What would have happened if European intellectual giants had not been instructed in their mother tongue?

30-09-21 USAf 0 comment

If intellectual giants in history – legendary names such as Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Karl Marx and many others – had been instructed in isiZulu to the exclusion of their mother tongue, would they have attained the intellectual milestones for which they are now renowned around the globe?

This question was posed by the Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Head of the College of Humanities at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), Professor Nhlanhla Mkhize, as he reflected on milestones in the effective implementation of a language policy at the university.

Professor Mkhize (left) was one of the speakers participating in the online Colloquium on the New Language Policy Framework for Public Higher Education Institutions this week. The Colloquium was hosted by Stellenbosch University (SU) under the auspices of Universities South Africa (USAf). The audience comprised vice-chancellors their deputies and language experts of most of South Africa’s 26 public universities. Also in attendance were higher education policymakers and other government stakeholders.

He continued: “Paradoxically on the African continent we are told that instruction in African languages retards mental thoughts where, in fact, it has been shown that instruction in the mother tongue is preferable.”

Mkhize emphasised that from its inception in 2004, the University of KwaZulu-Natal took seriously the understanding that an African university or institution cannot shy away from the question of the role of language in knowledge construction.

“We are also mindful that language is not a mere medium by means of which we can communicate our thoughts to others. Rather, it is the process through which higher mental functions such as thinking, cognition, memory and problem solving are formed. The exclusion of African languages for teaching and learning has a detrimental effect and excludes the experiential reality of the learner in the classroom.”

He gave an example of a rural boy, growing up looking after cattle and goats, who can easily classify more than 100 species of plants and trees: “His profound botanical knowledge is being lost because indigenous African languages are being ignored.

“At the University of KwaZulu-Natal, we were also aware of the disconnect between the African learner and their communities; that we were producing learners who were disconnected from their communities, and this exercise is contrary to the primary function of education which is social and community advancement.

“I was painfully aware of this 15 or 20 years ago, when many of my students in psychology, were coming back to me and saying, ‘what you are training us to do in the field, we cannot articulate in our own language and we cannot make it work’!

“The learners are, as a result, not well equipped to play the historical role that has been played by other intellectuals in societies. They are not fully equipped to address themselves to the challenges of the African continent such as poverty, illiteracy and disease. In every society, you will need intellectuals to develop their language in any domain; it may be in mathematics, it may be physics or history. People seem to forget that English hasn’t always been the major language of intellectual discourse. People were once instructed in Latin. Why do we argue then, that when it comes to African languages, it cannot be done? It is an intellectual activity that we all need to apply our minds to.”

He explained that a language experiment at UKZN began in 2004 and led to the approval of the UKZN policy of bilingualism in 2006. He demonstrated that more than 55 percent of the South African population do not speak English as their first language.

“So what are we doing to these people if we’re sending them to the classroom, using a tool that they have not mastered? They get to university and they haven’t fully mastered the English language as a vehicle of intellectual thought.”

Professor Mkhize went on to highlight some of the key milestones in the development of the language policy of the University of KwaZulu-Natal which was approved by council in 2006. Rather than being prescriptive, he believes this is an invitation for dialogue and debate.

“There were many fears that we were lowering the standards and there were a lot of emotions at the time as we embraced multilingualism at the university. Amongst the aims of the policy is to achieve for isiZulu the institutional and academic status of English and to provide facilities to enable the use of isiZulu as a language of learning, instruction, research and administration. The policy was approved in 2006, was revised in 2014 and is currently undergoing a further round of revision.”

Phase two has now been implemented although, he admitted, some areas in phase one have still to be addressed.

He explained the UKZN charter which states that:

  • It recognises the importance and value of African languages as academic languages.
  • African languages will be promoted as academic languages of discourse among other things.

Professor Mkhize also shared the experiences and achievements of the SANTED (South Africa Norway Tertiary Education Development Programme) which, in his view, was a major catalyst for the development and implementation of the UKZN language policy.

Involving disciplines such as IsiZulu studies, psychology, nursing and education and dental assisting; several bilingual discipline specific terminologies and instruction manuals and handbooks were developed in 2006, an activity that still continues today. Several publications are the result of these efforts and contribute towards the intellectualisation of African languages.

He said that the most controversial aspect of the implementation of the language policy at the university was the BR9 Rule when UKZN in 2014 introduced a compulsory isiZulu module (equivalent to a semester of study) to new entrant undergraduates. To date more than 3100 students have successfully completed this compulsory isiZulu language module.

In November 2016 the Senate at UKZN approved the Doctoral Rule change (DR9b) to require an abstract in both English and isiZulu in all doctoral dissertations.

Every aspect of the language plan implementation at the University of KwaZulu-Natal is linked to the strategic plan of the institution including the development of the Zulu lexicon which includes, among others, a mobile application and spell checker.

In conclusion:

  • Several advancements have been made towards the implementation of the language policy of UKZN.
  • There was a particular focus on the intellectualisation of isiZulu.
  • The greatest challenge was monitoring the implementation process.

Said Professor Mkhize: “I want to highlight that at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, what has been key is the actual intellectualisation of the isiZulu language because we see it as a scholarly enterprise. We are determined to leave a legacy that the next generation can build on.”

According to Professor Ahmed Bawa, Chief Executive Officer of Universities South Africa, the Colloquium succeeded in enabling understanding in the executive leadership of universities, of the philosophical, constitutional, and legislative base of the Language Policy Framework, and the broader systemic issues informing the foregrounding of multilingualism, transformation, and decolonisation in the higher education agenda.

The Colloquium was the first in a series of events to be hosted by universities on the revised Language Policy for Higher Education. It paved the way for individual institutions to engage further on the matter, and for universities to craft or strengthen their own implementation strategies while contemplating the resources required to successfully implement multilingualism – within the context of broader transformation and decolonisation of South Africa’s higher education.

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