Stellenbosch University
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Multilingualism is part of South Africans' DNA
Author: Daniel Bugan
Published: 05/10/2021

In celebration of multilingualism, academics, students and staff recently examined ways to integrate a multilingual mindset into teaching, learning and assessment at Stellenbosch University (SU).

These discussions took place at the Language Day 2021 hosted by the Division for Learning and Teaching Enhancement. This year's Language Day was themed “Language, learning, life! Implementing multilingualism @ SU in academic and social spaces".

Prof Wim de Villiers, Rector and Vice-Chancellor at SU, said multilingualism is part of South Africans' DNA and for that reason the purpose of the event is to implement multilingualism beyond the university's language policy.

“The focus is not only on institutional multilingualism but also on individual multilingualism. In other words, we do not focus only on establishing multilingual spaces at Stellenbosch through translation and interpreting, for example, but we actively encourage people to use more than one language even if they can only understand or say a few words. Multilingualism is an asset, not something to shy away from and should be embraced and celebrated."

Teaching and learning

The first panel explored the topic, “Multilingualism in (augmented remote) teaching, learning and assessment".

Prof Mbulungeni Madiba, Dean of the Faculty of Education, said students themselves are a valuable resource when it comes to multilingualism in the higher education sector.

With a diverse student body, Madiba said the University should find ways to create opportunities for students to play a role in facilitating multilingualism. “We've found that when it comes to tutorials, students are the best facilitators. So we need to create these platforms that students can make use of."

For example, Madiba suggested exploring the concept of e-tutors who are proficient in various languages. “When students have a problem, they can then approach these e-tutors who will be able to explain key and difficult concepts in their home language," he said.

Echoing Madiba's statements, Christine Joubert, portfolio coordinator for the Online Interpreting Podcasting Service at SU, said multilingualism is not only about equitable access to learning and teaching but also about creating a safe space where students are able to participate in their mother tongue.

Joubert alluded to the Introduction to Humanities module within the Extended Degree Programme of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences as an example of how the close partnership between lecturers and the interpreting service creates a multilingual space for students to learn more about topics, while also learning about world views and the realities of their peers.

“Topics and themes that are discussed are often contentious, but as a result of trilingual interpreting more students have the confidence to share their views," she said about the module.

Pannelist Alyssa Kekana, an SU student, suggested that the University develop systems that can accommodate more than just English and Afrikaans.

“SUNLearn only provides an option to translate into Afrikaans (from English) and that essentially is bilingualism and not multilingualism. Microsoft Teams as a live platform is very dependent on translation services and if you do not have access to that it becomes a bit of a struggle. Perhaps we can use one of the functions of Teams – live transcriptions – to provide translations to students. Maybe that can be extracted, properly translated and then provided to students."

Multilingualism in admin

The second panel discussed the topic “Multilingualism in administrative, social and living spaces".

Mbalenhle Shandu, a second-year computer science student and the welcoming leader in Erica Women's Residence, spoke about several of the practical things they implemented to navigate and facilitate a multilingual living and learning space.

“We allocated a slot to indigenous games − games that we grew up playing in our communities or that were passed down the generations. When we were playing these games it was amazing to see the newcomers engage with each other. You had people from completely different parts of the country being able to recognise some of these games," she said.

“We'd also start off every morning with a committee member doing a daily greeting in one of the South African languages, and that would be the greeting we'd use to honour each other throughout the day."

Shandu said these initiatives prompted students to learn more about each other's languages because they discovered how much they had in common.​

* Podcasts: The multilingual mindset
As part of Language Day, several SU staff members who are involved in language activities at the University, shared their insights on multilingualism in podcasts.

  • Dr Kim Wallmach, Director of the SU Language Centre, shares her language journey and views on multilingualism in this podcast.
  • In this podcast Prof Mbulungeni Madiba, Dean of the Faculty Education, discusses his views on multilingualism in education.
  • Sanet de Jager, an interpreter at the SU Language Centre, talks about her language journey and what multilingualism means to her in this podcast