The complexities surrounding multilingualism in South African universities

Published On: 6 December 2022|

Just what are the challenges and complexities facing South African universities when it comes to the implementation of the new Language Policy Framework for Public Higher Education Institutions? What is the view of the students who will be directly affected by multilingualism?

These were just some of the issues deliberated on during Day One of the recent 2nd Vice-Chancellors’ (VCs) Consultation Colloquium on the revised Language Policy for Higher Education which took place from 1 to 2 December at the University of Pretoria. The colloquium was led by Universities South Africa’s Community of Practice for the Teaching and Learning of African Languages (CoPAL) in collaboration with the University of Pretoria.

Professor Nokhanyo Mdzanga (above), the outgoing Deputy Chair of CoPAL and Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at Nelson Mandela University, lamented the little progress made at higher education institutions in developing and utilising African languages.

“Each university mentions a time frame for implementing their language policies. They have also listed their short-term, medium-term or long-term goals, but are these in line with the requirements of the new language policy framework?” she asked delegates.

“We have to look at where the language policy is ‘housed’ at our institutions – is it in the Faculty of Humanities or do universities have directorates that deal specifically with the issues of language policy? Is there any visibility of, and would a visitor be able to get an answer from anyone at the university, regarding the institution’s language policy?

“Multilingualism needs to be conspicuous on campus and in all our communications from official university documents to websites, in languages of learning and teaching and the naming of buildings. But is this commonplace yet? Have we really engaged with our neighbouring communities, and, if so, what has the response been — because we cannot operate independently?

How inclusive are we in our approaches?

“Currently we are preparing our student teachers to teach using multilingual strategies; yet when they graduate and go to schools, they are told that the policy that the school is following is one from 1997 and allows the school to determine its own language policy which may not include an African language. So, there’s a lack of communication between us and the Department of Basic Education. Again I ask, are we doing this alone or with the rest of the community? We cannot talk of a language policy without thinking about the social needs of the our communities and involving them,” she explained.

“What is the relationship between the language policy and societal needs and what is their view? I think we need to adopt the pedagogy of truth about these issues because theorising everything and not being able to ensure that it is implementable in a way that the community benefits, is difficult.”

She said other challenges include the lack of information in African languages online; the perceived lack of resources; non-monitoring of language implementation at universities and the resistance from some parents to multilingualism.

“People talk about language as a social justice issue. Are we revising these policies because of this and the concepts of equity, fairness and equality? Do staff and students still need to question their historical language circumstances in order to inform the language policy? At Nelson Mandela University, we asked everyone – from the ground staff to the cleaners – to share their language experiences because we wanted their voices to be part of the revised language policy so that everybody felt included, visible and seen.”

Do African languages lack market value?

She continued: “How do we address the belief that African languages do not have a pedagogical and market value and therefore do not contribute to the economy of the country? How can we ensure that international aid agencies and local business fund projects towards the development and implementation of a multilingualism? Is multilingualism a dominant ideology and how do we ensure it does not reproduce inequality amongst official African languages?

“How do we ensure that the university community understands the complexities surrounding language policy and implementation issues? How far are institutions psychologically ready to view official African languages as enablers of students’ access, success and support? We cannot talk about multilingualism and the development of African languages without increasing the number of lecturers who can operate in a multilingual context. All this represents the process, the journey itself and where we are going,” Professor Mdzanga concluded.

Students’ view

The student voice in the session was represented by Mr Tarik Lalla (below), Secretary General of UP’s Student Representative Council (SRC), who is currently studying for a BSc Honours in Plant Sciences.

“It’s interesting that we are having this conversation at the University of Pretoria which was the centre of the #afrikaansmustfall movement in 2015. That movement also looked to do what we are trying to achieve here, which is effectively to remove language as a barrier of access to institutions of higher learning.

“While I acknowledge the paradox that the #afrikaansmustfall movement had in pushing for English as the sole medium of engagement, I would also like to reframe it for purposes of this discussion, to say that the #afrikaansmustfall movement was not the endpoint for transformation within the context of language at universitie, but rather the beginning. As student leaders, we welcome the introduction of multilingualism as a subsequent step to the removal of exclusive practices within an institution.

Multilingualism cannot be about just two or three languages

“The few reservations I have lie in the implementation of the policy framework. So, in as much as we can speak about the benefits of multilingualism, we must equally acknowledge that there is a space for abuse. There is effectively a monopoly on multilingualism. What I mean is that within discussions of multilingualism, and especially at historically white institutions, when discussions of multilingualism happen, it’s always English, Afrikaans and another language that needs to be introduced. Now, that can’t be multilingualism if we are saying we are reintroducing Afrikaans to push a multilingual agenda. This has the potential to take us back as much as it has the potential to take us forward.”

He continued: “There is also a potential for tokenism. If we are saying that English and Afrikaans are going to be reintroduced within multiple universities across South Africa, and then have African languages in various universities, those languages are effectively tokens to speak about transformation rather than transforming itself. It’s not contributing to the culture of that institution but rather an addition to an existing culture. We can only introduce well developed academic languages such as English and Afrikaans once other languages have been developed, and so it speaks to the timeframe.

“I question what we have done since 2015, in developing languages such as isiZulu and Sepedi so we can introduce multilingualism with all languages being at the same level. Afrikaans can only be reintroduced once our African languages have been developed, and not to merely develop them as they are being used, because then we are effectively setting ourselves up for failure.

Decisions about us must involve us

“These discussions cannot be limited to academic spaces. The South African student body has a wide range of views and ideas, especially in relation to language. And so these debates need to exist both in academic spaces, spaces of governance and spaces with students. Decisions cannot be made for students without students being present or buying in to what is proposed. Again, it is setting up the policy for failure.

“Why do we not respect our own languages, first and foremost? The only reason we consider certain languages as ‘international’ is because they were imposed upon us. We need to acknowledge that, within our own context, our languages are just as relevant. For example, why is it that when multinational corporations or international governments interact with South Africa, they do so in English? Why are we not respecting our own languages and engaging in our own languages?” he concluded.

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