The sector-wide language resources audit is designed to aid the implementation of multilingualism

Published On: 7 December 2022|

Delegates at the Vice-Chancellors’ Language Colloquium held at the University of Pretoria from 1 to 2 December were treated to preliminary findings of a report commissioned by Universities South Africa (USAf). The report is an audit of available resources for uplifting African languages at South African public universities. It is intended to be a tool to assist the implementation of the new language policy framework for higher education institutions.

The overall feedback was positive. “It’s very clear a lot of work has taken place at universities. There are a lot of resources available, and as the Chair (of the session, Professor Dion Nkomo of Rhodes University) mentioned, it’s not just financial resources; there’s a lot of expertise, there are datasets and glossaries. Most importantly, we picked up that the will and energy are there towards implementing the policy framework,” said Juan Steyn.

Steyn (right) is the Operations Director of the South African Centre for Digital Language Resources (SADiLaR), which Universities South Africa (USAf) commissioned to do the audit. SADiLaR is based at North-West University in Potchefstroom.

What the audit is about

The research, still in process and will be for the next six months, focuses on three main areas:

  • to define the range of resources required for the successful implementation of the revised Language Policy Framework that was gazetted in October 2020;
  • to identify the resources at an institution to enable this implementation; and
  • to identify the milestones realised towards the policy framework’s successful implementation.

“This can be broken down into three simple things: what is available at your institution, what is missing at your institution, and what milestones can be celebrated?” said Steyn.

Why an audit

The session Chair, Professor Nkomo (left), had outlined the context of the audit. The Associate Professor of African Language Studies at Rhodes University, where he is the National Research Foundation SARChI Chair for the Intellectualisation of African Languages, Multilingualism and Education, said it was about finding the facts among the emotional responses.

“Instead of making broad emotional and in some cases anecdotal statements, such as ‘it is difficult to use African languages because they don’t have resources’”, he said, it was important to embark on this mission. “To ensure that we align our language policy implementation plans at our different universities, we need to know clearly and equivocally what resources are available in our different institutions,” said Nkomo. This would help avoid duplication of efforts, and wasteful expenditures, which the keynote speaker at the colloquium, Professor Kwesi Kwaa Prah, founder and former Director of the Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society (CASAS), had alluded to.

After the pilots

The formal audit began last month, with visits to the University of Mpumalanga the Vaal University of Technology (VUT) and the University of South Africa (Unisa).

In addition to the work already done to uplift marginalised languages, the visits also exposed how discussions about language can become passionate and raise sensitivities, which Steyn said was understandable as the issue is very personal. The qualitative on-site discussions helped contextualise the quantitative information obtained from the questionnaires.

As part of the rest of the audit, SADiLaR will be conducting some follow-ups with universities already audited. For example, if they said they had glossaries, the researchers need to determine which subjects this applied to. This is to ensure “we don’t start developing the same terminology lists that have already been developed many times at different universities”, said Steyn.

Advice for universities still to be audited

Steyn said universities should bear in mind that the audit is about sharing their successes to guide the entire sector, and to strengthen the Department of Higher Education and Training’s implementation plans revealed earlier at the colloquium.

“We want to stress that it is not a fault-finding mission but about knowing what is available in the sector and what we need to focus our attention on,” he said. Steyn said they wanted to focus on multilingualism as a vehicle to unlock access to knowledge in the higher education system, he said.

It helped if the site visits were “a co-branded exercise”, he said, so that it was not just SADiLaR visiting the university to conduct the audit but “a joint process to make sure the right people are invited and that it’s broadly advertised and broadly attended”.

Universities should understand that multilingualism in this context does not entail the replacement of specific languages in favour of others but is about unlocking access by providing more resources in different languages. “We must realise there’s not a one-size-fits-all solution to this project,” said Steyn.

Many are unaware of their own university’s resources

The audit had also become “a useful self-reflective exercise for universities”, said Steyn, as many staff and students had learnt about services and datasets at their institutions for the first time during these discussions.

SADiLaR had found resources such as translation services, proofreading services, editing services, voice-over, annotation, text-to speech, speech-to-text, text-to-speech and sign language support. “But the reality is not everybody knows about it,” said Steyn.

Comments from site visits

He shared some detail of the available resources found during site visits:

  • “Lecturers allow students to express themselves in their mother tongue and then other students can later interpret to the lecturer”;
  • “…during lectures, upon request, you could ask for another word/definition of the content being explained to be provided in your requested language and if the lecturer is not sure how to do it, students do assist”; and
  • “During the session, the lecturers also translate to our native languages to help the student understand what is discussed.”

Steyn said it was important to note that the whole class had the resources to assist; it was not up to the lecturer to be able to speak every language. Like the question posed at the colloquium about how many vice-chancellors were attending, “yes, it would be great if every senior manager was in this room. But, in the end, it’s all of us that can contribute to the change that is needed,” said Steyn.

Resources still needed

Feedback from students included these suggestions:

  • Teach science and mathematical languages in African languages;
  • Provide examination papers and study materials in multiple languages; and
  • Offer classes to students to learn the 11 official languages.

Feedback from staff included:

  • Stop promoting English over other languages as a medium of teaching;
  • The attitudes of lecturers must change; and
  • To support multilingualism, increase staff capacity, which Steyn cited as the impediment to making the desired changes.


Practical examples that show universities are making meaningful changes include that:

  • VUT has established a unit to advocate the development of historically marginalised languages;
  • At Unisa, every academic department has a language committee that ensures communication, teaching and learning are translated into the languages prevalent in specific modules. The university also develops glossaries for disciplines and is in the process of developing subject-specific glossaries;
  • Although UMP does not have an official language policy yet, they embrace the use of African languages such as isiNdebele and Siswati on both campuses, and Sepedi on the Siyabuswa campus.

The way forward

Steyn said the preliminary audit results showeda lot of shared challenges and shared opportunities for the sector that cut across typical institutional boundaries.

“We need to build on the goodwill that is available at our institutions,” he said.

He said they need to develop a collective network model, that is, a five-year plan of how the Policy Framework can be implemented and supported in the sector.

“We should move towards a shared resource model that can facilitate interaction and take away barriers of access, an independent platform outside of individual institutions. It is not possible for a single institution alone to make this a success,” he said.

This would affect funding. Funds would need to mould the whole sector, rather than just being available for one university, he said.

“We need to start moving from an institutional mindset to seeing how our institutional resources can benefit the sector, and South Africa as a whole,” said Steyn.

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa