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SU explains Language Policy
Author: Prof Deresh Ramjugernath: / Viserektor: Leer en Onderrig
Published: 23/12/2021

This article was published on 14 December 2021 on Netwerk24. Click here to read the original in Afrikaans or read the English translation below.​

The revised Language Policy that was approved by Stellenbosch University's Council this month offers the opportunity of fostering a sense of cohesion on campus, writes Deresh Ramjugernath*.

Conversations about language at Stellenbosch University (SU) are often fiery. After all, language is part of our identity, our origin, and our culture, and plays a huge role in the way we make sense of the world around us.

At higher education institutions these issues are placed under a magnifying glass when young adults start grappling with life's core questions and start preparing themselves for professional work environments. So, how do you create an environment at a university in which appreciation for differences in culture and origin is celebrated, and where they are not regarded as obstacles?

This is exactly what SU wishes to achieve with its revised Language Policy. We would like to create a community on our campuses that is equipped to handle South Africa's needs, and to produce graduates who actively make a difference in society.

A learning opportunity

I came into contact with several languages throughout my professional life as an engineer and an academic in South Africa. In the mining industry, where I worked decades ago, a single language was out of the question. That is where I learnt to express myself in Afrikaans. Later in my career, at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, isiZulu was the language most spoken, followed by English. Through your subconscious mind you build a vocabulary stretching far beyond the boundaries of your first language.   

This year I commenced with Afrikaans lessons, and I plan to do the same with isiXhosa next year. One of the things we would like to encourage at SU by means of our Language Policy, is for people to learn more languages. By exclusively using your home language – even if it is English – you are missing out on an opportunity of a richer student experience.

A multilingual mindset

The application of our revised Language Policy (that comes into effect in January 2022) is multifaceted, but I would like to highlight a few key points. 

The policy provides for the use of Afrikaans, English and isiXhosa in learning and teaching at SU, as well as in our communication. It also specifies the extent to which each language should be used in various scenarios.

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, where reasonably practicable. SU contributes to the promotion of isiXhosa as an additional academic language through its own initiatives and in partnership with other universities and entities.

The Language Policy firstly focuses on the power of language to unite people. Secondly, it promotes equitable access and, thirdly, it supports student success. South Africans' knowledge and skills are highly valued internationally. Our multicultural and diverse backgrounds and our ability to make provision for different cultures contribute to this.

Through its Language Policy SU strives to foster an environment that embraces and values different cultures through language. We want students to be aware of the way in which they engage with language and to develop a multilingual mindset in their interactions with others.

There could be an expectation that the Language Policy should be a single road, with everyone driving at the same speed, hastily on their way to the ultimate destination. However, in practice it is a highway with several lanes where everyone uses different junctions, drives at their own speed, but are nevertheless on their way to a common destination.

A university community is a microcosm of society. Given South Africa's rich diversity, a policy that emphasises the importance of multilingualism should support and promote social cohesion.

What about Afrikaans?

Our Language Policy strives to make everyone who works and studies at SU feel welcome and included. This also holds true for students, colleagues and visitors who speak Afrikaans.

SU has previously been accused of wanting to be exclusively English and of actively trying to reduce the use of Afrikaans. That is simply untrue.

I appreciate and understand the fears of the Afrikaans speaking community and their concern that a specific identity and culture will become extinct if Afrikaans is taken out of the picture. However, our Language Policy specifically creates the space for the preservation and continuous use of Afrikaans.

In the long term, the active creation of a multilingual environment in which all students and personnel use and appreciate several languages, will promote the sustainability of those languages.

How was the policy drawn up?

SU's Language Policy must be revised every five years. During the year-long revision process of the previous Language Policy (2016), the task team consulted widely. There were two rounds of public participation and inputs, and the task team considered all comments.

The task team responsible for the revision process was made up of representatives of all ten SU's faculties and its professional and administrative support services, as well as student representatives, with technical experts co-opted as necessary. They met 24 times. Internal SU bodies – including the Institutional Forum, Senate and Council – were consulted three times and all inputs continuously informed the policy. 

Growing pains and challenges

Language policies go hand in hand with growing pains and challenges, but systems are available to cope with such challenges. The Language Policy provides for mechanisms to ensure academic supervision, effective management and proper review management regarding language implementation.

This takes place within a framework that enables faculties to formulate language implementation policies and develop procedures for accountability and reporting to relevant structures. 

SU's Language Centre provides support, and the policy also describes reporting, monitoring and conflict resolution mechanisms, including complaint procedures.

An important question remains: How do we build a better society in which students look at each other and the world in a new light and ultimately create a better South Africa and a better world?

I believe SU's new Language Policy indicates the right direction to help realise this goal.

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

This article appeared on Netwerk24.