The incalculable progress made by CoPAL as the language issue is now firmly centre stage

Published On: 7 December 2022|

When Professor Langa Khumalo ends his term as the Chairperson of the Community of Practice for the Teaching and Learning of African Languages (CoPAL) this month, he can reflect on the enormous strides the organisation has made under his tenure.

The topic of language in the higher South African education space, as he himself says, is no longer “the elephant in the room”. “African languages and their inclusion at universities was a peripheral issue but in the past two years, we have managed to move it firmly to centre stage. The fact that the then CEO of USAf [Universities SA], Professor Ahmed Bawa, and the 26 South African Vice-Chancellors (VCs) agreed to three language colloquiums was a huge milestone and achievement.

“Every South African university and every senior manager at our universities now knows about the new Language Policy Framework for Public Higher Education Institutions and the need to fix our teaching and learning using all our official languages for the benefit of student access and success. We were able to demonstrate that this would help address the bane of our higher education system, the attrition rates. The subject now lies at the centre of the academe and that’s a huge plus,” he said.

Professor Langa Khumalo (far left), his outgoing Deputy Chair, Professor Nokhanyo Mdzanga (middle), Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at Nelson Mandela University, with a CoPAL member and officials from SADiLaR, Universities SA and the University of Pretoria’s Institutional Advancement department, who collaborated in organising the VCs’ Colloquium.

Professor Khumalo, who is also the Executive Director at the North-West University-based South African Centre for Digital Language Resources (SADiLaR), oversaw the recent second VCs’ Colloquium on the revised Language Policy Framework for Higher Education which took place in a hybrid format from the University of Pretoria, under the auspices of USAf.

“We are delighted with what the conference has achieved, and we are on track to produce a concrete programme that seeks to address the issues we have been discussing for many years. Emeritus Professor Kwesi Kwaa Prah, who was the keynote speaker, illustrated just how important it is for universities and academics to focus on language and why language issues are at the very core of our development initiatives.

“One of the important things I believe that my tenure has achieved is to provide a comprehensive appreciation of the demands of the language policy framework for higher education institutions. We needed to come to a clear and unambiguous understanding of what it requires us to do. The universities have responded by aligning their language policies to the national Language Policy Framework, which is a very important milestone.”

He explained that the first VCs’ colloquium, which was hosted from Stellenbosch University in 2021, discussed what the new language policy framework was trying to achieve and recommendations for universities.

“The conversation in this year’s colloquium has moved beyond that. The focus is now on providing concrete ways towards operationalising the policy. A mandate has been given to CoPAL to create a programme of action to address issues such as how are we going to draw from resources and support each other. Another clear shift is the acceptance of the need for interdisciplinarity in our approach and the development of required language infrastructures.

“For example, the University of KwaZulu-Natal, the Cape Peninsula University of Technology and Stellenbosch University have created multimodal, multi-disciplinary terminology banks or mobile applications but these are three universities out of 26, so these resources need to be supported and shared. We also need to work with disciplines outside of the Humanities and with institutions such as SADiLaR to create a network of digital and other assets that can be easily shared for research across the academe,” he said.

Professor Khumalo emphasised the importance of a tacit commitment from the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) to make available language development funding for universities. However, he stressed the need for a clear strategy from DHET on how to channel these resources.

He noted that the recent 2nd VCs’ Colloquium had more experts participating than the inaugural one: “However, the first one had more VCs taking part. I understand that they, as the most senior executives, often send people on their behalf and those who attended are often ‘the practical hands’ at our institutions. However, the VCs are the ones who develop strategy and we wanted that buy-in which is why the Language Policy Framework Colloquium was named after the VCs themselves. We want it to carry the necessary gravitas.”

CoPAL, he said, now has to provide a five-year programme of action which clearly articulates milestones and key performance indicators.

“It has to ensure that it has the necessary agility to collaborate with other disciplines, especially the computer science fields because that’s where spelling and grammar checkers and the data driven tools required for the full intellectualisation of our official languages are developed. I also want to emphasise that the CoPAL mandate is for all the current 11 official languages – soon to be 12 with the inclusion of the South African Sign Language. No language is less important than the other.”

So, who enforces university compliance when it comes to the new language framework?

Over 50 delegates, mostly language experts and CoPAL members from the 26 public universities, attended the hybrid colloquium in person. Up to 79 others watched and participated virtually.

“CoPAL provides the expert advice and once it has completed the programme of action it will have to take it to DHET where the mandate for the implementation of this policy lies. I think it is tacitly understood that if universities do not have a clear language implementation strategy, and are merely ticking the boxes, they are going to have a problem in the future when it comes to funding.

“DHET has also said they are going to create an advisory panel to evaluate the policies and the plans of individual institutions and provide advice. We are feeling hopeful because we believe that the advisory panel announcement is a very important shift.”

Professor Khumalo, with his years of experience, says he is willing to carry on working with CoPAL even after his tenure as chairperson ends this month: “I am hoping that there is going to be a way of retaining my involvement and participation because it is something that I am passionate about and I believe I have plenty more to contribute.”

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