As universities, we must commit differently to the language imperative, lest history judge us harshly – Dion Nkomo

01-10-21 USAf 0 comment

The revised Language Policy Framework for Higher Education Institutions comes into effect in 2022. If public universities are to strategically position themselves to exploit multilingualism as a resource for the academic enterprise, fully resourced implementation structures ought to be in place by then, and so must funding mechanisms to enable the implementation roll out at institutional level.

Professor Dion Nkomo (left), Associate Professor in the School of Languages and Literatures at Rhodes University presented this challenge to universities’ senior leadership at last week’s Colloquium on the New Language Policy for Higher Education. The Colloquium, which was the vice-chancellors’ initial consultative meeting towards a sector-wide strategy for the implementation of the revised Language Policy Framework, was hosted online from Stellenbosch University, under the banner of Universities South Africa (USAf). The multilingualism project is being driven across the university sector by USAf’s Community of Practice for the Teaching and Learning of African Languages (CoPAL).

As he introduced the topic Towards an Implementation Strategy for the New Language Framework in his capacity as this session’s chairperson, Professor Nkomo said he could not kick off without quoting from Ayo Bamgbose, one of Africa’s eminent scholars on language policy.

“In his book entitled Language and the Nation, Bamgbose (1991) remarks that language policies in post-colonial Africa are characterised by the following: vagueness, arbitrariness, fluctuation, avoidance, and declaration without implementation.” That is how he described the Language Policy for Higher Education of 2002: “a typical post-colonial language policy in Africa. It is littered with multiple escape clauses: ‘where reasonably practical; resources permitting; conditions permitting, etc.’”

Though acknowledging that most universities in South Africa had formulated and adopted institutional language policies since 2002, “it has been a case of mere compliance without commitment.” He said not only had vagueness and arbitrariness characterised institutional declarations in these policies. “Previously neglected official languages have been positioned as strategic resources and academic languages in the long term without provision of sufficient financial resources, human resources and infrastructural resources. We have seen a fluctuation of policy intentions with leadership changes in our institutions, in the higher education sector and broader national politics. We have honestly avoided language as the elephant in our higher education lecture rooms and examination halls, thereby lip-servicing transformation and perpetuating the injustices of the colonial and apartheid past. Our policies have thus far been a case of declaration without implementation.”

The Language Policy Framework brings a new glimmer of hope

The linguist, who is also an active member of USAf’s CoPAL, said the new Language Policy Framework offers a window of hope in terms of accountability on the part of universities and the Department of Higher Education and Training.

“However, it all depends on how much we commit to its noble ideals. We are three months away from 2022 when the policy framework comes into effect. By now, our universities ought to be geared towards implementing it. Fully resourced committees, task teams and other structures need to be in place to take on the challenges of implementation and put the sector in a strategic position of exploiting multilingualism as a resource for our academic enterprise. DHET’s implementation strategy, including the funding strategy, needs to be in place to enable implementation at institutional levels.

“Otherwise, we may be sitting here to continue the vicious cycle of declaration without implementation, ticking boxes in terms of how well we have done to comply with the 2002 policy or, worse still, nitpicking the new Language Policy Framework to identify its loopholes as an avoidance strategy.”

He added that the Language Policy Framework may not be a perfect document; “but its spirit is extremely positive in terms of addressing the ills of the past. One hopes that as we have convened here to consider an implementation strategy, we will leave determined and enlightened to do things differently. Lest history judge us harshly, but fairly so!”

Following the introduction by Professor Nkomo, colloquium attendees went on to hear about the experience of the University of the Free State’s Centre for Teaching and Learning, in trying out multilingualism in research, teaching and learning. They also heard, first-hand, of the milestones realised by the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Faculty of Humanities in the implementation of their institutional language policy.

CoPAL, of which Professor Nkomo is a member, is one of eight active communities of practice of USAf. Its mandate is to promote and strengthen the teaching and learning of African Languages and to lead in language policy matters in South Africa’s public universities. CoPAL, chaired by Professor Langa Khumalo, Executive Director: South African Centre for Digital Language Resources at North-West University, works very closely with, and reports to USAf’s Teaching and Learning Strategy Group that advises the organisation’s Board of Directors on strategic approaches to teaching and learning, including upholding the quality of teaching and learning within South Africa’s university sector.

This colloquium’s audience, of just under 200 delegates, comprised vice-chancellors, their deputies and language experts from most of South Africa’s 26 public universities. Also in attendance were higher education policymakers and other government stakeholders.

‘Mateboho Green is the Manager: Corporate Communication at Universities South Africa.