The new language policy provides a host of opportunities for reimagining universities in Africa

04-10-21 USAf 0 comment

Universities must be globally competitive but we must never ignore our local context.

That was the message Professor Francis Petersen, Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State (UFS), brought to the Colloquium on the New Language Policy for Higher Education.

He was speaking on the topic, The opportunities presented by the new language policy framework by reimagining the idea of a university in Africa, at the plenary session on Reimagining Engagement and Transformation.

Stellenbosch University hosted last month’s two-day event, held under the auspices of Universities South Africa (USAf), and its Community of Practice for the Teaching and Learning of African Languages (CoPAL).

Petersen said the local context for languages at UFS meant prioritising Sesotho and isiZulu. “And I think the experiences and the value that could bring to the university, and how we engage with the local environment, is going to be important, and something the new language policy framework will allow,” he said.

He said he resonated with what Professor Ahmed Bawa, CEO of USAf, had said at the opening of the colloquium about universities being public institutions and, as such, carried the expectation that they should impact social change and engage with their societies. “The question is to what extent do they engage with their societies, how else could they, and what would be the most comfortable way of engaging?” said Petersen.

The student experience

The policy framework outlined the link between language and access, stating that language continues to be a barrier to access and success for many students at South African higher education institutions.

Petersen said this access was not only about access to campuses but also to the student experience of the culture of the institution, “a culture captured in the local languages being talked, and engaged with, on the campus”.

How language can enhance inclusivity

Professor Petersen said universities across the globe were grappling with inclusivity, the sense of belonging. And whether a language is used socially or in curricula, inclusivity is important. “To what extent do we use languages to ensure that inclusivity is addressed properly on our university campuses?” he said.

Decolonisation is about bringing in marginalised voices

Creating a sense of belonging was linked to decolonisation. “We can’t ignore the whole issue of decolonisation, or Africanisation. A very simple explanation of decolonisation is that it is about bringing those voices, which were sitting on the margins, into what we are doing as part of the DNA of our universities,” he said.

“What would be the value, what would be the lens, what would be the experience that they – students and staff from different cultures – could bring in from either their mother tongue or the experiences they had through their languages into the debate, into the curriculum, into how we engage with our societies?”

Multilingualism can help collaboration

Petersen said language and this language policy framework could assist with building better and more just societies. He said universities use the word ‘’collaboration” a lot in their engagements, whether in teaching and learning, or research, but were not doing enough to deepen that engagement among universities, which have designed and developed interventions that could be useful in understanding the critical role language could play.

“I want to move collaboration a step forward. I want to use the term co-creation, “’ he said. Working together would build strength and multilingualism would help achieve a better understanding of the type of solutions they could provide.

Let’s partner

Although the policy framework did have some limitations, the colloquium’s presentations and discussions had shown how it emphasised social cohesion, and highlighted partnerships between universities, said Petersen.

“And we must strive to engage with that, through partnering with one another, because I think there’s a lot to learn, but is also a way of financial optimisation if we start to partner. We don’t necessarily need to invest all financial resources; we could share things,” he said.

How UFS promotes multilingualism

It had established an Academy of Multilingualism, which liaised with the teaching and learning managers of the various faculties about the implementation, monitoring, and evaluation of the university’s language policy.

He said the academy’s report-back was critical to ensure they didn’t merely pay lip service to their language policy but were constantly focused on implementing it.

Students received educational assistance in their mother tongue where practically possible. And the Faculty of Education was committed to providing translators and interpreters to serve the needs of their diverse student body. The UFS also protected the right of every person to use the language and participate in the cultural life of their choice at university.

The university was developing Sesotho and isiZulu as academic languages, and implementing multilingualism into their teaching and learning agendas, as well as advancing English as the language of instruction by:

  • developing academic glossaries;
  • partnering with the University of KwaZulu-Natal on developing a multilingual academic publishing project;
  • translating PhDs abstracts into African languages in their graduation booklets,
  • launching more books written in African languages;
  • continually engaging with its Department of African languages;
  • developing voiceovers for digital lessons — in Afrikaans, isiZulu, Sesotho and sign language and converting them to English later – so students would have the opportunity to engage with one another in groups in their own mother tongue;
  • testing a translanguaging pilot tutor project of multilingual speakers using their languages as an integrated communication system;
  • implementing conversational modules in professional programmes such as accounting and in the Faculty of Health Sciences;
  • initiating the annual Kovsies Multilingual Mokete (festival) in 2019 which celebrates cultural expressions – in visual art, poetry, storytelling, drama, music, and song – in the dominant languages at UFS, that is, English, Afrikaans, Sesotho, isiZulu, and sign language;
  • Developing the Centre for Teaching and Learning’s Initiative for Creative African Narratives (iCAN) project, where short stories written by UFS students are integrated back into the curriculum; and
  • Designing English academic literacy courses at the UFS Postgraduate School Write Space.

“This policy framework is just emphasising the work we already are doing, but it’s also creating further opportunities for what could be done. We just have to make sure that we work through the practicality of how we’re going to do it.

“We are fully committed to ensure that multilingualism is part and parcel of what a university in Africa should be, and how a university in Africa could develop not only themselves, but also contribute to other universities on the globe and, very critically, to society,” said Professor Petersen.

In the Q&A after the plenary, Professor Dion Nkomo, Associate Professor in the School of Languages and Literatures at Rhodes University, who chaired the session, read out a question from a delegate: Would Professor Petersen agree that co-creation in the local context implies the acceptance of Afrikaans as part of South Africa, as it is spoken by members of all ethnic groups, and a smaller, white group?

Petersen responded that he agreed that Afrikaans is one of the languages spoken in South Africa. He said that in the past its development as an academic language might have been skewed in terms of resources allocated to Afrikaans compared to some of the other indigenous languages, “but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t focus on Afrikaans also as a key language, in terms of co-creation.

“There’s a lot we can learn from Afrikaans as the language that we speak, and the culture that comes with it. So, I would agree with the comment, and we should just see how practically we utilise that in the context of the language policy framework,” he said.

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa