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Multilingualism enriches students' educational experience – Prof Deresh Ramjugernath
Author: Deresh Ramjugernath
Published: 23/02/2024

​By championing multilingualism in both academic and social spaces, we not only enrich the educational experience for our students but also prepare them to thrive in an increasingly interconnected and diverse world. This is the view of Prof Deresh Ramjugernath (Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Teaching and Learning) in an opinion piece for The Star in celebration of International Mother Language Day on 21 February.

  • Read the article below or click here for the piece as published.

Deresh Ramjugernath*

In an increasingly interconnected world, where globalisation often threatens to overshadow individual cultures and languages, the celebration of International Mother Language Day on 21 February serves as a powerful reminder of the intrinsic value of linguistic diversity. In addition, the ability to communicate and collaborate across cultures and languages has become a vital skill.

UNESCO, an organisation deeply invested in the preservation of cultural and linguistic diversity, champions the notion that societies thrive when they embrace and celebrate their linguistic heritage. It is through language that traditions are passed down from generation to generation, enriching our collective understanding of the world and fostering tolerance and respect for others. Yet, linguistic diversity is increasingly under threat as more and more languages face the risk of extinction.

According to recent stats shared by UNESCO, globally, a staggering 40 percent of the global population lacks access to education in a language they speak or understand. This statistic is a stark reminder of the urgent need to prioritise multilingual education, particularly in early schooling, to ensure that all individuals have the opportunity to learn, grow, and thrive in their own linguistic contexts. Mother tongue education not only supports learning and literacy, but also lays the foundation for the acquisition of additional languages, fostering a culture of lifelong learning and intergenerational knowledge transfer.

It is, therefore, fitting that the theme of this year's International Mother Language Day is, "Multilingual education is a pillar of intergenerational learning," because it speaks to the transformative power of language in shaping the educational landscape, especially the higher education sector.  This is particularly relevant in a country like South Africa where some students arrive at university without the language skills required to be successful at this level.

At Stellenbosch University, we are committed to providing our students with opportunities to engage with multilingualism both inside and outside the classroom. We recognise that multilingualism isn't just a concept; it's a vibrant tapestry woven into the fabric of our identity and a cornerstone of our commitment to fostering inclusive academic and social practices. That is why we take multilingual education seriously. Multilingualism, which is the coexistence of multiple languages, not only enriches our understanding of different cultures but also enhances cognitive abilities, problem-solving skills, and adaptability.

Over the past few weeks, our Language Centre has spearheaded initiatives aimed at deepening our engagement with multilingualism. Through pre-Welcoming workshops and collaborative efforts with student leaders, we have created spaces where language serves as a bridge rather than a barrier, fostering an environment where every voice is heard and valued.

Our commitment to multilingualism extends beyond social interactions; it permeates into the academic realm as well. Collaborative projects such as the development of a comprehensive slide pack on multilingualism and initiatives like the National Writing Centres Competition underscore our dedication to nurturing linguistic talent and promoting cross-cultural exchange.

Promoting multilingualism holds immense importance both socially and academically. Firstly, it fosters cultural understanding and respect by facilitating communication among diverse linguistic and cultural groups, nurturing a sense of global citizenship. Academically, it ensures inclusivity and equal access to education by accommodating students whose first language may differ from the dominant instructional language.

Moreover, multilingualism offers cognitive benefits like improved problem-solving, creativity, and multitasking skills, enhancing academic performance and mental agility. Professionally, proficiency in multiple languages opens up opportunities in the global job market, allowing individuals to communicate effectively across borders. Additionally, it plays a crucial role in preserving linguistic diversity, vital for maintaining cultural heritage and identity.

Multilingualism also strengthens communication skills, enabling effective interaction in various contexts, both socially and academically. Furthermore, it promotes tolerance, empathy, and global citizenship by exposing individuals to different languages and cultures, fostering a broader perspective on global issues. Overall, promoting multilingualism enriches lives, builds stronger communities, and contributes to a more interconnected and inclusive society.

As we celebrate our successes, it's important to acknowledge the work that lies ahead. We must continue to expand our efforts to provide resources and support for multilingual education, ensuring that linguistic diversity thrives at every level of our institution. By championing multilingualism in both academic and social spaces, we not only enrich the educational experience for our students but also prepare them to thrive in an increasingly interconnected and diverse world.

Ultimately, embracing multilingualism is about more than just speaking different languages; it's about fostering understanding, empathy, and connection across cultural divides. As we commemorate International Mother Language Day, let us reaffirm our commitment to celebrating the richness of linguistic diversity that defines us as a university community. Together, let us continue to build a future where every voice is heard, respected, and valued.

*Professor Deresh Ramjugernath is Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Teaching and Learning at Stellenbosch University.​