The value of multilingualism goes beyond mere convenience of communication

Published On: 5 October 2021|

“Learning another language is not only learning different words for the same things but learning another way to think about things”.

Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town (UCT), used these words by the late American journalist Flora Lewis to introduce her presentation at the online Colloquium on the New Language Policy for Higher Education.

Phakeng (above) was speaking on Transforming the Academy Using African Languages as Enablers in the plenary session: Reimaging Engagement and Transformation. This was at last week’s two-day Colloquium held under the auspices of Universities South Africa (USAf). Hosted by Stellenbosch University, the consultative meeting of universities’ executive leadership was a joint project with USAf’s Community of Practice for the Teaching and Learning of African Languages (CoPAL).

Professor Phakeng elaborated on how language changes perceptions by quoting more from Lewis: “Language is the way people think as well as the way they talk, the summation of a point of view…. People who use more than one language frequently find themselves having somewhat different patterns of thought and reaction as they shift.”

Phakeng said even though some phrases cannot be translated, grasping an equivalence gives another perception of the world – and “this is the great value of learning foreign languages.

“It goes far beyond convenience of communication. I’m sure many of us in the room who speak, as an average South African, five or more languages, will relate to what Flora Lewis says.”

Linking this to government’s revised Language Policy Framework for Public Higher Education Institutions, she said the policy offered the opportunity to help transform not just the academy, “but also South Africa, by enlarging the total vision of our fellow citizens, giving our students and ourselves another perception of the world, and our potential to help lead humanity’s future”.

Professor Phakeng said it was important for delegates to realise that when she spoke about languages, she was referring to three ideas: teaching a language, teaching in a language, and teaching about a language.

“But when I talk about teaching a language, I want us to flag this idea, this issue that troubles me about teaching African languages in South Africa, that there are universities in our country that teach African languages in English, and I think this body should actually engage with that. When we talk about teaching a language, we also have to probe in which language that language is taught.”

The rest of her talk focused on what UCT has done to promote multilingualism, and how this ties in with the language policy framework that takes effect from 1 January 2022.

UCT started actively endorsing multilingualism in 2005 when it launched the Multilingual Education Project (MEP), the same year it established the Senate Language Policy Committee, which set up a Language Policy Task Team in 2019. The task team’s role was to lead the revision of UCT’s language policy, beginning with the production of a briefing document for faculties on the key principles to promote African languages for teaching and research.

“The starting point of UCT’s language policy is the need to prepare students to participate fully in a multilingual society,” said Phakeng. MEP, housed within UCT Centre for Higher Education Development, launched the Masithethe isiXhosa (isiXhosa communication) course for staff and students, “taking the courses into residences, in support departments, as well as into classrooms of disciplines such as law, philosophy and psychology,” she said.

Other Masithethe projects include developing multilingual online glossaries to promote subject concept literacy among students for whom English is not a main language, and assisting faculties in providing multilingual tutorial study materials, especially at first-year level.

In 2015 the College of Accounting launched an online teaching platform, the first of its kind in South Africa, to help students learn key financial and accounting concepts in isiZulu and isiXhosa, as well as English.

“The aim is to graduate more black accounting students, and ultimately boost their numbers in the commerce sector, and so the platform is created to enable those students whose home language is isiXhosa or isiZulu to be able to interact with the accounting concepts in their own languages.

The platform is open to anyone interested in learning more about accounting and finance, not only UCT students, because UCT believes higher education should reach beyond the university campus.

“An ambitious three-year project began in 2020,” she said. This refers to their work on improving public access to endangered African languages, focusing on Khoekhoegowab and Nǀuu, a project funded through the Vice Chancellor’s Discretionary Fund.

“Such programmes are just the first step towards developing a multilingual environment where all South African official languages, particularly those which have been historically marginalised, are afforded space to develop as languages of scholarship, research, as well as teaching and learning, as specified in the government language policy framework,” she said.

“We at UCT are foregrounding African languages across the university,” said Professor Phakeng. This includes:

  • the computer science department developing data-driven isiZulu and isiXhosa spellcheckers;
  • the School of Languages and Literatures conducting teaching and research on language, literatures and cultural studies in 15 languages, including Sesotho, isiXhosa, and Afrikaans, with research projects that include literature and cinema in Francophone West Africa, and creative writing in Afrikaans and Xhosa;
  • two isiXhosa majors in the Faculty of Humanities, one for first language speakers, and the other for isiXhosa as a foreign language;
  • isiXhosa-English bilingual acting and voice courses in the drama department, which offer students a platform to use their home languages on stage;
  • students in the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment being required to take a foreign language as an elective, as long as it’s not their home language, with many choosing isiXhosa, Sesotho or Afrikaans;
  • isiXhosa for psychology, human genetics, and architectural students, mostly on honours level to help them with their coursework in Xhosa communities; and
  • the medical school language programme, launched early in the century, which provides medical students with language skills to converse with patients whose home language is either isiXhosa or Afrikaans, the two most common languages in the Western Cape besides English. Standard proficiency in these languages is a requirement to graduate.

Phakeng said the medical school language programme, “UCT’s biggest initiative in Afrikaans and isiXhosa”, included clinical skills CD-ROMs, launched in 2008, to help students improve their communication with patients. These multilingual Health Sciences course materials are available to other institutions through a Creative Commons license.

“Universities have been tasked to develop capacities for marginalised African languages. At UCT we’ve recently expanded our language offering, with the language of the Xhoi and the San people. We began teaching foundational Khoekhoegowab in collaboration with the Centre for African Studies in the community around the campus, hosted by the UCT Summer School. The oral exam was moderated by a first language Khoekhoegowab speaker from Namibia,” said Phakeng.

The programme has since moved into the San and Khoi Centre, launched last year. The Centre plans to roll out an undergraduate Khoekhoegowab programme in the next four years, looking at the language, history, culture, and arts of the Xhoi people.

In the interim it is continuing with its foundational certification course in the Khoekhoegowab language. The initial two certification short courses attracted 182 students from a wide range of backgrounds. It included Emeritus Professor John Parkington from the Department of Archaeology at UCT, who specialises in research of the long-term hunter gatherer settlement in the fynbos biome of the Western Cape. The course has helped him work more closely with the community members to interpret rock paintings. “In this way, these people are able to contribute meaningfully to the study of their own history,” said Phakeng.

Some previously unemployed youth were able to use their certificate of completion to apply for a museum internship “and thus further engage the community in the Xhoi and San culture,” said Phakeng.

While the archives of UCT’s special collections in the African Studies Library held recorded Xhoi and San works of great significance, a lot was lost during the fire that devastated the library earlier this year.

“There is another archive that remains unexplored in the stories and memories of living Xhoi and San leaders,” said Professor Phakeng. “This is one way that we as a university are hoping we can unleash the potential of entire communities across South Africa: providing them with a platform based on their mother tongue to speak about who they are, to celebrate their living archives, and to contribute to the multifaceted identity of this country,” she said.

“This prioritisation of marginalised languages can offer healing to wounded communities that have been overlooked and despised in the past. This includes university students and staff members who are from these communities.”

She said the #FeesMustFall #RhodesMustFall protests had shown them people felt marginalised. “We have learned from that experience, and whatever we are doing, we want to do it in such a way that it can have deep meaning for our culture and our history as a people,“ she said.

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa