Practical lessons shared from the University of the Free State’s experimentation with multilingual pedagogies

01-10-21 USAf 0 comment

Multilingual pedagogies are achievable when academics are willing to put them to effective use, and when institutional leadership invests the necessary resources to develop and intellectualise indigenous languages. This became evident in the past week as universities shared information on their on-going multilingual programmes at Universities South Africa’s Colloquium that focused on the revised Language Policy Framework for Higher Education.

During a plenary session titled Towards an Implementation Strategy for the New Language Framework last Wednesday, faculty members from the University of the Free State (UFS) and the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) shared their institutional journeys towards multilingual curricula, and the outcomes and lessons being derived from these undertakings. The UFS team spoke to the topic: Multilingualism in research, teaching and learning – a case for the University of the Free State.

Purposeful language policy a fundamental enabler

Underpinning multilingualism practice at UFS is the institution’s Language Policy, adopted in 2016 and up for review in 2022. According to Professor Francois Strydom (left), Senior Director: Centre for Teaching and Learning (CTL), the policy’s four key thrusts are:
a) the development of Sesotho and IsiZulu as academic languages;
b) implementing multilingualism into learning and teaching;
c) promoting multilingualism as a social asset and
d) advancement of English as a language of instruction.

These four key drivers formed part of an implementation plan that has also resulted in the establishment of the Academy for Multilingualism on the Bloemfontein and Qwaqwa campuses of the UFS. Their starting point was to establish, as a baseline, the state of language diversity at the institution. A biographic survey among 17000 undergraduates sought to determine the students’ home language and the language of instruction that they were exposed to during their final schooling year.

The undergraduate biographical data showed that 70% of the students had had English as their language of instruction during their final schooling year. It also found that Sesotho and IsiZulu were the most predominant mother-tongue languages for 26,7% and 25,2% of the respondents, respectively. South Africa’s other official languages represented at UFS, in descending order, were isiXhosa (12,6%), Afrikaans (8.8%), SeTswana (8.5%), Sepedi, English, siSwati, XiTsonga, TshiVenda and isiNdebele.

Putting translanguaging pedagogies to practice

A researcher from the CTL, Mr Letsela Motaung (left), cited numerous scholars who have published on the value of translanguaging (alternating between two languages) as a pedagogical practice in education, in promoting “a deeper and fluent understanding of the subject matter”. UFS’s Academy for Multilingualism relies heavily on translanguaging tutorials. To that end, they follow a rigorous recruitment process to identify tutors, who undergo mandatory training which includes peer-to-peer learning and collaboration before they go on to design translanguaging activities that they put to practice in lecture halls.

According to Dr Peet van Aardt (right), another CTL researcher and a Custodian of the Academy for Multilingualism, a significant aspect of multilingualism entails recording voiceovers in isiZulu, Sesotho and Afrikaans over module lessons in English that are provided in PowerPoint presentations. The audio recordings essentially explain the PowerPoint presentation in the predominant indigenous languages, thus effectively facilitating equitable access to the teaching/learning material. The end-product gets saved as a video that gets uploaded onto Blackboard, the institution’s online learning platform. Dr van Aardt said this project assists students in “crossing the language barrier”, while simultaneously assisting lecturers by ‘opening up’ content. So far, collaboration is in place with the faculties of Humanities, Theology and Religion and Natural and Agricultural Sciences.

“The goal with creating these voiceovers is to improve, first and foremost, academic competency. It’s almost like providing students with an electronic tutor that’s always available because it is uploaded to Blackboard and the students can download it to their computers”.

While sharing some of their staff and students’ positive feedback on this initiative, Dr van Aardt did acknowledge that multilingual pedagogies cannot be implemented without buy-in from academic departments. “Some feel that theirs is to focus on content and not language.”

Colloquium delegates expressed their interest in this initiative and requested more information from the UFS delegation.

Initiative for Creative African Narratives

The Academy for Multilingualism also runs the Initiative for Creative African Narratives (iCAN), a programme that complements efforts of the UFS’s English Academic Literacy courses by encouraging students to engage in extensive reading. iCAN produces reading material which is essentially a collection of stories contributed by students to facilitate learning about and from one another. Dr van Aardt said iCAN, an attempt at decolonising the curriculum by infusing student generated content as part of official course assessment, was a move to steer away from relying too heavily on content developed in the global North, which students could not relate to it. “Vampires, for instance, are a very foreign concept to our student. We try to infuse local knowledge through student-generated stories in our teaching while maintaining global teaching standards.”

The most common themes written about are love; how campus life differs from where the students come from; gender-based violence at home; students’ journey to the university campus; and science fiction.

Now in its fourth year of existence, iCAN has grown from an initial goal of producing 60 stories per year to now over 280 stories, not just to enrich the curriculum but also to create a community of sharing as students write from their home settings at farms, from cities and townships. “We have now published mythologies in Afrikaans, English, Sotho, Zulu and Swati. Students who are visually impaired use technology to tell their story.” Dr van Aardt said iCAN now boasts five books published in four years, including standalone titles such as World Gone Mad (in 3rd Volume) a collection of over a dozen students’ accounts of their experiences on the CoViD-19 pandemic, from both the Bloemfontein and QwaQwa campuses.

Once again, iCAN has benefitted from significant student feedback.

Said Professor Strydom, in sharing learnings with fellows across the university sector: Embrace an intentional approach to language diversity. To that end it is important to:

  • Interpret DHET’s Language Policy Framework within the institutional context;
  • Review the institutional language policy and develop an implementation plan;
  • Establish a task team committee/task team to drive multi-lingualism projects;
  • Create clear roles and responsibilities and deliverables for projects;
  • Start small to ensure delivery and early successes;
  • Provide intentional training that is sensitive to theory, disciplinary practices and institutional context;
  • Scale through collaboration internally and externally.

In conclusion, CTL’s Senior Director shared that “our story has been inspirational and rewarding — if our students’ feedback is anything to go by. We’ve learnt a lot from starting small and deploying intentional training. We are now collaborating with colleagues from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, drawing from the richness of the institution’s work on the Zulu language.” isiZulu is the predominant mother-tongue language of UFS’s students on the Qwaqwa campus.

The UFS narrative demonstrates what Dr Sizwe Mabizela, USAf’s Chair of the Teaching and Learning Strategy Group, stated to his peers at last week’s colloquium: “Let’s not get consumed or paralysed by the common refrain on funding. We can start small and scale up over time.”

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