The role of PanSALB in upholding multilingualism in SA’s society

Published On: 16 November 2022|

In order to effectively elevate the status of South Africa’s indigenous languages, they have to be transformed into, and used as, languages of learning — especially in tertiary education.

Even though South Africa is one of the most progressive countries, globally, when it comes to formulating language policies – the actual implementation of these critical language imperatives in institutions of higher learning continues to hold African languages back.

This is one of the points raised by Mr Lance Schultz (right), Chief Executive Officer of the Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB), during an interview ahead of the second colloquium on South Africa’s new Language Policy Framework for Public Higher Education Institutions – themed Moving the Conversation Forward – from 1 to 2 December this year. The Colloquium will be hosted both in-person and online from the University of Pretoria’s Senate Hall, on the main (Hatfield) campus. Primarily targetted at the Vice-Chancellors of South Africa’s 26 public universities, the conference will also attract deputy vice-chancellors, language and legal experts across South Africa’s university system, as well as policy makers.

Legislative language provisions

Schultz says PanSALB – one of the bodies set to participate in the Vice-Chancellors’ Colloquium – was established in terms of the PanSALB Act 59 of 1995, to promote multilingualism and to develop the country’s 11 official languages. Section 6 (4) of South Africa’s Constitution confers parity of esteem to all of the country’s official languages. In sub-section (5) of Section 6, the Constitution also mandates PanSALB to promote and create conditions for the development of all official languages of the Republic.

To that end, PanSALB is required to initiate studies and research aimed at promoting and creating conditions for the development of all 11 official languages including Khoi, San and the South African Sign Language. PanSALB is also authorised to advise and make recommendations on language related matters while monitoring the observance of and adherence to the constitutional language provisions. The organisation therefore works closely with Universities South Africa’s Community of Practice for the Teaching and Learning of African Languages (CoPAL), towards achieving these objectives.

The PanSALB CEO says he believes some limitations in the Language Policy Framework could affect its implementation:

Clause 29. Language of Learning and Teaching (LOLT): Recognising the de facto status of English as the language of learning and teaching across South African higher education institutions, this policy calls upon universities to adopt a flexible approach in the implementation of English as the language of learning and teaching. Necessary support must be provided to students for whom English is not their first language or mother tongue, in order to ensure academic success.

Clause 30. Where demonstrable competencies have been established in one or more languages other than English, such competencies and initiatives should not be impeded, but rather, nurtured and encouraged as long as they do not serve as barriers of access to speakers of other languages. The Constitutional values of inclusivity, social cohesion and equity of access must always be upheld in the implementation of this policy.

Source: Language Policy Framework for Public Higher Education Institutions.

“We need to ensure success in the entire education ecosystem,” Schultz says. “That covers everything from learner and educator support to the provision of quality learning materials and curriculum development. Adequate resources need to be allocated and there needs to be a resolve within government to capacitate it accordingly.

“While I believe that the Policy Framework does take us in the right direction, we need to strengthen how it works and how it is going to be evaluated. Policy clauses 29 and 30 (see above) may be deemed progressive at face value, but as PanSALB, we view them as sustaining the hegemony of English whereby only students for whom English is not a mother tongue must be supported to ensure academic success. This is problematic as it suggests that academic success in non-English speakers is dependent on proficiency in English. This contradicts most of the values and principles of this Policy,” he explains.

Perpetuating English hegemony

“Nowhere in the Policy are English speakers required, let alone be obliged, to learn any previously marginalised languages but non-English speakers are obliged to learn English for their academic success,” the CEO goes on to state. “This may be interpreted as a contradiction to the constitutional principles of redressing the injustices of the past while perpetuating English hegemony as a sustenance of coloniality, linguicism and a subtle systematic linguicide in an era of constitutional democracy.”

He has praised the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) as one of the pioneers in developing glossaries and terminology lists as support material.

“The use of African languages in teaching and learning across domains has been long overdue. PanSALB acknowledges the institutions who have started practical implementation to prove that African languages can be used across domains. However, while this is to be applauded, it is not enough until each domain is taught in Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, siSwati, Tshivenda, Xitsonga, isiNdebele, isiXhosa, isiZulu, Sesotho, Xitsonga and is inclusive of the South African sign language.

PanSALB to continue monitoring implementation

“PanSALB will continue to engage with universities across the country to advocate for the adoption and effective implementation of the language policy framework and will, going forward, be monitoring its implementation.”

Schultz believes it is imperative that a wide array of people from all spheres attend the upcoming second language colloquium.

“What is fundamental to the successful implementation of this language policy is to ensure that we have social cohesion in order to move forward in a united position with a solidarity between all the role players.

“We need the attendance, not only of the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) but also by organisations such as the South African Local Government Association (SALGA) because local government is actually the ‘engine room’ where language transformation is taking place. We also need the Department of Cooperative Governance (DCoG) as well as the Department of Basic Education. We also cannot continue to lament the limitation of resources and be hamstrung by this. So, it is important that we leverage successful partnerships and have conversations with everyone from the media to the private sector,” Schultz continues.

Language and learning are everyone’s responsibility

He emphasises, however, that the responsibility of language and learning is not limited to the higher education sector.

“We need to be mindful that cognitive development takes place in parent-to-child relationships, when the child is still being nurtured in the home in the first five years of development. We need to instil a very strong and fundamental culture of reading at home as opposed to watching television, thinking the child will be able to synthesise information. Cognitive development continues during formal education – including at the critical foundational phases in pre-primary.”

He mentions the successful Mother Tongue Based Bilingual Education pilot programme of the Eastern Cape Department of Education, in which more than 2000 schools are using IsiXhosa and Sesotho as the language of learning and teaching (LoLT).

“The results were phenomenal; we saw a 60% improvement in performance including in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) subjects. It now needs to move from schools into institutions of higher learning,” he said.

The media, too, has a role to play

“Unfortunately, I don’t think that the media thinks of language as being ‘sexy’ so they don’t devote a lot of airtime to it. Also trying to generate revenue, mainstream media is often averse to promoting programming or advertising in multiple languages. We need to create a dialogue with both the media and the private sector regarding this and to foster better partnerships between ourselves (including CoPAL and USAf) and them. We need to have some serious conversations around the language issue.”

He also touched on the development and use of the South African Sign Language (SASL): “We need to be at a state of readiness so that when the bill does get approved to recognise it as an official language, our resourcing is adequate and we do not find ourselves wanting. Our goal should be to ensure that universities and institutions of higher education have prepared sufficient language teachers, interpreters, translators and other language practitioners, to serve the needs of South Africa’s diverse and multilingual society.”

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