Institutions need active leadership on language policies

30-09-21 USAf 0 comment

Institutions need to actively play leadership roles and ensure that the country’s language journey doesn’t take another 19 years for it to be successfully implemented.

This was emphasised by Professor Nokhanyo Nomakhwezi Mdzanga, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at Nelson Mandela University, whose research focuses on multilingualism and the preparation of teachers for multilingual classroom contexts. She is also a deputy chairperson of CoPAL (Community of Practice for the Teaching and Learning of African Languages).

Professor Mdzanga (left) was one of the speakers participating in the online Colloquium on the New Language Policy Framework for Public Higher Education Institutions, hosted by Stellenbosch University (SU) under the auspices of Universities South Africa (USAf) and focused on the topic: The new Language Policy Framework as responsive to the imperatives of student access and student success.

She shared with colloquium attendees what Nelson Mandela University was doing to address the question of language at the institution after having studied myriad reports on the subject, released over the years, including The Language Policy for Higher Education which was promulgated in 2002. Her audience comprised vice-chancellors, their deputies and language experts of most of South Africa’s 26 public universities. Also in attendance were higher education policymakers and other government stakeholders.

“I think the point of departure for us was to identify what was troubling in the current language policy at our institution. One of our colleagues – Chanel van der Merwe, faculty member at the Nelson Mandela University’s Applied Language Studies Department – refers to it as ‘the English default’ and we realised that the predominant language, in our current policy as the language of tuition and assessment, was English. That was our first point of departure.”

She explained that they convened a working group to hear their input.

“We made it inclusive with a determined strategy to facilitate meaningful access and participation by all members of the university community – not just academic staff members or students. We decided to have courageous conversations with past staff, cleaners, administrators, faculty, student groups … really everybody because we wanted our language policy to address all aspects of the institution.”

The task group posed a series of questions and prompts during this engagement with two key subjects being:

  • What are your language experiences at Nelson Mandela University?
  • How do you envisage a multilingual, inclusive institutional culture at Nelson Mandela?

“Although we acknowledge that funding is one of the challenges to implementing recommendations, we wanted to think beyond it, and, in our discussions, said ‘Money should not stop our thinking and restrict us. Let’s go beyond and think of possible practical ideas.

“Another of the bigger questions posed was how to change our thinking? Because we realise that there is research that says that even the African students themselves are comfortable in being part of the English default. Because, as it is now, even in the basic education arena, English is promoted as the language of learning and teaching,” Mdzanga explained.

Language is essential in facilitating the communication of knowledge in a learning process

She acknowledged that in many communities, if you can speak (fluent) English, then you are regarded as somebody who is very intelligent.

“That’s not true, of course. What we wanted to do is to reveal ways in which our thinking can change so that we are all able to recognise the vital role of African languages. We need to encourage ongoing debates around multilingualism and the development of indigenous African languages as languages of academia.

“We recognise that, just like this revised policy we are debating here, maybe it’s time to shift from policy-on-paper to implementation. We are aware that some higher education institutions still need to understand what this language policy framework actually means in practice and to deal with the complexities and the dynamics surrounding it.

“Our history has really marginalised African languages; what has the effect of this been and what work still has to be done so that these languages are recognised as having value in the scholarship of learning and teaching, research, community engagement and so forth? We also support the view that promotes communication competence in indigenous languages and encourages the labour market to make such competence an imperative.

“You will notice that what all these policies or frameworks have in common is the fact that they recognise that language is essential in facilitating the communication of knowledge in a learning process. At the same time, it is about ensuring that the two languages, English and Afrikaans which are currently the languages of learning and teaching in our institutions, do not act as a barrier to opportunity, access and success for those who speak them as additional languages,” she explained.

“It seems as if we are taking too long to see what is out there. We do not see the value of knowledge embedded in African languages, the richness of a multilingual academic space and the value of languages as an expression of the identity, culture and heritage of its speakers. Success begins at the moment you see yourself in such an environment!

“We need to ask ourselves – given the number of enrolments that we have, especially from students who speak other languages, or speak African languages – what happens, throughout their university lives? At the same time, we should all be encouraged by what is in the language policy framework, which states that all institutions must develop strategies, policies and implementation plans for promoting multilingualism as defined by this policy framework.

“We need to think about how this academic support is provided. Is it still provided in a language that is a barrier to some of the students? If that is the case, what is it that we want to achieve? Right now our students are learning online? And what is the language of the internet? Are students able to tap into the African languages on the internet?

The new language policy needs to be responsive to students’ access and success and provide:

  • Access to knowledge
  • Access to resources and learning opportunities
  • Access to policies
  • Access to instructions
  • Access to research
  • Access to signages
  • Access to conversations
  • Access to enrolment and participation
  • Access to academic support
  • Access to internet (online learning)
  • Access to public life

Professor Mdzanga explained further: “At the same time, we recognise transition challenges. One of these is the fact that when students come to the university, they are coming from a system that was only promoting English. And they come to a system that seeks to promote multilingualism. So for me, there’s that disconnect there between all these conversations that are taking place in higher education institutions and the conversations that are taking place in basic education.”

She concluded: “Ongoing plans must indicate at least two official languages other than the medium of instruction or language of teaching and learning, which in most cases is English or Afrikaans, for development for scholarly discourse as well as official communication. What will it take for all of us to see the value of knowledge embedded in African languages, the richness of a multilingual academic space and the value of languages as an expression of identity?”

According to Professor Ahmed Bawa, Chief Executive Officer of Universities South Africa, this Colloquium succeeded in enabling understanding in the executive leadership of universities, of the philosophical, constitutional and legislative base of the Language Policy Framework and the broader systemic issues informing the foregrounding of multilingualism, transformation, and decolonisation in the higher education agenda.

The Colloquium was the first in a series of events to be hosted by universities on the revised Language Policy for Higher Education. It paved the way for individual institutions to engage further on the matter, and for universities to craft or strengthen their own implementation strategies while contemplating the resources required to successfully implement multilingualism – within the context of broader transformation and decolonisation of South Africa’s higher education.

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