Stellenbosch University
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Concerns about language at SU: The facts
Author: Stellenbosch University / Universiteit Stellenbosch
Published: 10/03/2021

​​Reports in the media over the last few days (since 5 March 2021) highlighted various issues pertaining to the implementation of  Stellenbosch University's current Language Policy (2016), and also the use of especially Afrikaans in different settings at the institution. Due to misconceptions and untruths that abound in certain instances, the University wishes to set the record straight on the most pressing of these issues.

The essence of our current policy remains as follows: SU is committed to engagement with knowledge in a diverse society. The Language Policy (2016) aims to give effect to section 29(2) of the Constitution in relation to language usage in its academic, administrative, professional and social contexts. The Policy aims to increase equitable access to SU for all students and staff, facilitate pedagogically sound teaching and learning, and promote multilingualism.

SU is guided by our Vision 2040 and Strategic Framework 2019–2024, adopted by Council in 2018. In accordance with this:

  • Our stated aspirations include to be an “integrated academic community that celebrates critical thinking, promotes debate and is committed to democracy, human rights and social justice".
  • One of our core strategic themes is to build a “thriving Stellenbosch University", and the goals that we are pursuing in that regard include to “cultivate an SU characterised by inclusivity and diversity" and to “create opportunities for the advancement of multilingualism in academic, administrative, professional and social contexts, while recognising the intellectual wealth inherent in linguistic diversity".
  • SU's values are excellence, compassion, accountability, respect and equity. Of these, respect and equity are probably most pertinent to the current discussion around language. With respect we mean that “we maintain civility in our mutual and public discourse, and show due regard for the freedom, equality and dignity of all", and with equity we mean that “we pursue restitution in response to our past legacy and fairness in our aspirations for the future".

The use of Afrikaans in residences

The use of Afrikaans and other South African languages in residences and in social settings came into the media spotlight from 5 March 2021, with the University subsequently investigating claims of an “English- only" policy that was allegedly used in certain residences.

These allegations are still being investigated, but if these practices did take place, it would be due to an incorrect application of the Language Policy (2016). There is neither an English-only policy in residences, nor should students be prohibited from speaking Afrikaans or any other language. That would not be condoned by the University because it would not be congruent with our Language Policy (2016), our vision or our values.

Via its Division of Student Affairs, the University has been continuing its engagement this week with student leaders in residences on the matter, with a process underway in the residence space to work towards a common understanding of the Language Policy (2016).

The University will also continue conversations about the implementation of the policy and the value of multilingualism and inclusivity as well as awareness raising of existing feedback mechanisms about the implementation of the Language Policy (2016).

The University will also continue ensuring that a welcoming atmosphere is created for all students to thrive as they make Stellenbosch their academic home. Newcomer first-year students only arrived on campus in the week of 1 March 2021, meeting each other and their student leaders for the very first time. These students have different language proficiencies, and they come from diverse backgrounds and different countries. Not everyone is multilingual, but everyone can at least understand English.

In a brand new setting, students may not be able to understand the information and arrangements meant to help new-comers to settle in during welcoming week. For these reasons student leaders in residences mostly use English in formal settings during the welcoming period to create an atmosphere of inclusivity and to ensure that everyone has access to crucial information.

This is in line with paragraph 7.2.5 of the Language Policy (2016) that states that “in residences and other living environments, language is used in such a way that, where reasonably practicable, no stakeholder is excluded from participating in any formal activities in these environments."

Transforming the challenges of communal living into opportunities for growth and a celebration of diversity is commendable. However, this should not be interpreted to mean that a language other than English would not be welcomed or should not be used. The Language Policy (2016) promotes multilingualism.

'Pressure' on the University to review its language policy

The Language Policy (2016) of SU is being revised during 2021 as part of the five-year revision cycle prescribed in the policy itself. Section 10 of the Language Policy (2016) stipulates that the policy “lapses five years after the date of its implementation" and that it “must be reviewed during its fifth year of operation". The current policy was implemented in 2017.

The revision process was initiated in October 2020 by convening a task team, and proposing a timeline based on the University Almanac for 2021. The timeline and project plan was approved by Council on 1 December 2020. The intent is to table a final draft Language Policy (2021) for approval by Council on 2 December this year. (Click here for more information on the process.)

It is therefore self-evident that the revision of the Language Policy (2016) is not due to “sustained pressure" by any external party as portrayed in the media. As indicated, it is part of a pro-active five-year revision cycle that started in October last year.

The Language Policy Revision Task Team has student representation and all students will receive an email with information once the registration is concluded.

The revision will include two public participation phases which will be announced once those milestones have been reached. The first phase is planned for the end of March/early April.

The task team has been requested to take the current policy as its point of departure after the Constitutional Court in 2019 found the Language Policy (2016) to be constitutionally justified and the University's process in adopting the policy was “thorough, exhaustive, inclusive and properly deliberative".

The Language Implementation reports of the faculties over the past four years and feedback obtained through student and staff surveys point to the successful implementation of the policy. A well-implemented policy where students have internalised the policy and multilingualism is being promoted in innovative ways. Thus there is no substance in claims “that the 2016 language policy is a massive failure".

Deviation from the Language Policy

The emergence of the coronavirus pandemic in the 2020 academic year presented all universities with a plethora of challenges, including the extension of the second semester into 2021 and at SU an additional assessment opportunity in January/February 2021.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the immense pressure on lecturers because of Emergency Remote Teaching, Learning and Assessment (ERTLA), now being replaced by  switching to Augmented Remote Teaching, Learning and Assessment (ARTLA), faculties have proposed a deviation from their Language Implementation Plans for the first semester of the 2021 academic year. Senate is to consider this recommendation by both its Academic Planning Committee and the Committee for Teaching and Learning on 19 March 2021.  Should the proposal be accepted, the deviation will be a temporary measure for the first semester. This proposal was also discussed at the recent Language Committee of Council meeting and will be reported at the next Council meeting.

It should be noted that this proposal relates to language implementation under the current language policy and is not related to the mandatory revision of the Language Policy (2016) to be completed in 2021.

The fact that faculties had to submit their request to Senate via both the Academic Planning Committee and the Committee for Teaching and Learning clearly illustrates that deviations from the policy and individual language plans follow the stipulations of the Language Policy (2016), see specifically clauses 7.4.3 and 7.4.4, and that they are taken very seriously and are given careful consideration. Senate will consider the proposal and make a decision that is in the best interest of the University, its students and lecturers.

Senate also granted the same deviation in 2020, but despite the immense pressures on lecturers, there is evidence in faculties' Language Implementation reports from the second semester last year of very innovative uses of technologies to promote multilingualism, and there is also great appreciation shown by students for the huge efforts of lecturers in this regard.