Universities can share language resources, notwithstanding their ongoing pursuit of a competitive edge

Published On: 5 December 2022|

It was time to stop talking and start implementing. This was the view of speakers at the second Vice-Chancellors’ (VC) Consultative Colloquium on the revised Language Policy Framework for Public Higher Education Institutions (HEIs).

Professor Langa Khumalo (right), Executive Director: South African Centre for Digital Language Resources (SADiLaR) and outgoing Chairperson of Universities South Africa (USAf) Community of Practice for African Languages (CoPAL) said: “We know what we need to do; we’ve been speaking for far too long. We just have to get on with the task.” He was speaking to the topic Harnessing and sharing resources for the successful implementation of the new policy framework.

Session chair, Professor André Keet, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Engagement and Transformation at Nelson Mandela University said: “There’s a sense in the sector that we’ve spoken enough. It’s time for action; time to pull resources together to find a way to contribute to the aspirations of our society and sector, from a language perspective.”

The hybrid dialogue was hosted by Universities South Africa’s (USAf’s) Community of Practice for the Teaching and Learning of African Languages (CoPAL) in partnership with University of Pretoria’s (UP’s) Vice Chancellor and Principal. Picking up from where the first Vice-Chancellors’ Colloquium had left in September 2021, this year’s dialogue, themed Taking the Conversation Forward, was aimed at unlocking the resources required to fully implement multilingualism in higher education, in keeping with the spirit and intent of the revised Language Policy Framework for HEIs.

Acknowledging that 25 universities had aligned their policies to the revised Policy Framework, Professor Khumalo said that universities needed to go further and develop implementation plans. “How do we harness the milestones universities have reached and share these resources without competing amongst ourselves?” The language discourse had moved from the periphery to the centre of the academy, he added.

Multilingualism is not cheap

Professor Dan Kgwadi (left), Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the Vaal University of Technology (VUT), speaking to Sector challenges in the implementation of the new policy framework for HEIs said facilities for multilingualism were not cheap. “But when you are talking human rights, you cannot hide behind budget. North-West University (he is its former VC) used simultaneous translation when its functional multilingual policy was adopted, choosing English, Setswana, Afrikaans and Sesotho as official languages.”

He said VUT’s official languages were English, Sesotho and Sepedi, with the latter catering for students from Limpopo. “Translation services are not cheap and have to be budgeted for. You need human resources, not just devices. You’re not just translating language but developing it. So, lexicographers are needed to draw up the terms.

Addressing academics’ common terminology refrain, Professor Kgwadi said: “I’m a physicist – English is the lingua franca. I can’t teach physics in Setswana. Take the word “matla,” for instance. Setswana uses the same word for force, energy, momentum, and power. We need people to help us distinguish in context, one matla from the other.”

He reiterated the need for budgets, stating that “study guides and material development is hugely expensive but important.”

Language: a human-rights issue

Professor Sandile Songca (right), Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Teaching & Learning, University of KwaZulu Natal (UKZN), whose topic was The role of university management in enabling the language policy implementation, called language a human rights and social justice issue linked with culture, identity, socio-political and economic development.

He explained the UKZN model that is enabling the implementation of the Policy Framework. The UKZN Language Board sits at the centre of Council, Senate, the four colleges and professional services, with the DVC of Teaching & Learning as chairperson. There is also a University Language Planning and Development Director, and other players include the Pan South African Language Board, the SRC, Professional Services and language experts. He said this representative system directs the implementation of the Policy Framework as well as the reporting and accounting thereon.

He said the Framework is driven by the African language intellectualisation process, which includes an isiZulu national corpus, terminology development and literature development.

How UKZN did it

Professor Songca said: “UKZN’s boldness has been met with mixed feelings but we are resolute in our stance.” To ensure practical implementation of the language policy, they hold a literature competition and are developing human language technologies and discipline specific terminology. They also introduced a compulsory isiZulu course and bilingual tutorials.

In response to the new language policy framework, UKZN has:

  • Proposed a multilingual policy including English, isiZulu, Sesotho and South African Sign Language.
  • Recognised international languages Kiswahili and French
  • Revised the language plan so that isiZulu is used as a professional language
  • Introduced a bachelor’s degree in Language Practice and is consulting internal partners, including schools.

Management role:

  • Management provides an enabling environment with responsive structures
  • Offers strategic support – human, financial, infrastructure.
  • Plays a rigorous oversight role
  • Creates a healthy research and collaborative culture
  • Fosters language awareness campaigns – SRC and staff

Professor Songca said the professionalisation of indigenous languages needs national government support with a strategy that includes goals, objectives, timelines and activities dedicated to specific entities: business, private sector, parastatals etc. “We also need mechanisms to fund these activities.”

The NRF role

Dr Clifford Nxomani (left), the National Research Foundation’s Deputy CEO: National Research Infrastructure Platforms, spoke on The Role of Research Infrastructure in providing strategic sector wide support to HEIs.

He said: “The NRF has a vision of a knowledge enterprise enabled by domain balance where you’re looking at the different domains of science – that are fit for purpose, designed with specific intent and are globally competitive. Platforms have to be integrated, articulated, scaled, differentiated and seen through a national lens.”

The strategic goal

“We want to ensure the national science system has the requisite research infrastructure to drive scientific discovery, promote excellence, foster innovation, support training, enable engagement with science and, through that, positively impact society,” Dr Nxomani said.

NRF’s strategic considerations for the sector include adopting a national lens approach, providing a differentiated approach “so we concentrate our investments, building critical capacity for different areas of focus for science;” aiming for a balance between Natural and Social Sciences and Humanities.

Questions and Answers

Question by Professor Nobuhle Hlongwa (right), Dean and Head of School of Arts at UKZN. “You just highlighted NRF’s sector-wide support for HEIs. What about the current NRF Chairs that deal with the promotion of African Languages? Will you increase the pool of research chairs? We rely on NRF support to drive research in African languages.”

Professor Nxomani: We’ve grown the number, scope and diversity of research chairs, especially in support of language and language development. We’re in a process of review and reflection on research support instruments – including the chairs. We’re also looking at our own strategic positioning going forward.

Question by Dr Phethiwe Matutu, USAf’s CEO: “A platform to pool resources has been proposed. How do we archive and make them accessible while ensuring accuracy and continuous addition of those resources? What is the first step towards getting the shared platform developed? Is the NRF the appropriate driver, considering your strategy to diversify the disciplines you currently support? We need a clear direction.”

Professor Khumalo came in, wearing his SADiLaR hat. “SADiLaR is set up to do exactly that: a national infrastructure that can harness and share the resources inside and outside the academy as a national resource centre. SADiLaR was set up to provide digital resources for the development of all the 11 official languages – and to develop infrastructure that’s integrated, is national in outlook and uses a differentiated approach to issues of national priority. So if we want to look at an infrastructure that is outside the academy, that can draw, share and develop resources that we require for the development of all the African languages. SADiLaR was set up to do that.

Professor Nxomani followed: “The NRF is an appropriate location to serve the entire system and provide the necessary coordination of both capacities and resources that will enable us to take things forward.” He said the location of a central or coordinated infrastructure was not about taking it outside Higher Education but about staging a platform that brings together all the different players, infrastructures and resources to a digital virtual meeting place.

Question by Dr Keaobaka Seshoka, Language Director at North-West University’s Language Directorate: How could HEIs collaborate and share resources without being competitive?

Professor Songca: The collective of universities in SA is a powerful instrument; working together means we achieve our goals quickly.”

Professor Dion Nkomo, the SARChI Chair for the Intellectualisation of African Languages, Multilingualism and Education at Rhodes University’s School of Languages and Literature, said: “The problem is that SARChI chairs are led by individuals and are the property of specific institutions. Perhaps we should have centres of excellence funded by the NRF and DSI, that focus on research outputs and resources guided by the research. Then we can collaborate and share those resources.”

Professor Vuyokazi Nomlomo, DVC for Teaching and Learning at the University of Zululand said: “We need to strengthen the teaching of African languages if we want to turn them into languages of learning and teaching. We need to see how they are taught.”

Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.