20 January 2022 | Story Charlene Stanley | Photo Anja Aucamp
Dr Peet van Aardt, Letsela Motaung, and Prof Francois Strydom.

The University of the Free State (UFS) is playing a leading role in South Africa when it comes to implementing multilingualism in teaching and learning and has been one of the first tertiary institutions to establish an Academy for Multilingualism. 

The university has been working on multilingualism in various formats since 2016, when a new Language Policy was approved by the UFS Council. At a recent Universities of South Africa (USAf) colloquium, UFS representatives could share outcomes and lessons derived from the institution’s journey towards an inclusive multilingual environment.

The state of language diversity

A key starting point was to establish the state of language diversity at the UFS. A biographic survey among 17 000 students revealed that around 27% of them had Sesotho as home language, followed closely by isiZulu at around 25%. Around 13% cited isiXhosa, just under 9% Afrikaans, and 8.5% Setswana. A total of 70% of these students had English as their language of instruction in their final school year.

Translanguage Tutorials in different academic departments were among the projects introduced this year. During these tutorials students can discuss questions in any language but give feedback to the lecturer in English. This allows students to develop a better understanding of the work while enhancing their confidence to interact in English. 

“There are numerous scholars who have published on the value of shuttling between two languages – the phenomenon known as translanguaging – in order to promote a deeper and fluent understanding of the subject matter,” says Letsela Motaung, a researcher at the Centre for Teaching and Learning (CTL). “We follow a rigorous recruitment process to identify tutors among our senior and postgraduate students, who then get intensive training in peer-to-peer learning and collaboration before going on to design translanguaging activities that they put into practice.”

“We are creating a space where students can make sense of the work in their own language. In this way, we take away the stress that some students associate with language, creating a relaxed atmosphere that facilitates learning,” explains Prof Francois Strydom, Senior Director at CTL. 

Improving academic competency

Another initiative is to provide voice-overs in Sesotho, isiZulu and Afrikaans over module lessons in English. These are made available as video files on the Blackboard online learning platform, and has so far involved the Faculties of Humanities, Theology and Religion, and Natural and Agricultural Sciences. “The goal with creating these voiceovers is to improve, first and foremost, academic competency. It’s almost like providing students with an electronic tutor that’s always available,” says Dr Peet van Aardt, Custodian of the Academy for Multilingualism.

The feedback from lecturers and students on both these programmes has been overwhelmingly positive, and plans are in place for incorporating more modules next year. 

A programme also gaining momentum is the Initiative for Creative African Narratives (iCAN), where students contribute stories written in different languages to facilitate learning from and about one another. 

“We want to establish a scenario where languages are deeply respected, creating a rich environment for common understanding,” explains Prof Strydom. 

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