UFS students corroborate the value of multilingualism and translanguaging in teaching

Published On: 23 November 2022|

In the build up to the 2nd Vice-Chancellors’ Language Colloquium on the revised Language Policy Framework for Higher Education Institutions, students from the University of the Free State (UFS) describe how incorporating indigenous languages in teaching is improving their academic performance and boosting their confidence.

Underpinning multilingualism practice at UFS is the institution’s Language Policy, adopted in 2016 and reviewed in 2022. According to Dr Nomalungelo Ngubane, Director of the Academy of Multilingualism, the policy’s four key thrusts are:

a) the development of Sesotho and IsiZulu and continuous advancement of Afrikaans as academic languages

b) implementing multilingualism (use of various languages) into learning and teaching

c) promoting multilingualism as a social asset and

d) advancement of English as a language of instruction.

These four key drivers formed part of an implementation plan that has also resulted in the establishment of the Academy for Multilingualism on the Bloemfontein and Qwaqwa campuses of the UFS.

Their starting point was to establish, as a baseline, the state of language diversity at the institution. A biographic survey among 14000 undergraduates in 2021 sought to determine the students’ home language and the language of instruction that they were exposed to, during their final schooling year.

The undergraduate biographical data showed that 70% of the students had had English as their language of instruction during their final schooling year. It also found that Sesotho and IsiZulu were the most predominant mother-tongue languages for 26,7% and 25,2% of the respondents, respectively. South Africa’s other official languages represented at UFS, in descending order, were isiXhosa (12,6%), Afrikaans (8.8%), SeTswana (8.5%), Sepedi, English, siSwati, XiTsonga, TshiVenda and isiNdebele.

Multilingual practice started in Law tutoring

For Mr Alfred Maropefela (left), a final year Bachelor of Law (LLB) student and tutor at UFS’s Bloemfontein campus, adopting multilingualism was a way to help students understand the contents of the module. He says this approach was a practical and effective way to accomplish that objective. Apart from that, the aim was to help students articulate their ideas better and improve interactions during tutorials. He says although people in Law typically converse in English, he had seen how other students battled with the language, which affected their morale. He then began to encourage students to use their mother tongue to explain themselves or to seek solutions to problems, should they ever find it complex to do so in English. The idea was that even if he did not understand one student’s particular language, another student most probably would. That person would then explain in English for the benefit of the class.

He says this worked wonders, though not without its own challenges. When he started allowing use of indigenous languages during tutoring, Maropefela was worried that this could land him in trouble. To his surprise, one of the lecturers in the department who had gotten wind of this, informed him that the University was, in fact, in the process of formalising multilingualism in teaching through a language policy.

UFS then organised information sessions for students, explaining what was unfolding.

Maropefela may have simply applied what he found to be a practical solution to a language challenge; but he now realises that he contributed to pioneering a significant change at the UFS, as multilingualism (using a variety of languages) and translanguaging (alternating between two languages for the purpose of enhancing cognition) have since been entrenched, especially in tutorials, as part of a broader transformation process.

Translanguaging practice is spreading to more faculties

To that end, the Centre for Teaching and Learning follows a rigorous recruitment process to identify tutors, who undergo mandatory training in collaboration with the Academy of Multiligualism which includes peer-to-peer learning and collaboration before they go on to design translanguaging activities that they put to practice in lecture halls. To date, the participating faculties are Education, Law and Natural and Agricultural Science. Up to 15 modules across six faculties will adopt this practice in the 2023 academic year, which is double the number that implemented translanguaging in 2022.

Maropefela does admit, however, that implementing multilingualism on a full scale will not be easy. He believes that this modality should be nationalised to build confidence and zeal among both academics and students. As he advocates the promotion and support of indigenous languages across the sector, Maropefela encourages change agents to open themselves up to alternative views to help fine-tune the ongoing processes.

Multilingualism facilitates understanding

Mr Tokelo Ratotobala (left), currently in his second year of LLB studies at the Bloemfontein campus, says embracing South Africa’s indigenous languages is another way of keeping people in touch with their roots and identities. He says he wishes to see African languages gaining parity of esteem with Western languages across academia.

Ratotobala concurs that the use of multiple languages works. “It is much easier to understand something if you hear it in your mother tongue,” he says, adding that this practice is benefitting most students who attend tutorials at his institution. But he is not blind to the challenges that the language changes may pose, particularly in Law studies — replete with Latin and English terminology. He worries about African languages coming across as inadequate during attempts to explain terms of Latin and English origin.

He says it also bothers him that libraries are packed with foreign ideas, with hardly a book in sight in South Africa’s indigenous languages. “And we overlook it,” he says. As he cautions that the languages discourse might lead to contentions over which indigenous language receives more attention at institutional level, he does believe that conversations such as those envisaged at the upcoming Vice-Chancellors’ Language Colloquium, are vital. They should yield much-needed guidance.

Multilingualism has affirmed to us that our languages matter

Mr Buhlebenjabulo Dladla (right), a third year LLB student attests to gaining confidence to engage more and better with his peers and tutors in class. An IsiZulu mother-tongue speaker, Dladla admits that “English can be difficult for some of us. In the first semester, only those who spoke English adequately could ask questions. Now, even a person like me can do so.”

He says he has witnessed positive results from mixing IsiZulu and English in class, especially because there is always someone to translate or explain to others. Although this practice is more prevalent in tutorials, Dladla says there have been instances where a lecturer encourages usage of students’ first languages in class, to make the content relatable — an experience he relished because it affirmed to students that their languages matter.

While acknowledging the limitation of technical terminology in indigenous languages, Dladla says that challenge should propel the much-needed development of these languages. He also cautions against treating indigenous languages as alternatives called upon only when someone encounters difficulties with a language considered mainstream. Instead, he wishes to see African languages mainstreamed in professional Law practice.

“Practising in our indigenous languages is actually part of our decolonial call. By continuing to only practise in English, we would never get to own our careers, or our justice system. It should not be a problem to litigate in our native languages if all parties speak and understand the same language,” he concluded.

Academics need to embrace this change

Ms Mbali Nkosi (left), a second-year student in the Bachelor of Education degree at UFS’s Qwaqwa campus, says that the on-going language policy changes need to filter from academics to students. To aid that change, knowledge bearers should be willing to incorporate African languages in teaching and model what these changes may entail for the entire sector.

Referring to when the UFS brought in language experts to address students about multilingualism, Nkosi says some students raised concerns over the implications of being taught in indigenous languages for their employment prospects globally. However, these speakers allayed the students’ fears and cited the countries where English is a secondary language and mother tongues are highly regarded.

Nkosi commends her institution’s bravery in taking this approach, considering that it is not without challenges. She mentions the costs involved in bringing other languages into teaching, understanding that this will not simply be about translating knowledge but also requires understanding the knowledge origins and how it developed. Furthermore, she says the language experts spoke about a lack of proficiency in vernacular languages – a challenge that leads to many lecturers opting to maintain the status quo.

All things considered, Nkosi firmly believes that these changes will positively shape the University and make everyone feel that they belong.

She says that for her, when her peers speak in their native tongues, it expands her own language skills and enables easy interaction with those from different backgrounds.

The 2nd Vice-Chancellors’ Language Colloquium, briefly

Following the gazetting of the revised Language Policy Framework for Public Higher Education Institutions in October 2020, Vice-Chancellors of all 26 public universities gathered in September 2021 for their first consultative session on this Policy Framework, with universities’ language experts and key other stakeholders including policy makers.

Having dissected the implications and implementation requirements of the Policy Framework, then, the Vice-Chancellors meet again from 1 to 2 December 2022 under the theme #MovingTheConversationForward. This time around, they will consolidate and advance the conversation on promoting South Africa’s indigenous languages by exploring the full gamut of resources required to fully implement multilingualism in higher education — the desired goal of the Language Policy Framework.

This Colloquium, to be held both in-person and online, will be hosted in collaboration between Universities South Africa’s Community of Practice for the Teaching and Learning of African Languages and the University of Pretoria (UP). In-person attendees will converge on UP’s Senate Hall on the main (Hatfield) Campus.

Nqobile Tembe is a contracted Communication Consultant at Universities South Africa.