How language can ‘humanise’ science

05-10-21 USAf 0 comment

Language is a key instrument in humanising science.

Doctor Elias Malete (right), Senior Lecturer and Academic Head of the African Languages department within the Humanities Faculty at the University of the Free State (UFS) so declared at last week’s Colloquium on the New Language Policy Framework for Public Higher Education Institutions. The online consultative meeting was hosted by Stellenbosch University (SU) under the auspices of Universities South Africa (USAf) as a joint project with USAf’s Community of Practice for the Teaching and Learning of African Languages (CoPAL).

Dr Malete’s speciality is Sesotho Linguistics and African literature. He is currently a member of the Language Committee at UFS and a member CoPAL.

His topic was how to humanise science in academia using African languages as a key instrument. However, to put his presentation into context, he started with how the colonial and missionary period impacted African literacy.

“I would like to look at our history in terms of the development of African languages. And we all are aware of the missionary contribution towards the development of these African languages.

“Our traditional societies, with their indigenous religions, were able to accumulate knowledge and interpret it across critical areas of knowledge such as astronomy, medicine, philosophy and history. They then passed this knowledge, through language, down to the generations that followed. This clearly demonstrates that there was knowledge existing amongst African language speakers.”

However, at the heart of the European and African colonial interface, there was a struggle when it came to the introduction of literacy to the African continent.

Continued Dr Malete: “Although some parts of Africa had developed literacy, this had not flourished beyond some powerful socially elite groups. According to the 2003 Ministerial Report [i.e. Report on the Development of Indigenous African Languages for Use as Mediums of Instruction at University] , it took the more robust technical advances of Europe to democratise literacy. It was the Christian missionaries who pioneered the transition of indigenous African languages from oral into written form in the early 1800s.”

They codified the languages, wrote descriptive grammar and dictionaries and initiated the translation of texts, especially biblical texts, for the purposes of evangelism and education.

It is acknowledged that these missionaries did an excellent job in their communication of African languages and written documents including dictionaries and various texts but challenges were soon to follow.

Makalima (1981) states that these languages were of value to the missionaries themselves. However, except for the language itself, very little reflected the culture or the world view of the Africans.

Dr Malete explained: “The development of these languages was for narrow, expensive papers, deliberately disregarding the richness of the culture and the worldview of the original speakers. The richness of their culture was removed from the historically existing epistemologies. The exclusion of African languages from the centre of the current national development discourses represents hostility to everything indigenous.

“At this stage African languages rarely feature prominently as part of the indigenous agenda for development discourses because dominant paradigms consider them as repressive forms of consciousness, and a hindrance to the Western-centric development discourses,” he said.

“A more general overview shows that universities teach African languages in an asocial manner reflecting less of the practices and worldview of the people who speak these languages, and unfortunately we’re still doing it today. Scholarship in African languages has not broken away from the context in which it was conceived; the focus is on structural study of the languages and their literature.”

Dr Malete indicated that it was imperative to solve these challenges.

Ministerial guidelines of 2003 remain key to decolonisation through multilingualism

The South African Government, through The Ministerial Report of 2003, set out suggestions to help liberate and decolonise African languages. Key points and findings included:

  • Legislation on language development
  • Official recognition of languages
  • Promote literacy in the African languages
  • Use of languages in education and as a medium of instruction
  • Existence of a robust intellectual culture
  • Use of languages in electronic technology
  • Languages as an economic resource
  • Normalise multilingualism for social cohesion

These recommendations, said Dr Malete, are all needed to decolonise African languages.

“It is also important to understand what we mean by a ‘decolonisation process’. I know that various universities and faculties have embarked on this. To do this, we have to raise consciousness of the oppressive state that people live in, understand their history while recognising and showing appreciation for the strength of traditional philosophies and respect for other cultures. This does not mean that we have to go back. We need to interpret traditional culture in order to make it relevant to the new colonial reality,” he explained.

“For example, how can African languages be used in science? Decolonisation debates in the science and health profession, in particular, are new and possibly unsettling for some people. I have used, as an example, the medical school at the University of the Free State where we have done research in African languages. The human body is often viewed as a mechanical object and devoid of culture or politics. It is therefore possible that the challenges faced by the South African health system are as a result of health professionals developing practices that lack empathy and that devaluate patients’ experiences and perspectives.”

“Humanising” sciences through the intellectualisation of indigenous languages, and developing vocabularies and blueprints for the medical profession, would go a long way towards humanising medical practice, Dr Malete suggested.

“The idea would not only to be to develop a rich indigenous vocabulary that can enhance understanding of the various medical conditions but to bring to the fore marginalised and hidden vocabularies which would help contribute to ongoing debate for knowledge and language development.

“It is also possible to raise indigenous languages to the same level of sophistication as English through daily deployment of the colonial approaches to push for the place of African languages in the science profession. It would lead to a comprehensive emancipation of African space, identity and destiny,” he concluded.

There are a number of things that universities and other institutions can do by humanising African languages, Dr Malete pointed out.

“In conclusion I just want to say, have a look at the history of where we come from, and the need to ‘decolonise’ our African languages, in order to bring them to the fore and to humanise them. It is also important to look at this suggestion by Pawlikova-Vilhanova (2007:258) who emphasises that Africans were not passive recipients. The process of Westernisation and cultural exchange was shaped by their choices and needs. Africans themselves were instrumental in the formation of a new cultural synthesis.

“The colonial period sought to replace indigenous African culture with European culture, but this process did not entirely succeed. This is why today we have both cultures entrenched in Africa, albeit unequally.

“To quote the Ministerial Report of 2010, it is equally clear that it would be unrealistic to embark on a full-scale counter project to remove the European cultural presence in Africa in order to restore indigenous African culture. This leads to a potentially powerful insight, namely, we have to find an integrated principle that will embrace all languages over time. Therefore, the goal is to evolve through a clear policy and fully functioning African languages.”

CoPAL, of which Dr Malete 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 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 and outcomes of teaching and learning within the university system. CoPAL is chaired by Professor Langa Khumalo, Executive Director: South African Centre for Digital Language Resources at North-West University.

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