre of the University of Fort Hare (UFH), Professor Stanley Madonsela from the Department of African Languages at the University of South Africa (Unisa), CoPAL’s chairperson Professor Langa Khumalo from the South African Centre for Digital Language Resources (SADiLaR) at North-West University, and Dr Tebogo J Rakgogo from the Department of Applied Languages at the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT).

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.