The strides that the University of Mpumalanga is making towards multilingualism

Published On: 10 November 2022|

The University of Mpumalanga (UMP) recently introduced a Master’s degree in siSwati language and literature, following the offering of a Bachelor of Arts Honours in siSwati in 2021.

This is part of UMP’s ongoing vision to be an African university, leading in creating opportunities for sustainable development through innovation, which means being rooted in both African culture and African language.

Professor Shirley Sommers (right), Deputy Vice-Chancellor (DVC): Teaching and Learning at UMP, mentioned this while sharing her institution’s story in the context of the African Languages agenda spearheaded by Universities South Africa’s Community of Practice for the Teaching and Learning of African Languages (CoPAL). This is in keeping with the spirit and purpose of the revised Language Policy Framework for Public Higher Education Institutions that was gazetted in October 2020, and which came into effect in January 2022.

The DVC was also speaking ahead of the second Vice-Chancellors’ Language Colloquium – themed Moving the Conversation Forward – which will be hosted in a hybrid format from the University of Pretoria’s Senate Hall on the main (Hatfield) campus from 1 to 2 December this year. Organised in partnership with CoPAL, the Colloquium, primarily targeted at the 26 Vice-Chancellors of South Africa’s public universities, will also be attended by DVCs, language and legal experts, senior policymakers from relevant departments including the Department of Higher Education and Training, the Pan South African Language Board and other key stakeholder entities. The December meeting follows the initial consultation among Vice-Chancellors, which took place in September 2021 as part of an envisaged three-meeting series.

UMP sees language as a great opportunity for students

Professor Sommers explained that promoting siSwati “is not merely about where we are situated, but also our ethos. So, we look at the language issue as a great opportunity for our students.”

However, there are still obstacles to overcome when it comes to the teaching of mother-tongue languages and multilingualism in higher education institutions.

Professor Sommers continued: “We are serious about this, and making a difference. We also want to introduce similar offerings (at both Honour’s and Master’s degree levels) in isiNdebele, but we are struggling to find qualified lecturers that would enable us to achieve this as soon as possible.

African Languages scholarship must be incentivised like STEM disciplines

“I’ve been here since the beginning of 2021 and I am still struggling to find lecturers. This is because few institutions offer isiNdebele at a Master’s level. We need a person with a PhD to be able to teach but not many exist. It’s a scarce skill and we have offered increased salaries to incentivise people but with little success so far. At the University, we are also trying to encourage our staff members to get their PhDs in African languages.”

She said much of the current focus in education is predominantly around the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) subjects with plenty of inducements offered as they are regarded as scarce skills. “However, we need to provide similar incentives to African languages to encourage young people to focus on these as well. Government grants are usually provided for technology and science but we cannot let African languages fall by the wayside as they are just as critical.”

A snapshot of UMP

She gave a short background to UMP — a comprehensive university offering programmes from higher certificates to doctoral degrees. Launched in 2013, the first cohort of 169 students were registered in three programmes in February 2014.

“The majority of our students identify as siSwati speaking followed by those who speak isiNdebele and isiZulu. Aside from the one campus in Mbombela, there is a second in Siyabuswa in which isiNdebele is predominantly the mother tongue. We are looking to develop our policy from this perspective. We want to take the route of multilingualism but largely focus initially on siSwati as this is the language spoken by the majority of the students who are enrolled with us.”

In February 2022 – in line with the Department of Higher Education and Training’s (DHET) new Language Policy Framework for Public Higher Education Institutions, UMP formed a committee dedicated to language policy development.

Said Professor Sommers: “The process is still ongoing and we do not have a finalised language policy yet. To date, the committee has developed terms of reference, the roles and responsibilities of committee members and how we can best fulfil the objectives of the Policy Framework.”

Obstacles can be opportunities

“As a university,” she continued, “we have made the decision to approach the language question from an opportunity-based perspective and not only see the obstacles that we will have to overcome to implement it successfully.

“When we look at student access and success, we are not referring to university access but access to the epistemology, to the content and to the knowledge; it is language that provides access to the content and the possibility to provide student success. At present at UMP, we believe that we have good success rates – we hover around 80 and 85% pass rates – but I believe the introduction of a new language policy would increase our pass rates to around 90 to 95%.”

Explained Professor Sommers: “It is imperative to develop African languages in institutions of higher education so that they develop and do not dwindle and die. Apartheid made a concerted effort to degrade and kill off these languages so we are now at a critical point to recover them. They need to be developed, particularly in the sciences. Language would really be helpful in terms of access in the science departments where pass rates are not as good as they should be.

“Our largest faculty, enrolling the majority of students, is the Faculty of Agriculture and Natural Sciences. So, we would like to develop a siSwati dictionary and glossary of the terms that we use in agriculture and natural science. Some of our staff members are working with indigenous communities in Mpumalanga just to make sure that we’re using the correct terminology in terms of language. There is the idea also to reach out to the University of Swaziland to see if it would be possible to adapt some of their material.”

Policy formulation milestones realised thus far

UMP’s language committee was established by Term One in 2022 in accordance with the deadlines put in place by the University. Terms of reference had to be finalised in Term 3 and these will be presented to the management committee (MANCO) in November this year. Policy is due to be finalised in Term 2 of 2023.

She said: “At UMP, we are not reinventing the wheel as other universities and institutions of higher learning in South Africa have already formulated a policy which we are then able – in consultation – to adapt to our specific needs. Consultations also have to take place internally with staff, who need to understand how the policy affects them. We have staff members who are not necessarily fluent in siSwati so we have to triangulate the process.

“We must have the required materials in place which are adequate for access and success. We have to introduce staff development programmes. We know that you cannot learn a language within a semester but it would be useful for those of us who teach to be able to refer students to a document that they can use in terms of scaffolding, language-wise, and which would also help integrate the terminology in the classroom. Many of our staff are not fluent in the mother-tongue languages but there is a willingness to learn and participate in short-learning programmes.”


She said that meetings have been held with DHET in regard to accessing funds from the University Capacity Development Grant (UCDG) which provides resources towards the achievement of specific objectives: “They are willing to fund language policy development and language policy implementation. However, as this is also part of our vision, the university is also willing to provide funding and cover short learning courses for staff who are willing to engage as well as for the provision of resources such as materials and the purchasing of books.

“We are looking at purchasing materials in SiSwati for our library as well as procuring dictionaries from within South Africa and Swaziland.”

UMP will present at the upcoming Language Colloquium

Representing UMP at the upcoming Vice-Chancellors’ Language Colloquium next month will be “two of our faculty members – both language specialists – who are the co-chairs of UMP’s language policy development committee,” Professor Sommers revealed. “They are Mrs Cynthia Ndlovu, who is Swati, and an IsiNdebele lecturer, Mr William Jiyane. They will be explaining the journey that we have undertaken to date, whilst also having conversations about the journey ahead and the issues and difficulties that all universities may face with the language implementation, particularly when it comes to procuring the best course materials.”

The Colloquium, she believes, should be embraced by all and not just academics.

The Colloquium should aim for inclusivity

“Higher education institutions should not be isolated from the communities in which they are located and from the national context. It is always useful to hear other people’s opinions. There needs to be a societal effort undertaken to restore these languages to their rightful place. We cannot work alone or in a silo. We have to work collaboratively and in partnership with other organisations and communities, including government, the media and NGOs. These NGOs are the people who really work with communities and, most of the time, they’re the people who really use the language more than we use it so we have a lot to learn from them.”

The student voice also has to be heard: “That’s our springboard; we are focused on them and their success. Students are represented on UMP’s language committee including SRC members as well as others,” she said.

“We already have siSwati and isiNdebele speaking students who are tutors and mentors. Is there a bigger role they could play? Can they try and infuse the language even further or are they already doing that?” she questioned. “They could already be doing it, peer-to-peer. If you’re trying to get someone who is battling to understand a concept, you shift gears and you use a different language, a language that is accessible. This is why this Colloquium is so important; it opens up conversations like these, and sparks ideas.”

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