Translanguaging could revolutionise the use of African languages in higher education

04-10-21 USAf 0 comment

The revised Language Police Framework opens ideological and implementation spaces for the simultaneous development and use of African languages in higher education and offers a panacea for the transformation of higher education.

This was the message from Professor Mbulungeni Madiba (left), Dean of the Faculty of Education at Stellenbosch University, to delegates attending the recent Colloquium on the New Language Policy Framework for Public Higher Education Institutions. The online language colloquium was hosted by Stellenbosch University (SU) under the auspices of Universities South Africa (USAf) and is a joint project with USAf’s Community of Practice for the Teaching and Learning of African Languages (COPAL).

However, Madiba argues that although most universities have developed language policies, they are not necessarily transformative as they are based on monolingual or monoglossic ideologies and are not consistent with students’ daily language practices.

“My recommendation would be the use of translingual approaches such as translanguaging for language policy and pedagogical practices. A translanguaging strategy should be used for promoting the simultaneous development and use of African languages in higher education to implement a university wide transformation,” he explained.

‘In my view language was the most important vehicle through which that (colonial) power fascinated and held the soul prisoner. The bullet was the means of physical subjugation. Language was the means of the spiritual subjugation’ – Kenyan writer and academic Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Decolonising the Mind, 1986, as referenced in the presentation by Professor Madiba

He started by looking at the term “transformation” and referred to a recent report compiled by the Human Rights Commission (HRC) stating that there is a lack of a common understanding of what transformation actually means. This results in discrepancies and contradictory approaches to transformation among different institutions.

According to the HRC, transformation in the higher education sector entails the creation of a system of higher education which is free from all forms of unfair discrimination and artificial barriers to access and success, as well as one that is built on the principles of social inclusivity, mutual respect and acceptance.

“Therefore,” said Madiba, “transformation should be viewed as the manifested process, which differs from one context to another, so we don’t have a uniform understanding or definition that can cover all the context. So, if you can have a quick look at what is currently now in place, and following the 2002 language policy for higher education, many universities have developed various language policies, and you can see by just looking at some of these universities, that they have identified English as the primary medium of instruction.

“And, of course, some of them have just identified Afrikaans as one of the official languages. Some universities have identified one, two or three African languages. This is a challenge which can result in marginalisation and is a dilemma when it comes to implementing African languages into higher education with a view to transformation.”

He continued: “It’s clear that many universities are engaged in reformative rather than transformative language policies. A transformation agenda should be able to try to disrupt the colonial university and reinvent an African university that is in service to its society, not in service of the colonial masters.”

He went on to note that there is a lack of government commitment and political will to promote multilingualism in education (SAHRC Report, 2014): “Although there is a language framework at the moment, there’s not any certainty that these policies will be followed by a strong commitment with resourcing.

“There’s also a lack of intellectualisation of the African languages. Language ideologies and language notions such as multilingualism are very often understood from a more colonial perspective. Our people have always understood language to be more fluid, more heterogeneous and not something that is always standardised and codified.”

Madiba addressed what he sees as the tension between English and multilingualism.

“In most South African universities, the English academic discourse which emerged in the 17th century as a vehicle for the new rationalist/scientific paradigm, continues to be perceived as a panacea for educational problems of students for whom English is not the first language. The English discourse hegemony seems to continue unchallenged in South African universities,” he said.

He quoted African scholars such as Olusegun Bamgbose, Professor Kwesi Kwaa Prah and Professor Ali Al’amin Mazrui who have stated in the past that not enough progress has been made in the continent in expanding African languages in domains such as education despite the many years of liberation from colonial rule.

“In higher education, for example, although Africa is home to more than 2000 languages – that is about a third of the world’s languages – none of these is used as a language of instruction in disciplines other than language in Sub-Saharan Africa.

“Africa, and South Africa in our case, stands out as one of the few developing countries that educate its children mainly through foreign languages despite numerous studies, including those of UNESCO, that have unequivocally proven that there is a strong connection between mother tongue and educational achievements or academic development as a whole,” he said.

‘The European languages in which Africans are taught are important sources of intellectual control. They aid the World Bank’s efforts to enable Africans to learn only that which promotes the agenda of international capitalism. Partly because of this Euro-linguistic policy, intellectual self-determination in Africa has become more difficult. And, for the time being, the prospects of a genuine intellectual revolution in Africa may depend in no small measure on a genuine educational revolution that involves, at the same time, a widespread use of African languages as a medium of instruction.’ – In Africa, Mazrui, 1997:46, as referenced in the presentation by Professor Madiba.

“If we were to get everyone to be proficient in English in South Africa, that is going to cost billions and billions of rands and that is unattainable. Very few people are able to master the language to enable them to participate in a better way, in our society.”

According to Mazrui, professional scientists in countries like Japan, Korea, Germany, Italy, Norway or Finland can organise conferences and discuss professional matters entirely in their mother tongues but a conference of African scientists, devoted to scientific matters, conducted primary in an African language is, for the time being, sociologically impossible.

“The main reason for not using African languages in higher education is that they have not yet developed terminologies for their respective disciplines but, as the late South African educationalist Doctor Neville Alexander pointed out, this argument is conceptual nonsense as there are many studies that show that language is developed through use. We need to move indigenous African languages from the margins to the centre of the curriculum. Unless indigenous African languages get used in high domains such as education, their intellectualisation will remain a pipe dream,” he said emphatically.

“I would argue that translingual approaches such as translanguaging provides a better alternative strategy for the implementation of multilingualism in South African universities.”

The term ‘translanguaging’ was first used in Welsh schools in the 1980s by Welsh scholar Cen Williams to refer to the use of one dominant language to reinforce another in order to increase understanding and in order to augment a pupil’s ability in both languages. It goes against monolingualism in favour of fluid and dynamic bi/multilingual language practices. One can be used as a language of input and the other for output. It enforces the notion that language should be flexible and fluid and not rigid.

Professor Madiba quoted research done by American curator, educator and academic administrator Ofelia Garcia that translanguaging denotes one linguistic system with features that are integrated throughout and from which speakers strategically select features – structural or systematic – to communicate effectively.

Concluded Madiba: “Translanguaging offers an opportunity for the simultaneous development and use of African languages in higher education. It allows us to use African languages as they are today and allows students to develop their own voice and engage critically with academic concepts rather than learning definitions by rote.”

Professor Mbulungeni Madiba was a founding member and Chair of USAf’s Community of Practice for the Teaching and Learning of African Languages (CoPAL), that has to date driven the multilingualism project at South Africa’s public universities. At last week’s vice-chancellors’ language colloquium, he was repeatedly credited for having pioneered much of the on-going work towards intellectualising African Languages at the University of Cape Town (UCT).

Just before being appointed Dean of the Faculty of Education at Stellenbosch University, he was the Director of the Multilingual Education Project (MEP) in the Centre for Higher Education Development (CHED) at UCT. He has also served as Deputy Dean and acting Dean of the CHED numerous times, chaired UCT’s Senate Language Committee and served on the UCT Council.

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