The use of isiZulu at university level is a linguistic revolution

04-10-21 USAf 0 comment

The use of isiZulu as an African language of teaching and learning at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) can be seen as a linguistic revolution. However, English – thanks to the apartheid system and Bantu education – was once seen as a language of liberation.

This formed part of Professor Nobuhle Hlongwa’s presentation at the Colloquium on the New Language Policy Framework for Public Higher Education Institutions, which was hosted by Stellenbosch University (SU) under the auspices of Universities South Africa (USAf).

Professor Hlongwa (left), who is the Dean and Head of the School of Arts in the College of Humanities at UKZN, addressed attendees on the topic of using African languages in teaching and learning in higher education and what UKZN is doing in this regard.

She explained: “The use of indigenous African languages as languages of teaching and learning is largely confined to the primary school sector in Africa. One explanation is the claim that African languages do not have the capacity to handle the academic discourses that prevail at university level.”

Some of this are the result of South Africa’s past.

“During apartheid, and in the context of its enforced Bantu education, black South Africans protested against being denied access to English as the language of teaching and learning. For them, English was the language that would liberate them politically, socially and economically. At the time they resented Afrikaans which was seen as the language of the oppressor. There was a fight and move to use English for learning.”

This led in apartheid times, says Professor Hlongwa, to black South Africans losing pride in African languages. So the use of African languages in higher education is, or can be, misinterpreted, in some quarters, as a matter of bringing back the infamous Bantu education that devalued African languages.

“People tend to forget or ignore the benefits of using African languages as languages of teaching and learning. Instead, such people tend to focus on how the apartheid system in South Africa used these same indigenous languages, in the education sector, in order to disempower black South Africans. UKZN is determined to ensure that black South African students, for whom English is not their home language, are not disadvantaged by the exclusive use of English as a medium of instruction,” she continued.

“Exclusive use of English in higher education is seen as a threat to equity and to the success of students speaking languages other than English – those who have gained physical access to higher education but not ‘epistemic’ access.”

In a report written by the Ministerial Advisory Panel on the teaching of African languages in application that was published in 2015, epistemic access is generally understood as access to the conceptual platform from which the learner is able to construct new knowledge from pre-existing knowledge and knowledge presented in the learning process, and that is what we have been missing in higher education, through the use of either English and Afrikaans, of which, majority of students in higher education, do not know those languages that well.

Against this background, UKZN – which was originally an exclusively English medium institution – took visible steps towards becoming a bilingual institution. This was done with the understanding that languages only grow as they are used and, the more they are used, the more they grow.

Said Professor Hlongwa: “This leads to the development of materials and resources that are required for teaching. The most important thing is that we cannot sit and wait for these terminologies to be developed. We need to use the African languages and the rest will follow.”

Experiences elsewhere in the non-English speaking world (Japan, China and Russia for example) have shown that languages other than English can serve as languages of teaching and learning all the way from preschool up to higher education. However, in South Africa, English and isiZulu are unequal languages in terms of use in development.

According to the French-Canadian researcher Jacques Maurais, if two unequal languages are to become equal, this cannot be achieved by granting identical rights to languages; hence the need for affirmative action programmes of some kind (cited in Aiko-Puoskari & Skutnabb-Kangas 2007).

UKZN has taken bold steps in establishing a university language planning and development office (ULPDO) as a strategic initiative to support the intellectualisation of isiZulu.

The professor focused on some of the initiatives within the College of Humanities which is the hub for the language policy implementation and which is committed to promoting excellence in African scholarship. It houses isiZulu in two schools – the School of Arts and the School of Education. Several PhDs have been written in isiZulu in this college.

“We are aware of a student in the College of Law and Management who is currently writing his thesis in isiZulu and that is a major milestone,” she said.

The college has six schools and all have appointed language champions who work with the college task team in the implementation of the language policy and also in ensuring that teaching in African languages actually happens..

The School of Applied Human Science Psychology has embarked on a project Psychology Through the Vernacular. The school has also introduced bilingual tutorials with particular focus on social science research methods. It has also developed research terminology which helps as UKZN navigates the use of African languages in the classroom.

She continued: “A junior lecturer was appointed to facilitate this bilingual teaching. A bilingual textbook for social science research methods is currently being developed for use, not only during the tutorial class, but also in mainstream teaching.”

The School of Education has piloted the offering of isiZulu in its honours degree and is leading the way in the training of bilingual tutors for the university. Research has been carried out on these initiatives by facilitators and also by the ULPDO.

Bilingual tutorials have been taking place within the School of Arts, which is one of the schools in the College of Humanities. This school has been instrumental in promoting bilingual teaching at UKZN. Staff members who are African language speakers, are involved in teaching other staff isiZulu and have been rolling out the teaching of basic isiZulu university-wide.

This is happening throughout all the five campuses of UKZN.

“One of our staff members within the School of Arts is a music lecturer who is teaching bilingual music theory. His textbook in music fundamentals has been translated into isiZulu to help him advance his offering in this module. It is interesting to note that his home language is English with a second language of Afrikaans. But he didn’t let that stop him from undertaking this initiative.

“UKZN also collaborates with other universities within the province. We have a collaborative project which focuses on the intellectualisation of isiZulu in four selected universities in KZN. We have translated a book by Magope Ramose titled African Philosophy through Ubuntu which is going to be used in all these four universities in teaching philosophy or in teaching theory across the six schools in the College of Humanities. Already this book is being used in three schools.

“Postgraduate students in the School of Arts and Education are defending their research proposals in isiZulu. Within the university’s research ethics committee, we have an ethics person who is responsible for assessing research proposals written by students in isiZulu. So that is how far the university is going in assessing who is embracing bilingual teaching and research.”

The use of isiZulu as an African language of teaching and learning at UKZN can be seen as a linguistic revolution. However, this comes with challenges due to a number of misconceptions, namely:

  • The UKZN isiZulu initiative is geared towards eliminating English.
  • The lack of appropriate terminology in African languages is often cited as one of the reasons for the non-use or little use of such languages as languages of teaching and learning in higher education.
  • It is not possible to use African languages as a medium of instruction because of a lack of teaching materials, such as books and other materials.
  • In some disciplines, academics tend to treat the language factor (especially the use of isiZulu) as a very low priority.

Concluded the professor: “A major linguistic challenge for Africa is linguistic overdependence as African countries are largely and heavily dependent on non-indigenous languages as a medium of instruction in the education sector. At UKZN we are focused on a linguistic revolution and transformation that is taking place in the South African higher education.”

This Colloquium, which was attended by vice-chancellors, their deputies and language experts alongside policy makers and other stakeholders, was intended to:

  • provide a platform for robust intellectual engagement and debates on the new language policy;
  • explore the philosophical, constitutional and legislative base of the policy and the broader systemic issues informing the foregrounding of multilingualism, transformation, and decolonisation in the broader sector agenda and to
  • Explore strategies to harness and deploy the necessary resources to support universities in successfully implementing the Language Policy Framework.

Having been equipped to appreciate the requirements and implications of the New Language Policy framework for Higher Education, it is envisaged that the senior university executives will lead the process of developing a strategy for the sector on implementing this policy. To that end, it is anticipated that they will drive follow-up institutional dialogues and lead in the crafting or strengthening of their own institutional language policies, strategies and implementation plans.

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