The transformation of NWU’s language policy and its far-reaching impact

Published On: 4 October 2021|

Professor Robert Balfour, Deputy Vice Chancellor: Teaching and Learning) at North-West University (NWU), was joined by his colleague Dr Keaobaka Seshoka, Language Director for the university’s Language Directorate, to discuss details of transformation of NWU’s language policy, its delivery and the impact it has had on the institution, staff and students.

They shared their detailed presentation to attendees of the recent Colloquium on the New Language Policy Framework for Public Higher Education Institutions. The online language colloquium was hosted by Stellenbosch University (SU) under the auspices of Universities South Africa (USAf) and is a joint project with USAf’s Community of Practice for the Teaching and Learning of African Languages (COPAL).

Dr Balfour said their presentation was, in essence, an overview of what had been done at the NWU to date, within the multilingualism and linguistic transformation project.

Dr Seshoka
NWU’s planned educational benefit of multilingualism makes it stand out. Access to languages ensures students’ success.

Dr Balfour (right)
In line with the dream to be an internationally recognised university in Africa, the Council of NWU adopted a language policy in November 2018 to accommodate, pursue and provide for a functional, free and fair multilingual environment across all the components of the university. The NWU language policy plan was created to respond to the multilingual needs of the university. It also adds more languages of teaching and learning, specifically indigenous African languages, to the NWU’s already multilingual offering in the form of translation and interpreting into the four languages of the institution. The languages that have been introduced (in addition to Afrikaans and English), on a more significant scale, are Setswana and Sesotho.

Dr Seshoka
This was done to bring about a language management environment at the university, whereby the language realities at our different campuses are continuously considered for practical implementation purposes.

Dr Balfour
Development of several programmes occurred in 2019 and implementation commenced in 2020. According to our data on student language demographics in 2018 we had more than 40 000 respondents in our survey. The pilot included approximately 35 modules with at least 150 students in every module. More than 5 000 students were reached in the first year and a rollout into the second year then totalled more than 10 000 students.

Dr Seshoka
More short learning programmes were developed for English, Afrikaans and Setswana. Sesotho is due to be completed this year. Language acquisition short learning programmes have also been developed and presented for Afrikaans and Setswana; two have already been presented with 37 attendees.

Dr Balfour
Short learning programmes and multilingual pedagogies were developed and implemented in 2020, some of these were delayed because of CoViD and will run into 2021. The short learning programme is also in its final stages of development for online presentation. It’s an eight-week course and there will be an intake, not only in this year, but in years to come. CoViD -19 did not deter our implementation efforts. Lecturers made more extensive use of the language services of the Directorate, to create more multilingual resources during the period of 2020 and 2021.

The student language survey was particularly revealing. Out of the 40 000 students polled, we noticed that four languages are used predominantly at the institution in combination with each other. At our Vanderbijl campus, Sesotho – together with English and Afrikaans – was used while on the Mahikeng campus, English and Setswana feature as the dominant languages. In Potchefstroom there is a dominance of Afrikaans, with lesser use of English, Setswana and Sesotho. All 12 languages used in South Africa are represented at NWU campuses.

There is a definite indication that more languages are also used among our communities, for example, isiXhosa. Data also shows that in areas in Gauteng, isiZulu is an upcoming language in our students’ language demographic.

In terms of implementation we focused on the identification of flagship programmes within each of our faculty’s language plans. These were purposely tailored to the needs of the profession, the marketplace as well as statutory and legislative bodies, employing and reaching out to our graduates.

If we look at the Faculty of Economics and Management Sciences, the faculty has 12 initiatives ongoing at present. The Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences has four, the Faculty of Education seven, while the Faculty of Law has English as a medium of instruction with support available through the translation of study guides into the three languages of the university used in addition to English.

In all our faculties, the intention with the pilot is to explore purposeful language use of contextualised adaptation of the languages in the context of the modules. Thus the pilot focuses on the development of multilingual pedagogies in order to facilitate the uses of the languages in the classroom, while the supply and development of resources, assists students with their understanding of the content and generates an environment in which the languages that we use are generally welcomed within the module content that’s being developed.

Resources development to aid multilingual pedagogies

Dr Seshoka (left)
So, in this journey of multilingualism, we have worked and developed glossaries, like in the Faculty of Economic Management Sciences or the Faculty of Health Sciences. There are glossaries in process, parallel to the study guide translations. And we have also developed multilingual glossaries to be used in teaching and learning.

Dr Balfour
In the Faculty of Education, there are five modules that have been identified for the development of specialist terminology discourses as well as glossaries. These are inclusive of mathematics in Sesotho in education as an example. In the Faculty of Law, a multilingual lexicon was developed for first-year modules. In the Faculty of Theology, the flagship programmes concerned Setswana in terms of the addition to English and Afrikaans, in a range of at least six modules being piloted in that faculty. Whilst in the Faculty of Humanities, there are a number of modules ready, in which the glossary of terms as well as the translation of the study guides, has been provided to students.

So what has the language journey been like for the university?

Dr Balfour
It’s really important that language planning is grounded in data. The NWU language policy is therefore grounded in the development of plans in each of the faculties to support the university’s commitment to implement planning in consultation with leadership structures such as management committees, senates, faculty boards and the like. The policy identifies a range of prerogatives and timeframes for the general development of the implementation but each faculty takes ownership in the context of the environments in which the languages are to be used the most.

Dr Seshoka
Over the next four years, indigenous African languages will be used as the additional languages of teaching and learning in sequence of articulating modules.

How will NWU’s language policy be properly implemented?

Dr Balfour
At NWU, we use the phased approach to ensure that the implementation of the policy occurred in the form of the plans. In 2019, a great deal of time was spent in preparation of materials as well as resources as well as the language plans themselves to be implemented in 2020. As part of Phase One, faculty had to identify at least one, but possibly even more, flagship programmes and at least one module in each year of the flagship programme where an African language would be used as an additional language of teaching and learning. In 2021, Phase Two was also initiated; the flagship modules of Phase One were rolled out into the second year continuing with an African language as an additional language of learning and teaching and translanguaging as the primary medium of instruction.

Dr Seshoka
Other initiatives involved drafting and updating subject terminology lists in English, Afrikaans, Sesotho and Setswana and multi-pronged strategies to implement multilingualism. It also entailed translation and editing of study guides, and also editing and translation of PowerPoint slides. Translation of examination papers in the other official languages of NWU has already taken place.

Dr Balfour
Lecturers are playing an integral role in this multilingual teaching, learning, referred to as translanguaging. Language sensitisation is an explicit focus and language awareness weeks are offered annually. These are jointly presented with other awareness weeks at the university, for example gender awareness and race weeks.

Language implementation measures at NWU include:

  • Multi-pronged strategies to implement multilingualism
  • Drafting and updating of subject terminology lists in English, Afrikaans, Sesotho and Setswana
  • Translation and editing of study guides
  • Translation and editing of PowerPoint slides
  • Occasional translation of examination papers in the official languages of the NWU
  • Subtitles in the official languages of the NWU for identified lectures captured on video
  • Educational interpreting

In conclusion:

Dr Seshoka
We have just concluded a language audit. This was done to ensure that when we review our language policy to assist us in reviewing our language policy and to ensure that it is in line with the language needs of our community, the students and the staff. More work is being continually done to ensure that the university increasingly caters for the multilingual needs of its everyone who is part of the institution. The future looks bright!

Janine Greenleaf Walker is a contract writer for Universities South Africa