Studying African languages in institutions of higher education does not mean abandoning English. It simply recognises languages as an integral part of humanity, as communication instruments and as vital carriers of culture.
This is the response of Professor Richard Madadzhe (right), Deputy Vice-Chancellor (DVC): Teaching and Learning at the University of Limpopo (UL), to those who say that the costs of multilingualism may be too high.
Professor Madadzhe (left) says people’s identities are shaped largely by their mother tongue and the languages they speak. And so the price of not integrating African languages in South Africa’s higher education would far outweigh any financial costs that will be incurred in the years ahead.
He continues: “It is a complex issue. However, as a country we have a choice to make. What would cost us more? The consequences of abandoning African languages would be dire. You would be leaving behind a large cohort of students.
“We, as Africans, have an identity to maintain and uphold. We encourage diversity but that does not mean that we are divided. In order to be united, we need to respect one another and that applies to the languages we are taught in as well,” he said.
This will cost, initially
“It may be expensive in the beginning – we may have to employ three lecturers instead of one or three translators or instead of none but the advantages completely outweigh the disadvantages. If we were to jettison African languages from our education system, we would be abandoning our culture and identity. How then are you a citizen of your own country? You end up being nameless. We have to be proud of our languages and do everything we can to support them. It will ultimately make us richer and stronger as a country.”
Professor Madadzhe was sharing his institution’s story in the context of the African Languages agenda spearheaded by Universities South Africa’s Community of Practice for the Teaching and Learning of African Languages (CoPAL). This is in keeping with the spirit and purpose of the revised Language Policy Framework for Public Higher Education Institutions that was gazetted in October 2020 and which came into effect in January 2022.
The DVC was also speaking ahead of the second Vice-Chancellors’ Language Colloquium – themed Moving the Conversation Forward – which will be hosted in a hybrid format from the University of Pretoria’s Senate Hall on the main (Hatfield) campus on December 1 and 2 this year.
Organised in partnership with CoPAL, the Colloquium, primarily targeted at the 26 Vice-Chancellors of South Africa’s public universities, will also be attended by DVCs, language and legal experts, senior policymakers from relevant departments including the Department of Higher Education and Training, the Pan South African Language Board and other key stakeholder entities. The December meeting follows the initial consultation among Vice-Chancellors, which took place in September 2021 as part of an envisaged three-meeting series.
What the University of Limpopo is doing
Professor Madadzhe explained UL’s language policy and the progress it has made.
“Perhaps one should start off by saying that we are a creation of apartheid. However, we cannot use this as an excuse not to provide quality education. As a university, we are not an island and we have to be part of our larger community and they speak various African languages, not only English and Afrikaans. Our region predominantly speaks Sepedi or Sesotho sa Leboa (Northern Sotho), Xitsonga and Tshivenda. These are the languages we have to promot, and so, we have fully-fledged programmes in the three.”
He gave an example of the University’s Faculty of Humanities, which offers language, psychology, sociology, criminology and media studies — programmes that embrace these languages as part of their structure: “A student cannot graduate unless they have passed these language modules as part of the curriculum structure. From Honours level into Master’s, these African languages are fully-fledged programmes in their own right. In the past – before democracy – these African languages used to be offered in English. Now you have to speak and write in these languages.
“However, we are not merely a regional university; we afford students the chance to use either their mother tongue or English. The results have been very encouraging, especially at research level. Many students are choosing to do research in their mother tongue. We have recently produced a number of PhD candidates who have graduated using their own mother tongue.”
Entrenching indigenous languages in science
Professor Madadzhe said the issue still to be tackled is the use of African languages in the science faculties.
“We have not as yet gone into the sciences in full force with African languages. How do you eat an elephant? It’s a mammoth task and you do it step-by-step. You have to first be very strong in the African languages and ensure that they can hold their own in any context.”
However, he said that multilingualism was used in some instances in the Faculty of Science and Agriculture, and in Computer Sciences.
“UL has a strong relationship with the Department of Science and Technology where they are using these four languages to design computer science programmes in terms of speech recognition.
“There are inroads being made but we still have to look at how to use these languages in chemistry or physics. Those programmes are still offered in English but our ultimate goal is to pick perhaps one programme per faculty to introduce African languages and proceed on that basis. It is a developmental journey. The language journey can be divisive but it is heartening to say that there is more support than opposition. We are confident that UL will become a living example of multilingualism.”
The benefits of multilingualism
Professor Madadzhe then described the many benefits of multilingualism and mother tongue education.
“Most importantly, studies have proved that the pass rate improves and we at UL can attest to that. Aside from academic knowledge, it can also enhance students’ marketability when it comes to getting employment. We have many students who have been hired by other universities in this country. I will also venture to say that 50% of the language teachers in the province come from the programmes that we are teaching. The government offers The Funza Lushaka Bursary Programme because they saw the urgent need for language teachers and their numbers were dwindling. Our students are also employed as interpreters and translators working in business, provincial legislature and in Parliament. Lastly, at UL we run programmes on student entrepreneurship and we have a number of students who have started their own language companies.”
Getting a degree in an African language does not necessarily impede international career opportunities, he emphasised — contrary to a commonly-expressed belief.
“We have students who studied and graduated as teachers in their mother tongue language who are now teaching in China. It gave them a good background and made them academics in the true sense of the word. Not studying in English has not hurt their chances of working anywhere in the world. They are not second rate to anybody and succeed wherever they go.”
Professor Madadzhe is looking forward to the upcoming language colloquium next month.
“It is going to be highly useful because we can take stock of where we were last year and the progress that has been made during this past year. The second step is to ensure that all universities have now created or adopted their respective language policies. We need to encourage those that haven’t to complete the process. UL has an approved language policy which we will share with others while also learning from them. We are stronger on this journey if we share ideas.
There is no turning back; multilingualism is happening
“However, UL cannot sit back just because we have a language policy in place. We need to continue to strengthen it with practice. We have introduced decolonisation and Africanisation into the curriculum. You cannot achieve this by ignoring African languages; then it simply becomes a term to be fashionable. To achieve decolonisation in the true sense, students, academics and staff have to embrace African languages as part and parcel of university education.”
Professor Madadzhe is quick to point out that this does not mean the dumbing down of higher education or diminishing a graduate’s role in the global space.
“Asian people – from Japan to China – learn in their mother tongues, the same in European countries. All these countries are far ahead — in many respects — of the countries that are only using colonial languages in their education structures. You cannot be the best you can be if you ignore your mother tongue. The more languages you know, the better. Students who are multilingual perform better as they have developed their thinking capacity.”
One of the biggest challenges, he says, is overcoming preconceived mindsets from the parents of students enrolled in the university.
“It is often the parents who need convincing. Some believe learning in a mother tongue may be inferior to learning in English. What matters in the end is the knowledge that a student has gained, irrespective of the language of instruction. Are they going to be able to be the best in their field? Many people still believe that if you converse well in English or Afrikaans, then you are educated. This is something we have to change. English is important and it does not mean people should not study or converse in English. However, we have the right to speak and learn in our own mother tongue. It is beneficial to speak many languages but no one language is superior to another.”
Janine Greenleaf Walker is a contract writer for Universities South Africa