This article was published on 12 December 2021 in Rapport. Click here to read the original in Afrikaans, or read the English translation below.
Stellenbosch University's new Language Policy developed from the bottom upwards, writes Leslie van Rooi*.
Stellenbosch University's Council approved the institution's new Language Policy two weeks ago. Multilingualism in the context of our country is complicated. It is something to be grappled with, but that is what a diverse country such as South Africa demands from its people. And it is a core part of the role that a university in this country should play.
From my office on the campus of Stellenbosch University (SU), I have a view of the well-known Rooiplein. Sometimes, I am fascinated by the multiple voices and accents of students passing by my window on their way to class – people from different backgrounds and language communities who are here to study together, but also to live together.
SU's new Language Policy aims to further stimulate and affirm this context. To a large extent, the new policy developed from the bottom upwards and is a policy for the campus community, through the campus community. It is, after all, a policy that has to be practically implemented on this campus.
How was the policy formulated?
The new Language Policy is the result of an extensive, transparent and consultative revision process in the fifth implementation year of the previous policy.
A policy of a public university is not formulated or approved by a single person or a small group of individuals. An external consultation process, as well as several rounds of internal consultation, took place. A task team made up of representatives of all faculties and several other SU environments, including students, revised the Language Policy during 24 sessions, with additional expertise co-opted as necessary.
Furthermore, the task team received more than 600 comments via two public participation processes. They were all considered for inclusion. These, as well as the feedback by the task team, were incorporated into reaction reports that are available to the public on SU's language revision web page (www.sun.ac.za/taal). Other relevant documents are also available on the web page.
Although SU's Language Policy is a document for use by personnel and students, the University is part and parcel of a country and its communities. SU optimally fulfils its role in society in partnership with other role players. As a public institution with several stakeholders, it is therefore fitting that SU consulted widely and that the information was made available on our website continuously. Internally, three consultation rounds with faculty councils, the Institutional Forum, Senate and Council also took place.
Therefore, the Language Policy (2021) is the culmination of two deliberate public participation processes, as well as critical internal discussions, aimed at the formulation of a policy that has to be practically implemented in the context of a changing SU.
A changing university
The new Language Policy is obviously much more than an 18-page document. It has to guide various dynamic processes at SU. So, where is the new policy going to be realised?
Many things at SU have changed over the past decades: The campus community is much more diverse, student numbers have increased dramatically, our local impact and international partnerships have increased substantially and SU is a research-intensive university on a world platform – and rightly so. It is a national asset with an international impact – one of the world's top universities.
It is also a place where students and personnel can learn and live together, as well as search together for relevant answers aimed at questions in society that will equip graduates with the necessary knowledge and skills to handle the challenges of their time.
These challenges demand of our graduates to be able to find fulfilment in a multicultural, multilingual world context – something we already experience on a small scale on our campuses.
What does SU wish to achieve with the policy?
As is the case with any other policy document, it is important to determine through which lenses the policy should be interpreted. The policy aims to realise three important aspects in relation to other policies and processes at SU: accessibility and success, social cohesion on our campuses and the furthering of a multilingual mindset.
The policy provides for the use of Afrikaans, English and isiXhosa in both learning and teaching and communication at SU. Afrikaans and English are designated as SU's primary languages of learning and teaching, but translanguaging in multiple languages is encouraged to support and enhance learning. IsiXhosa as an academic language will be given special attention with a view to introduce it into various disciplines incrementally.
Therefore, the policy strives to make more students from diverse backgrounds feel at home on our campuses and to eventually leave SU as well-rounded graduates. Our country and society demand social cohesion from us. Various language communities must be able to find fulfilment here and we have to share the living environments behind our languages and dialects with one another. That is why SU deems it necessary to have a language policy that also confirms multilingualism as a mindset.
Thus, the new policy places greater emphasis on multilingualism – including a multilingual mindset – and even translanguaging (the use of language in teaching and social spaces where people can use different languages and where spontaneous and informal interpretation takes place in a context of mutual respect and tolerance for varying language skills).
Learning and teaching at universities have changed a lot and there is more emphasis on the use of additional resources both inside and outside class rooms – in person as well as online. Therefore, the underlying principles of the policy can rightly be regarded as establishing multilingualism as a resource inside and outside the class room, broadening accessibility with success for even more students, as well as pedagogic responsible learning and teaching.
What is meant by 'where reasonably practicable'?
In this discourse, I have to emphasise another aspect about which much has been written. As was the case with the language policy of 2016, questions are once more being asked about the exact meaning of the term 'reasonably practicable'.
The short answer is: to apply various aspects of the language policy in a just and tolerant manner. What is reasonably practicable, is determined on merit and according to contextual factors, such as the number of students who will benefit from a specific method, the language skills of personnel and students, as well as resource, time table and class room limitations.
The student composition regarding aspects such as language skills and language preferences can differ drastically year on year – campus-wide, but also in specific environments. The aim with the policy and its application is to be adaptable and to be able to react swiftly to the changing needs of personnel and students.
The way forward
SU followed a deliberate process of consultation over a period of more than 12 months to establish a comprehensive and clear policy that is practicable in the SU context – in the class room, in internal and external communication and in the living environment of students. Now we have to focus on applying the policy in our faculties, support services and student communities.
This will definitely not be a task without challenges, and we will have to apply lessons that have already been learnt about various aspects. And we will learn even more lessons. However, this is the road that SU has chosen because we are convinced that it will truly establish the University as a national asset that wishes to ensure accessibility with success.
- Dr Leslie van Rooi is Senior Director: Social Impact and Transformation and SU's language spokesperson.