Language planning might have stalled, but indigenous languages are making quiet inroads in South Africa's universities

Post-apartheid language policy aimed to plant seeds of multilingualism in South Africa’s education system. But, over 20 years later, the harvest has been disappointing. At a recent HSRC-hosted seminar, Language Rites, researchers, former postgraduate students and government representatives discussed how language planning might help to bridge the persistent gap between policy and practice. By Andrea Teagle

When Dr Hleze Kunju arrived as a first-year student at Rhodes University, just a few kilometres from the village where he had spoken, learned and lived isiXhosa his whole life, his world was turned on its head. Everything was in English.

“I thought I was in another country,” Kunju recalled, laughing, at an HSRC conference on language in education. Years after his first discombobulating university lecture, Kunju went on to become the first person to complete a PhD in isiXhosa. Today, as the associate head of Rhodes University’s Creative Writing Programme, Kunju supervises students who wish to pursue their doctorates in indigenous languages. He also teaches a bilingual creative writing course, to increase the scope and availability of isiXhosa fiction.

Despite progressive language policy, multilingualism remains largely absent from South African classrooms and lecture halls. The experiences relayed by Kunju and other former students illustrated how the impact of imposed English education extends beyond that of immediate learning, to identity, confidence and a sense of place. Dr Phephani Gumbi, who obtained his PhD in African languages (written in isiZulu) spoke of the deeply ingrained belief, growing up, that English proficiency symbolises intelligence.

It is this pervasive ideology, dubbed anglonormativity, that confers power to people with so-called ‘white’ South African accents, said keynote speaker Prof Carolyn McKinney, an associate professor in language education at the University of Cape Town. “[Language ideology] is about what we believe language signifies,” she said.

Perpetuating the problem is the school model, which sees a transition from indigenous language education to English as the sole medium of instruction in grade 4. This change occurs against a backdrop of under-developed literacy in both languages, setting the child up for a lifetime of playing ‘catch up’.

Poor language planning

McKinney’s fellow keynote speaker, the post-colonial scholar and applied linguist Prof Robert Balfour, argued that this is a result not of poor policy but poor language planning, the bridge between policy and practice.

In schools and universities, language planning – or the way that language is taught – is not underpinned by an understanding of how language is acquired, said Balfour, who is also the deputy vice-chancellor for teaching and learning at North-West University (NWU). Firstly, the educational system is built on the biased assumption of monolingualism, which holds that languages are acquired consecutively, with a child first developing proficiency in a home language and then moving on to learn other languages. As McKinney pointed out, in South Africa, and indeed globally, monolingualism is the exception, not the norm.

Secondly, the way that literacy is acquired is informed by how the language is structured. Calling the availability of direct translations of high school teaching resources – as provided for by policy – an “educational travesty”, Balfour emphasised that structural differences between English and South African indigenous languages necessitate different models of teaching.

Language planning requires collaboration between linguists, researchers and pedagogists, Balfour argued.

Multilingualism in universities

The question of how to facilitate multilingualism has been approached from a number of different angles in small-scale studies. For example, translanguaging is one area of study that shows potential for improving comprehension by encouraging students to draw from their linguistic repertoire how ever best suits their communicative ends. Recent research has suggested that students arrive at deeper conceptual understanding when allowed to move fluidly between languages.

Balfour argued that a meta-analysis of studies at different levels of education is required to piece together a more holistic picture of South Africa’s multilingual context.

“Our systems aren’t geared to produce teachers who can facilitate multilingual understanding,” Balfour said. While critics of indigenous language in education often point to a lack of resources, the primary resource is the teacher. Often, teachers are not sufficiently literate themselves, and yet are tasked with overseeing a sudden transition from an indigenous language to English. Lecturers are not trained in how to teach, let alone how to teach in a multilingual setting.

NWU is introducing voluntary multilingual pedagogy courses for their lecturers.

The University of Limpopo has offered a dual-medium degree since 2003, which aims to produce bilingual specialists. After the conference, lecturer Abram Mashatole recounted the difference in confidence and expression in his students when taught in Sesotho sa Leboa (Northern Sotho).

The University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) is developing a fully bilingual teaching system, with isiZulu accorded equal status with English. It is creating an isiZulu mobile lexicon and an online isiZulu term bank so that students can search for technical terms already developed by those who have come before them.

In addition, all UKZN doctoral students are required to produce a thesis in English and isiZulu. The resulting corpora (datasets of natural language) will enable machine learning, and ultimately the development of an automated machine translator, said Prof Langa Khumalo, the director of language planning and development at UKZN.

It was suggested that the UKZN capacitation model be developed as a prototype and extended across tertiary education nationally. A shared term bank would help to standardise technical vocabulary in indigenous languages, and avoid duplication of labour.

Incentivising indigenous language use

Kunju recounted the pushback that he encountered when borrowing terms from English in his thesis. But the idea of languages as static, bounded objects that do not and should not mix is a Western import and does reflect how languages are used, McKinney observed. English itself has borrowed liberally from Latin and other languages.

As Kunju and his peers showed, language evolves and develops through use. In some sense, then, the challenge is beginning. How do universities convince more students to use indigenous languages? It is within the professions that multilingualism would be most useful and where it could be rewarded, Khumalo pointed out. For example, healthcare professionals who can conduct themselves in more than one language have an advantage over monolingual speakers.

A national commitment to multilingualism would also open opportunities for translators who could move across universities and government sectors. Speakers from the Department of Education indicated the possibility of providing non-financial support for multilingualism projects in and between universities.

If, as writer and director Mandal Mbothwe said, language is the vehicle for moving away from ourselves, then the act of choosing to use our indigenous languages, despite the challenges and unknowns, is the start of the way back.

Author: Andrea Teagle, science writer at the HSRC