Stellenbosch University
Welcome to Stellenbosch University
Multilingualism helps forge new connections
Author: Engela Duvenage
Published: 29/09/2021

*In celebration of the opportunities and possibilities multilingualism creates, the Division of Learning and Teaching Enhancement is hosting a Language Day conference on 30 September. As part of this celebration of multilingualism, we will highlight some of the projects currently under way at Stellenbosch University.

Multilingualism can help us form vital new connections and relationships with others, which ultimately enable us to build a better world. So says sociolinguist Dr Marcelyn Oostendorp of the Department of General Linguistics at Stellenbosch University (SU).

“People tend to think, write and talk about multilingualism in a very utilitarian way, as something that can be used, for example in the classroom," Dr Oostendorp says. “However, we forget about the relational aspect of language and multilingualism, and that it can help us connect with others. When children learn to talk, for instance, it is not about the use they get out of it, but about being able to connect with others."

The relational facet of multilingualism is something she has experienced first-hand coordinating the module Reimagining Multilingualism(s) for honours students in General Linguistics at SU for the past four years. The module is a collaborative effort between staff and postgraduate students of SU, the Centre for Multilingualism and Diversities Research at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), as well as UWC's Department of Linguistics. “The module forges new understandings of multilingualism and highlights its relational, affective aspects. Through cutting-edge theoretical understandings of multilingualism, students re-evaluate their own affinities and dispositions towards language," Oostendorp explains.

Prior to COVID, SU and UWC students shuttled to the respective campuses on alternating weeks for valuable cross-pollinating meet-ups. This mobility was made possible thanks to a grant from the Andrew Mellon Foundation since 2018 and allowed the SU honours students to mingle with their peers at UWC, who were taking the module as an enrichment course. “The funding gave us some freedom of movement, which is not typical of an honours module," says Oostendorp. “Our students' boundaries were shifted for the better. The interactions changed them personally, as well as their perception of others." Being in different spaces also helped break down stereotypes, such as about what a typical UWC or SU student looks like, sounds like and is, and about the facilities and experiences available on the two campuses, she adds.

The three-week module was divided into five day-long seminars on linguistic ethnography, visual arts methods for representing concepts, multilingual creative writing, semiotic landscapes, reimagining formal linguistics, and linguistic citizenship. Sessions were led by international researchers such as Prof Ben Rampton and Drs Mel Cooke and Lavanya Sankaran from King's College London, and Prof Lynn Mario de Souza from the University of São Paulo in Brazil.

For four of the seminars, students had to complete an assessment that included a multimodal task or a reflection in multimodal format. Students produced poetry, written reflections, video installations and handmade artefacts such as posters, sculptures and collages. In 2018, these were exhibited at GUS (the Gallery of the University of Stellenbosch) for a week, and then spent a full term in the UWC library atrium. This also proved a good way for the students to show their loved ones what they were busy with, says Oostendorp. “One of my students said this was the first time that her studies made sense to her mother!"

In 2019, students organised a pop-up exhibition in the SU Conservatoire, and their creative pieces were also featured in a special edition of the journal Multilingual Margins. In addition, various scholarly papers emanating from this project have been published or are in press in edited volumes such as Language and Decoloniality in Higher Education and Speaking subjects – Biographical methods in multilingualism research.

To Oostendorp, the module is a good example of multimodal pedagogy, which expands the conceptualisation and teaching of literacy to include multiple discourses and modalities that acknowledge increasing diversity in all societies, and the rise of multimedia and digital technologies. “Multimodal pedagogy creates an opportunity for us to admit to and encounter our own vulnerabilities," she recently wrote in the book Language and Decoloniality in Higher Education: Reclaiming Voices from the South (Bloomsbury Academic, 2021) in a chapter she co-authored with fellow SU scholars.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 has brought an abrupt end to the face-to-face interactions that were at the core of Reimagining Multilingualism(s), and the campus visits were the first that had to be cancelled. Yet she stands amazed at how creatively her colleagues have adapted to online teaching, and to having much more screen time than face-to-face time, Oostendorp says. For instance, instead of accompanying students on visits to different parts of Stellenbosch and learning about the history of each, colleague Dr Amiena Peck of the UWC Linguistics Department began helping students explore the spaces and sites they frequent online in terms of layout, wording and visuals.

The Mellon funding, which initially formed part of a larger project coordinated by the University of Pretoria, ends this year. However, Oostendorp hopes that other financial support will allow further cross-campus interactions among Western Cape universities once COVID restrictions are lifted.