20 September 2023 | Story Prof Francis Petersen | Photo Kaleidoscope
VC Prof Petersen
Prof Francis Petersen is Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of the Free State.

Opinion article by Prof Francis Petersen, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of the Free State.

In the South African higher education landscape, there has for several years now been a comprehensive and very welcome emphasis on decolonising the curriculum, with tertiary institutions systematically and deliberately including indigenous knowledge systems in their teaching and learning ambits and incorporating views and comments from individuals and communities that have been excluded or marginalised in the past. But what is often overlooked is the necessity to also incorporate local indigenous languages. These should, in fact, form an integral part of the decolonisation process, as they not only promote inclusivity, but also facilitate more effective teaching and learning. Heritage Month is the perfect opportunity for us as institutions of higher learning to take stock, and to critically evaluate what we are doing to introduce and promote multilingualism on our campuses, and to develop the use of indigenous languages in the academic and scientific spheres, says Prof Francis Petersen. 

When it comes to language diversity, South Africa is a global frontrunner. Only Zimbabwe, India, and Bolivia have more official languages. President Cyril Ramaphosa’s recent amendment of the Constitution to introduce Sign Language as South Africa’s twelfth official language emphasises the government’s commitment to cultivating a multilingual society. Section 29 of the South African Constitution stipulates that everyone has the right to receive education in the official language or languages of his/her choice in public educational institutions, where such education is reasonably practicable. Regrettably, the reasonably practicable stipulation is often used as an excuse by many learning institutions to focus on English only, since there is still a widespread lack of learning resources in indigenous African languages. The recent Language Policy Framework for Public Higher Education Institutions states that: “It is apparent that there has been little progress made in exploring and exploiting the potential of African languages in facilitating access and success in higher education institutions.” This serves as an indictment against the entire higher education sector. I believe it is our duty as institutions of higher learning to not only create, develop, and implement indigenous language resources, but to come up with innovative policies and strategies to actively advance multilingualism on our campuses.  

Necessity of a multilingual approach

Language continues to be a barrier to access and success for many students at South African higher education institutions whose proficiency in English simply does not match that of their mother tongue. Research has shown that language proficiency and the pursuit of knowledge are closely intertwined. Ultimately, languages are tools to navigate better understanding. 

There is a renewed emphasis at many institutions of higher learning – including here at the University of the Free State (UFS) – to have research that addresses the needs and challenges experienced in the communities that surround us, as well as in the wider global environment. An essential component of this is how the knowledge we produce are communicated to and taken up by the global scientific community, but also by the ordinary citizens whose lives it aims to impact. The important role that language plays in this cannot be denied.

Against this backdrop, it is essential that African universities re-intellectualise African languages to contribute meaningfully to the knowledge community – using technology and innovation in our efforts to do so. Indigenous languages may be afforded the status of official languages, yet they have clearly not been adequately developed or utilised as academic and scientific languages.

Multilingualism practices promote inclusion

Apart from the fact that multilingualism helps to remove teaching and learning barriers, as well as to facilitate better communication, understanding, and uptake of the knowledge we produce, linguistic variety also serves a very important role in ensuring inclusion and a sense of belonging on our campuses.  This, in turn, works towards generating the social cohesion that we cherish so deeply on our campuses. By implementing multilingualism practices, we embrace diversity in academic and social spaces, foster a positive attitude towards linguistic diversity, and nurture students’ pride in their native languages.

An encouraging example of this is the Philippolis Public Speaking Competition, which the UFS has been hosting for learners from small Southern Free State towns for several years now. Each year the participants are invited to share their thoughts on a heritage-related topic and are encouraged to do so in their mother tongue – which in this area is mainly Sesotho, Afrikaans, Setswana, and isiXhosa. The feedback from schools is that the confidence and pride this initiative has sparked in young mother tongue speakers has led to a renewed interest in and appreciation of their heritage.  

Ways of introducing multilingualism in higher learning pedagogies

But how do we introduce multilingualism at universities when an overwhelming portion of learning material and references are written in English? An important departure point can be to create multilingual academic glossaries, forming the bedrock for further language development. When it comes to developing multilingual strategies, it is furthermore vital that, instead of just implementing a few random initiatives, higher learning institutions have a systematic, integrated approach across faculties, campuses, and knowledge spheres.

At the University of the Free State, our Language Policy expresses the university’s commitment to multilingualism, with particular emphasis on Sesotho, Afrikaans, and isiZulu – the languages spoken by a significant part of the student population. We want to create a language-rich environment, ensuring that language is not a barrier to equity of access, opportunity, and success in academic programmes – or to accessing the UFS administration. A direct outflow of this is the Academy for Multilingualism, which was established with the express purpose of promoting indigenous languages on institutional and social levels through various academic and community-based projects and initiatives. Among the academy’s successful strategies are the production of PhD abstract translations, providing multilingual voice-overs for digital lessons, and training personnel in teaching within multilingual classrooms. 

Introducing innovative translanguaging practices

One of the most promising focus areas is the facilitation of translanguage tutorial sessions in various faculties. Translanguaging is a pedagogical practice where one receives input in one language and gives output through the medium of another language in order to maximise learning and to promote full understanding of the subject matter. It also serves the important function of developing what speakers perceive to be their ‘weaker’ language. In a university context, this would entail that lectures are presented in English, while students get a chance to discuss the subject matter and ask or answer questions in tutorial groups, using another language in which they feel more or equally comfortable. This results in the dynamic and fluid use of multiple languages in teaching, learning, and communication within lecture rooms. 

The value of these practices is not only in expanding cultural horizons and students’ exposure to different languages – it, in fact, also promotes better understanding and knowledge retention. In a monolingual teaching situation, it is for instance very possible for students to answer questions or complete assignments without full understanding, because processing for meaning may not have actually occurred. Sections from textbooks can merely be copied or adapted, without reflecting solid comprehension. This is, however, less prevalent with translanguaging, because reading a topic in one language and then discussing it in another requires the subject matter to be processed and digested first.

Internationalisation and developing indigenous languages 

It is important to note that the development of indigenous languages should never be at the expense of expanding students’ proficiency in English as the language of instruction. English is undoubtedly the primary language of modern international scientific communication, with an estimated 98% of all scientific publications written in this language. For all academic purposes, plus to facilitate effective international collaboration, it remains essential that students are well versed in English. At the UFS, indigenous language initiatives dovetail with programmes that develop English writing and language skills. By creating a truly multilingual environment in this way, we equip students for the demands of diverse working environments – both locally and abroad.  

The importance attached globally to multilingualism is abundantly clear. One of the ways in which this is reflected, is the fact that the United Nations General Assembly has proclaimed the decade from 2022 to 2032 as the International Decade of Indigenous Languages. 

As South African institutions of higher learning, we should latch on to and support this important global drive – and in the process, promote both academic success and inclusivity by implementing innovative multilingual strategies. 

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