UCT’s Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng advocates for compulsory basic language courses at universities

Published On: 25 November 2022|

“To ensure implementation of multilingualism at South African universities, we should not start with learning in an African language. First, we need every university student in this country to learn and be fluent in at least one of the nine African languages. I hope that this becomes the focus of the next Vice-Chancellors’ Language Colloquium,” says Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng.

Phakeng (right) is Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Cape Town (UCT), and Chair of the Teaching and Learning Strategy Group of Universities South Africa (USAf), the public universities’ association hosting the Colloquium together with the University of Pretoria (UP), where the event is being held on 1 and 2 December. The hybrid gathering will be live screened for online participants.

Themed Moving the Conversation Forward, the Colloquium will focus on the implementation of the Language Policy Framework for Public Higher Education Institutions, which was gazetted in October 2020 and came into effect in January 2022. The Policy aims to address the underdevelopment and underutilisation of official African languages, and to promote multilingualism as a strategy of facilitating meaningful participation.

Phakeng says if discussions on the implementation of this policy at many institutions are not progressing, it is because they are aiming for the “highest level of maturity”. Learning a language needs to come before learning in a language, she says. It will advance interactions across cultures and across language groups.

Each university should choose the language that suits its context, which is then offered as a one-semester course to all students, Phakeng suggests, adding that this should be a government requirement. “This has to be worked on so that it is a decision across institutions,” she says. While some would view it as dropping standards, “it is about increasing students’ linguistic repertoires, which can be advantageous for academic performance”, she says.

For those registered for a course that presents an opportunity to be in public service, such as social work, education, and medicine, it should be compulsory to take a full year module in one of the nine African languages. “For example, at UCT, we require students studying towards an MBChB to pass an IsiXhosa module before they can graduate,” she said. For engineering, students must do any language course at UCT that will give them exposure to a language other than English, that they do not already speak as a home language.

Fluency in an African language should be compulsory for all staff too, says Professor Phakeng. “Apartheid privileged English and Afrikaans. So we’ve got to privilege the other nine languages to say, this is what we offer, free for every staff member. And when you get fluency in this language, this is the advantage that comes with it,” she states.

Sprinters vs hurdlers

Professor Phakeng states that multilingualism is important in higher education because language is key to teaching and learning. And the Language Policy Framework is vital because of the mix of monolingual and multilingual students on campuses, which she describes using the athletics analogy of sprinters versus hurdlers.

This executive leader, whose home language is Setswana but who speaks eight other South African languages, says she could be classified as a hurdler, as opposed to a sprinter, someone who speaks only one language.

A hurdler must jump and sprint at the same time. Not only that, but the jumping must be done in a particular way, from the way they raise their legs, to the landing, or else the hurdler will fall. “Just like I do as a multilingual,” she illustrates. Sprinters and hurdlers never compete against each other, and no one would ever say one is better than the other. Yet, if the two had to compete on a track without hurdles, the sprinter would win.

“Anyone who teaches in a South African institution of learning, whether it’s basic or higher education, deals with a classroom of hurdlers and sprinters, yet they expect everyone to function as a sprinter,” she says.

Layering teaching with an understanding of multilingualism brings awareness, as teachers will use language in a way that doesn’t assume everyone is at first language fluency and might, for instance, stop at opportune moments to ask if everyone understands their accent.

Multilingualism should be an expectation

She believes that multilingualism should not just be normalised; it must be made an expectation. Allowing only one or two languages to be used for interaction and scholarship in South Africa “limits the growth of knowledge; it limits our inclusivity, and cripples our transformation project”, she says.

She does not get perturbed when someone speaks Afrikaans to her, largely because it was compulsory for her to study it. “My being multilingual has enabled me to engage with other communities. It often comes in handy when I meet with parents of our students.”

Picturing the scenario of training a social worker (or doctor or teacher) who can speak only one or two languages but is going to serve a multilingual community, she asks: “What happens if this social worker is placed in Khayelitsha, and half the people can’t speak English or Afrikaans? Is it the people’s problem or it is the social worker’s problem?

“My view is that it is the social worker’s problem. How can a graduate who studied in a university in the Western Cape or in the Eastern Cape not be able to speak isiXhosa? I think there’s something wrong with that education. What are we educating our graduates for? In my view, they must be as relevant in South Africa as they should be in the world.”

The weaknesses exposed by not being multilingual

Professor Phakeng says the weakness of that scenario extends beyond the person providing the service. If you speak only English or Afrikaans, you are not drawing on one of South Africa’s strengths — its diversity. “It’s not good for social cohesion. It limits our scholarship and growth of our knowledge. And it privileges some people, the minority in this country, and that’s a weakness. And we, as a country, will suffer because we have a resource we are not drawing on. We are drawing on the linguistic capacity of only one language or two languages.”

“Multilingualism brings another gaze to our world. We must make it cool to be multilingual. Now it is not. You don’t earn any advantage in this country if you’re multilingual,” she says, citing the University of Ottawa in Canada, where being proficient in English and French is recognised as a strength, and which warrants priority employment and additional pay.

University transformation extends beyond more black faces

South Africa’s universities have most black students, some of whose families cannot speak English. As Vice-Chancellor, if a parent comes to speak to her about their child, the advantage is that she can speak with them in isiZulu, or Setswana or another African language, and this has the potential to make the parent feel they can trust the institution.

“That’s the transformation you want to see. Transformation at university is not just about increasing the number of black faces. It’s also about people out there in the impoverished communities feeling that these universities are ours, they belong to us, we should protect them, we should service them, we should grow them.”

If, as a vice-chancellor, she could not speak the language of a visitor, she should be able to call her deputy, a dean or somebody who can. “If you don’t have these people as a vice-chancellor, then you are very disadvantaged,” she says.

Yet this level of multilingualism is a resource black people are expected to bring for free, “which shows that even though we have a multilingual language policy at universities, we have an inequity of languages in South Africa. The message says although we have a multilingual policy, not all languages are equal. African languages are not equal. So, we don’t even want to hear them. That’s a tacit message. You can have a multilingual policy, but some languages are more powerful than others,” Professor Phakeng concludes.

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.