Multilingualism and equity are the essence of the New Language Policy Framework

29-09-21 USAf 0 comment

The Language Policy Framework for Public Higher Education Institutions is premised on two fundamental strategies: South Africa’s Constitution of 1996 and the Education White Paper 3: Programme of Transformation of Higher education of 1997.

These were the opening words of Dr Sizwe Mabizela (right), Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Rhodes University and Chairperson of Universities South Africa’s Teaching and Learning Strategy Group. He was delivering a keynote address at the online Colloquium on the New Language Policy for Higher Education, on Tuesday.

This two-day meeting took place 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) and Stellenbosch University, the sponsor and host institution.

Dr Mabizela said South Africa’s Constitution declares, in its preamble, “our commitment as a nation, ‘to heal the divisions of the past and to establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights; to improve the quality of life of all and free the potential of each person’, while the Education White Paper 3 seeks ‘to promote equity of access and fair chances of success to all who are seeking to realise their potential through higher education, while eradicating all forms of unfair discrimination and advancing redress for past inequalities.’”

Addressing vice-chancellors, their deputies and language experts from all other public universities and other stakeholders including policy makers, Dr Mabizela said he wanted to underline in these two strategies, the part about “unleashing human potential.” Naming all 11 official languages of the Republic, Dr Mabizela said the Constitution “recognises the extent to which our languages have been diminished; it demands that all our languages must enjoy parity of esteem and be respected as such.

“These documents seek to promote equity of access and success to all, for them to realise their potential and succeed in higher education. The White Paper says we must. It commits us to advance all forms of knowledge and uphold rigorous standards of academic quality.” He added that equity of access, underpinning South Africa’s vision of a democratic and non-racial society, demands that higher education must remove all forms of barriers to access and success. It also requires that the equity of access be matched by a concern for equity of outcomes.

“Appreciating the role of language in the Constitutional and transformation imperatives in higher education is of paramount importance,” he said, further stating that the language agenda also champions the elevation of status of the Khoi, Nama and San languages.

Multilingualism is central to promoting common nationhood

Dr Mabizela said higher education institutions have a vital role to promote multilingualism to forge common nationhood. He said by separating people by race and their culture, apartheid had entrenched divisions among the people of this country – “without doubt the cruelest outcome. We must heal these divisions and forge a new sense of nationhood and identity. That is what this framework seeks to do.”

Extolling the virtues of language in society, the Rhodes Vice-Chancellor said language not only facilitates engagement with other communities more deeply; “it gives access to people’s culture, values, practices and a whole lot more.” In teaching, he said language can either form a doorway to opportunity or become a gatekeeper to block and frustrate one’s opportunities in life.

Access to many languages is akin to receiving a multi-focal lens via which to access knowledge, Dr Mabizela added. “Different languages grant access to different perspectives and angles to the same issue – a critical aspect to knowledge creation.” He added that a student for whom English is a second or third language, when allowed to learn in his mother tongue, tends to articulate their thoughts with more confidence, rigour, clarity, depth and precision.

During his official welcome address to the delegates, Professor Ahmed Bawa (left), CEO of USAf, had said South Africa is a nation whose knowledge systems cohabit. “Many of those knowledge systems are infinitely interwoven with our languages. For universities to play our role in contemporary South Africa, we need to deal with knowledge production at the intersection of these systems. We need to develop our languages and integrate them in research.”

He said for South Africa’s university system to not become a system that serves only one language group, “we need to interrogate the role of all our languages in teaching and learning as languages of official communication; examine the role of higher education in creating conditions for access and success and in facilitating smooth flow of the 2nd curriculum (enabling our students to engage and learn outside the classroom).” Professor Bawa said there is a whole social justice agenda that languages serve.

Language should not be seen as a problem but a tool for learning

Dr Mabizela said arguments are often thrown about, that indigenous languages are not sufficiently developed to be elevated to languages of scholarship. “It is the responsibility of higher education institutions to develop and intellectualise languages and to develop appropriate terminology so they can serve as scientific languages.” This tied in with what he had told members of CoPAL at a recent meeting, to the effect that “we all have a critical role to play in an environment in which multilingualism is seen as a tool to improve cognitive advancement, social cohesion and respect for all languages.” This included the responsibility to develop learning and teaching materials, which all universities are well equipped to achieve.

He reiterated at the vice-chancellors’ colloquium that “language must not be seen as problem but a resource and tool for learning.”

Towards concluding his address, Dr Mabizela emphasised that “we must never underestimate the enormity of the task at hand, in developing all of our official and indigenous languages to scientific language. This demands firm resolute, commitment and partnerships at every level. Universities must collaborate with stakeholders such as the Department of Higher Education and Training, the Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB) and others to develop their language departments so that they flourish. We must produce teachers competent and fluent in our indigenous languages. However, language alone cannot succeed. More fundamentally, we must aspire to achieve language literacy — academic literacy. All of these need to be addressed if we are to succeed in giving effect to this policy framework.”

The Chair of USAf’s Teaching and Learning Strategy Group also commended CoPAL “for the sterling work they’re doing to promote and drive this agenda. It is in sharing good practices and through collaborating in facilitating this dialogue that we arrived at this event.”

Envisaged outcomes

Professor Bawa said he saw this Colloquium as an opportunity for frank discussion; “to understand the extent to which we’ve made or not made progress. It provides us with an agenda for CoPAL and our institutions of developing new approaches to develop African Languages. At the heart of this Framework is the development of teachers of African Languages.

The USAf CEO also said this Colloquium should be an opportunity to shape an agenda for the next five to 10 years. “We need to think of this as a layer to think of the post-colonial aegis for SA. If our languages do not make it into the academic discourse, they will forever remain second class. They need to be brought on par with the languages of the world.”

The host, Professor Wim de Villiers, who is Stellenbosch University’s Vice-Chancellor and Principal, acknowledged that the New Language Policy Framework “affects every one of us. I am excited. Diversity is all around us; it is part of our reality and is evident in the languages that our students and staff speak on our campuses. At Stellenbosch University, we’re acutely aware of how our language policy aligns with the Framework and the fierce debates it creates. We look forward to fruitful deliberations.”

All speakers expressed their gratitude to Stellenbosch University for hosting this Colloquium. Said Dr Mabizela: “The Constitution requires of us to heal the divisions of the past and to build a new nation. Developing all our languages will go far in enabling this initiative.”

In attendance were vice-chancellors of all public universities, their deputies, experts drawn from USAf’s CoPAL, retired Judge Albie Sachs who shared insights into the historical and legal debates that informed South Africa’s language policy, and senior officials from the Departments of Higher Education, Science and Innovation; Basic Education; and Sports, Arts and Culture. Senior representatives of PANSALB were also in attendance.

CoPAL, chaired by Professor Langa Khumalo, Executive Director: South African Centre for Digital Language Resources at North-West University, is one of eight 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.

Co-written by ‘Mateboho Green, Manager: Corporate Communication at
Universities South Africa and Buhle Ndweni, a contract writer.