Universities must make learning African Languages a condition for completing a degree

Published On: 5 October 2021|

We have normalised the abnormal. How can a person be enrolled in an African university and graduate and exit without being able to speak an African language?

So says Professor Leketi Makalela (above), Founding Director of the Hub for Multilingual Education and Literacies at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is also the founder of the Balang Foundation, a non-profit organisation for community-based literacy innovations.

The professor spoke at the online Colloquium on the New Language Policy Framework for Public Higher Education Institutions which was hosted by Stellenbosch University (SU) under the auspices of Universities South Africa (USAf). The Colloquium was a joint project with USAf’s Community of Practice for the Teaching and Learning of African Languages (COPAL).

His topic, delivered during a session titled The Nexus Between Language and Transformation, was Advancing African Languages for Social Inclusion and Success in Higher Education: Re-imagining an African University.

“Is there anything that you can call African multilingualism? The idea of your identity, the nature of who you are when you are at university and what the university does in shaping human language, is the critical part of who we become,” he said.

Professor Makalela is the co-author of the book Decolonising Multilingualism in Africa: Recentering Silenced Voices from the Global South, written in conjunction with Finex Ndhlovu, which interrogates African multilingualism as it is currently understood in language education and research. It begins the process of mapping out what a socially realistic notion of multilingualism would look like if we considered the voices of marginalised and ignored African communities of practice – both on the African continent and in the diasporas.

From a historical perspective, Professor Makalela quoted British researcher and historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, who, in 1963, said: “Perhaps in the future there will be some African history to teach. But at present there is none, only the history of Europeans in Africa.”

“This reminds us that people without history or culture become mimics who have placed their memories in their psyche,” he said, “We have to meet these challenges from within our own worldview and proceed on an action plan from our own authentic possibilities that are based on the culture and competencies of Africans themselves.”

He continued: “If you are in Johannesburg, in the townships and the city centre itself, you see different kinds of multilingualism where people are talking to each other in different languages at the same time. That’s the type of competence which relates to the idea of translanguaging. It’s what we can call multilingual multilingualism.

“The monolinguistic bias and the pandemic against academic success and access because multilingual students are disproportionately disadvantaged and marginalised, goes against
everything we know about sustainable development.”

“A prosperous Africa based on inclusive growth and sustainable development” requires that Africa makes significant investments in education with the aim of developing human and social capital through an education and skills revolution emphasizing innovation, science and technology.” – Aspiration 1 of Agenda 2063

Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want and goals of The United Nations Sustainable Development all converge on one critical factor which is quality education.

Explained the professor: “For me this includes two factors – to know and to be. But how do you come to know? It is part of your identity. It means that education has to be foundational. Without this resource, education becomes imitative rather than the deep learning it should be. It is this deep learning that we are concerned about, especially at tertiary institutions.

“We have evidence that if there hasn’t been deep learning from Grade One, the weaker the learner gets, over time. Therefore, anything about imagination, innovation and creativity is severely curtailed because of a language.

“We’ve adopted a oneness and an ideology which I call the ‘colonial carry over’ which reinforces one nation, one language, one classroom therefore one language. That is a misnomer that was carried over into the colonial states and our universities and it has trapped us into that space. We know this simply doesn’t work for many universities here in the Global South.

“We know that translanguaging allows for positive identity affirmation. You need highly confident students that emerge out of the university systems and you need students that have got a deeper digestion of the contents that they have learned, rather than just mimicking what they have been taught.

“Look at Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism by Colin Baker (2011) where he talks about deeper learning and not simply copying. It is possible in monolingual teaching situations for students to ask questions or write an essay about a subject without fully understanding it. Processing may not have occurred. All sentences or paragraphs can be copied or adapted out of a textbook, from the internet or from dictation by the lecturer without the student really understanding the topic. It is less easy to do this with translanguaging; to read and discuss a topic in one language, and then to write about it in another language means that the subject matter has to be processed and digested,” he said.

“For an African language advancement, we need to leverage on actual language practices. We know South African soap operas resonate with the viewers who watch them. It is the same with translanguaging which mirrors internal language use and how people make of the world. It’s also about the rehabilitation of languages that were denied access for so many years.

“We have to remind ourselves that English itself has heavily borrowed from other languages. Today 80 percent of words in English are not English, they come from elsewhere. We know in studies of African languages that no one syllable is complete without the other. So the idea that you have languages that are put in separate boxes is a misnomer.

“Monolingualism, also known as colonial high education, increases inequalities and marginalises the majority of African language speakers. Epistemic biases undermine indigenous ways of knowing, being and acting. For this reason, we gravitate to alternative multilingual theories and methodologies that are based on the cultural competence of the people themselves. Translanguaging becomes that pedagogical practice that anchors African languages for advancement. It also anchors the new language policy framework for access to equity, social justice and social cohesion.

“Learning African languages as a requirement for degree completion should be normalised. We should aim for diversity and not uniformity, because we are preparing graduates for the communities in which they live. African languages as a medium of learning, teaching and research, alongside English; that’s the translingual approach.

“The transformation of higher education – and decolonisation – is not possible without multilingualism. This is the cornerstone for our sustainable development,” he concluded.

Comments from the other panellists:

Dr Linda Meyer (Director of Operations and Sector Support at USAf & chair of this session): “When we do not embrace multilingualism, we are inauthentic. We must stop pivoting towards English as a panacea for employment. In fact, it is doing such damage to the economy and will cost us advancement. All languages must be embraced.”

Professor Nobuhle Hlongwa (Dean and Head of the School of Arts in the College of Humanities at the University of KwaZulu-Natal): “We need to advance the use of African languages in higher education in line with the current language policy framework on higher education and, if we do this, we will be contributing towards transformation of higher education as well as the decolonisation of our curriculum.”

Dr Elias Malete (the Humanities Faculty at the University of the Free State): “It is really important for us to identify our strengths and share them and collaborate as departments from various universities.”

Professor Robert Balfour (Deputy Vice Chancellor, teaching and learning at North West University): “I think the critical evidential point is in relation to progress made in terms of planning, you know that in every instance engagement has got to be demonstrated and, its applicability across a variety of contexts, made clear. I think this is critical to the success of multilingual multilingualism in the form of planning and execution.”

Dr Keaobaka Seshoka (language director at the Language Directorate, North West University): “We need to work together. We need to be intentional in changing the landscape of how multilingualism is implemented. We have moved from policy. Now is the time to implement and let’s do it to the best of our ability.”

Professor Mbulungeni Madiba (Dean of the Faculty of Education at Stellenbosch University): “The challenges include development and utilisation. African languages have really reached a minimum level of development so that we can use them in a translanguaging model. For languages to be equal, unequal languages need to be advantaged.”

Janine Greenleaf Walker is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.