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Multilingualism in higher education – challenges and solutions
Author: Prof Wim de Villiers
Published: 29/11/2021

This op-ed was published on Netwerk24 on 9 October 2021. Click here to read it on that site, or read a translation below. 

The extent of the challenge of promoting multilingualism at South African universities was revealed at Universities South Africa’s recent colloquium on the Department of Higher Education and Training’s National Language Policy Framework for Higher Education Institutions. Prof Wim de Villiers, Rector and Vice-Chancellor of Stellenbosch University, says the application of multilingualism is complicated, but it is an opportunity for collaboration. 

Multilingualism is a matter of serious concern for Stellenbosch University (SU) and numerous other universities and the complexities associated with it are addressed in the National Language Policy Framework for Higher Education Institutions, which guides the language approach of all public South African universities (of which the US is one). 

The University of South Africa’s (USAf) Colloquium on the Language Policy Framework (2020) was the first opportunity where all public South African higher education institutions, together with the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET), could exchange ideas on how to promote multilingualism, look in depth at some of the challenges and try to find solutions together. 

The Language Policy Framework, published by Government in October last year, indicates that language still stands in the way of success for many students at South African higher education institutions. Despite their status as official languages, African languages were not formally offered the opportunity to develop as academic and scientific languages in the past. 

This quote from the Government Gazette clarifies the purpose of the Language Policy Framework: “The Framework seeks to address the challenge of the underdevelopment and underutilisation of official African languages at higher education institutions whilst simultaneously sustaining the standard and utilisation of languages that are already developed.” 

From various presentations during the colloquium by representatives of numerous universities and the DHET, it became clear that multilingualism has not been taken seriously enough in higher education over the past 27 years. 

South Africas approach to multilingualism is enshrined in the Constitution (1996) and recognises 11 official languages. However, to apply it successfully in the higher education sector, several obstacles must be overcome, such as financial aspects, a lack of investment in multilingualism in basic education, the bridge between high school and university and the continuing tendency towards internationalisation. 

However, as several speakers emphasised during the colloquium, these challenges are not insurmountable. During the eight sessions, various key themes emerged, including a strong focus on university collaboration, social justice, possible strategies to apply the Language Policy Framework, resources and funding concerns, a greater role played by the Department of Basic Education (DBE), the possibility of a national institutional audit of all universities activities around multilingualism and the definition of Afrikaans as an indigenous language. 

SUs position on Afrikaans as an indigenous language is well known and does not align with the definition of the Language Policy Framework. Already in 2017, SU gave extensive feedback on the DHETs conceptual language policy framework in which the University recognised Afrikaans as an indigenous language and requested the same of the draft policy. 

Universities were not given the opportunity to comment on the final version of the Language Policy Framework. SU has brought this to the attention of USAf and has stated since the publication of the Language Policy Framework that we recognise Afrikaans as an indigenous language as part of inclusive multilingualism. 

SU Council therefore accepted this motion on 21 June 2021: “SU has taken note with concern the Department of Higher Educations and Training's classification in the Language Policy Framework for Public Higher Education Institutions (2020). SU supports the view that Afrikaans and the Khoe and San languages are indigenous languages. Council requests SUs management to take appropriate steps to engage with the DHET to address this issue.” 

Language development 

At the same time, SU also acknowledges that African languages have long come off second best. The entire sector can now build on the momentum started by the USAf Colloquium. For this, however, collaboration is essential, and it is gratifying that so many examples and possible solutions for this have been shared by various universities at the colloquium. 

As is consistently the case with Afrikaans, SU has also already set the ball rolling regarding the use of isiXhosa, a language that was previously marginalised. As an emerging formal academic language, isiXhosa receives special attention with a view to gradually introducing it in selected disciplines. These disciplines are prioritised according to student needs through a well-planned and systematic process. 

SUs Department of African Languages, for example, has extensive experience in advanced linguistic and linguistic teaching and research. Their academic role and leadership will be fully utilised. isiXhosa is already used in certain programmes to facilitate effective learning and teaching, especially where it may be important for career purposes. SU is committed to expanding the use of isiXhosa, and examples of existing initiatives in this regard include short courses on basic isiXhosa communication skills for staff and students, career-specific communication in isiXhosa, discipline-specific terminology lists and language guides. 

SUs medical students are already receiving instruction in vocational communication in Afrikaans and isiXhosa. The Faculty of Education has similar modules. The Faculty of Theology offers a module in isiXhosa, which is interpreted into Afrikaans and English. Excellent work is also being done in the Extended Degree Programme in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, where isiXhosa (and other) interpreting is used as one of the Facultys initiatives to promote multilingualism. 

In addition, the Language Centre translates various documents into isiXhosa in the same way it also translates documents and notes into Afrikaans when necessary. The Mobilex application has provided terminology lists since 2014 and includes definitions used by the Faculties of Education, Theology, Science, Economic and Management Sciences and Arts and Social Sciences. 

It would therefore make sense to share work that has already done in this regard right across the higher education sector. 

Multilingualism within faculties 

It is important to ensure that the circumstances of academic multilingualism are in line with professional environments and expectations. This is already being done by carefully-planned systems as the language planning clause in SUs 2016 Language Policy indicates - to identify context-specific applications. 

The clause reads: “Every faculty reviews its use of language for learning and teaching, and records the language arrangements in its Faculty Language Implementation Plan annually, at the least. This Plan is reported to Senate via the Faculty Board and Senate’s Academic Planning Committee. Senate has the power either to accept the faculty’s Language Implementation Plan or to refer it back to the faculty. Once accepted, the language arrangements for learning and teaching of a particular module are published in the relevant module frameworks. 

The application of the Language Policy Framework will therefore require higher education institutions to develop, maintain and monitor comprehensive plans to promote multilingualism. It also involves the establishment of transparent methods in all university structures to ensure the application thereof, and not just to accept the Language Policy Framework on paper. 

It is possible. An analysis of SUs Language Implementation Plans of Faculties and Professional and Administrative Support Staff (PASS) from 2017 to 2020 shows positive trends. One of these is that annual reporting and planning of language implementation through formal structures is becoming increasingly effective, as it not only ensures that faculties and PASS environments comply with the formal provisions of the Language Policy, but it is implemented through a template. It offers all the environments the opportunity to reflect on the consultation process, and to indicate the ways in which they promote multilingualism in their respective environments. 

Everything, of course, has financial consequences. The Language Policy Framework proposes, among other things, that all official internal communication at universities must, in addition to English, take place in two more official languages. This is a commendable ideal, but may not be practically feasible if the DHET does not make funding available for it. (SU’s official communication is currently all in Afrikaans and English.) 

The application of the Language Policy Framework will therefore not be easy. However, the benefits of multilingual learning and teaching have been proven countless times and I believe such an approach will give students greater access to a better future in the South African context.  

The USAf Colloquium has started the right conversation and it is proof that collaboration is the key to success.