The use of IsiZulu in teaching is helping UKZN students excel academically

Published On: 23 November 2022|

Some institutions have begun to witness positive results from incorporating South Africa’s indigenous languages in teaching and learning. One such institution is the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) which elevated the use of IsiZulu in teaching, bringing it close to parity with English.

In the lead up to Vice-Chancellors’ 2nd Consultative Language Colloquium scheduled for 1 to 2 December, academic leaders, and students, have shared insights on the utility of multilingualism in teaching.

IsiZulu made my academic journey easy

Mr Mawethu Jauza (left), an educator at Pinetown Boys High School and a UKZN PhD candidate with research an interest in IsiZulu Lexicography, says conducting research in his mother tongue from honours level to PhD, placed him at an advantage to excel academically. He says it enabled him to understand the contents of his modules easily. Moreover, when writing, it helped him to be fully expressive of his opinions and ideas.

To illustrate this, he mentions the mental process of translation it takes to express oneself in English. He says more often than not, one’s thoughts occur first in one’s home language. When an individual has challenges with English, verbalising or writing those thoughts in the second language can pose problems.

“Chances are, that person may not be able to articulate their thoughts as accurately. So, introducing IsiZulu as one of the academic languages helped students reach their full potential. I am a testament to that.”

Challenges encountered along the way

Jauza says Lexicography has limited IsiZulu readings available at UKZN’s libraries. For that reason, he has to translate the work from English to IsiZulu – something he believes he can do and has been doing because of the skills he obtained during honours and master’s levels — to translate, interpret and develop terminology.

He emphasises that he rose to the task because of the need to preserve and develop the language. “Now that I have learned the terminology, I can analyse a situation and give it my own description in my writing. The next person who reads my work will also learn the new term. This speaks to spreading knowledge, critical for the continuous development of our language.”

The limited isiZulu readings also pose a challenge for the University’s terminologists who need to develop terms for specialised fields of learning. He cites the example of a Nursing Science graduate of a different race who could be employed at a community clinic serving predominantly isiZulu-speaking people. He says it is essential for that person to have a basic understanding of the language, to ease their communication with community members who visit that clinic.

“That is where we spot gaps and appreciate the importance of including our indigenous languages in learning and teaching at universities. And this is where our terminologists come in, to bridge those gaps. We understand, though, that it will not be an overnight process.”

Varying opinions on the adoption of multilingualism

Jauza admits that students’ and academics’ views on multilingualism differ. Some students, understanding the language politics involved, embrace the idea. Others object because of the limited literature and terminology. He says academics advance similar arguments on same.

However, from his observation, Jauza says students from other races seem to appreciate learning IsiZulu at the undergraduate level, as it gives them a basic understanding of the language and enables them to converse with IsiZulu-speaking peers.

Jauza emphasises the need to continuously develop the language through new terminology and dictionaries relevant to different contexts. He says in his work, he has even reconfigured the Endnote referencing software to provide an equivalent in-text referencing guide in isiZulu.

“It is unacceptable for me to write my work in IsiZulu, only to have English terms here and there. People are often shocked at my level of interest in the use of IsiZulu.”

Multilingualism speaks to Higher Education transformation

He says this change is symbolic of the sector’s transformation pursuits and speaks to curriculum decolonisation. Curriculum delivery in English to second-language speakers made it strenuous for them and hindered them from reaching their full potential.

“So, writing in our indigenous languages enables us to showcase our intellect,” he says. “There was a belief, previously, that proficiency in English indicated intelligence. We ended up believing that we were not intelligent if our grasp of the language wasn’t as good. But now perceptions have changed.”

Integrating multiple languages indicates a recognition of people’s cultures

Mr Sthembiso Phoswa (left), a Social Worker at the UKZN-based MA’AT Institute and a Master’s student in Social Work himself, attests to fruitful outcomes emerging from using IsiZulu in his work. He commends UKZN for its attempts to dismantle cultural alienation. For him, language carries identity, and culture.

“When I arrived at the University in 2015 and got to speak my mother tongue in academic settings, I felt recognised,” he says. “I felt like I had a voice within higher education. ”

Phoswa says using IsiZulu in learning made it easy for him to engage with knowledge. As a tutor he made a similar observation with students using isiZulu instead of English. He says it enabled them to understand the contents of their work and express themselves fully.

As such, Phoswa joined a team at UKZN, that is developing terminology and glossaries for various disciplines in IsiZulu. Focusing specifically on psychology, social work and criminology, Phoswa says he believes that “if we are going to do justice to the implementation of multilingualism, we have to take responsibility for the development of glossaries that assist students in their studies,” he says.

He believes that every discipline ought to have IsiZulu-translated terms available when needed. He says this is possible; UKZN is making strides to achieve this goal even in the engineering faculty. “Once we have the glossaries, it will be easier to produce updated dictionaries in the IsiZulu language. These will assist especially the students coming from deep rural areas where we know they were not taught in English at school level, yet they have to transition to such mode of learning at tertiary. Sometimes they may appear to be struggling academically, only to find it is because of the unfamiliar language. The brain struggles to process information.”

Success of multilingualism

Phoswa says he has seen academics writing their work in IsiZulu, an indication that they have embraced the change. He says students are allowed to choose between IsiZulu and English when writing tests. He reveals that UKZN is in the process of adding SeSotho to academic languages. He says this will go far in upholding the relevance of indigenous South Africa’s languages in modern society, and in university studies. He adds that UKZN’s new language policy is sending a message that they are serious about growing African languages.

He says universities should not forget what the coloniser did to the indigenous peoples of this country, and how that shaped our society today. Phoswa reiterates that language preserves culture and identity. He says universities must do things in such a way that everyone within their parameters feels recognised and significant.

“Academics ought to understand that multilingualism goes far beyond just learning and teaching,” he concludes.

Nqobile Tembe is a Communication Consultant at Universities South Africa.