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Language at Stellenbosch University

At Stellenbosch University (SU) we embrace the diversity of our society and the intellectual wealth inherent in that diversity. Through the implementation of our Language Policy (2016), Stellenbosch University creates opportunities for the advancement of multilingualism in academic and social spaces to increase equitable access to a university education; to foster an inclusive campus culture; and to support student success.

Our commitment to multilingualism includes all languages, with a focus on the three predominant languages used in the Western Cape. Through exposure to multilingualism and respect for each other’s cultural heritage and language in our daily interactions on our campuses, our students develop graduate attributes. These mould them into engaged citizens with the skills and attitudes to co-create cohesive and tolerant communities in our diverse society.

We are confident that Stellenbosch University students have more choices, broader access and a better future as a result of our approach to language.

Language Policy Revision > 2016 Language Policy >

Articles about language at SU

Opinion - Whose crusade is this really?
30 June 2021
Can we be consistent about language, please?
28 June 2021
Human Rights Commission: SU staff and students testify
17 June 2021
No instruction to prohibit Afrikaans in social spaces at SU, Deloitte finds
14 June 2021
Broader access and a better future thanks to SU's approach to language, says Rector​
10 May 2021
Stellenbosch University receives memorandum from DAK Netwerk
9 April 2021

Media releases and responses

Frequently asked questions: Language at Stellenbosch University

SU’s Language Policy aims to give effect to section 29(2) of the Constitution in respect of language use in the University’s academic, administrative, professional and social contexts. The Language Policy seeks to increase equitable access to SU for all students and staff, facilitate pedagogically sound teaching and learning, and promote multilingualism. Since our campuses are located in the Western Cape, we commit ourselves to multilingualism using the province’s three official languages: Afrikaans, English and isiXhosa.

The Language Policy (2016) of SU is being reviewed in 2021 as part of the five-year revision cycle prescribed in the policy itself. The current policy was implemented in 2017. Section 10 of the policy stipulates that it “lapses five years after the date of its implementation” and “must be reviewed during its fifth year of operation”.

The revision process was initiated in October 2020 by convening a task team and proposing a timeline based on the 2021 University Almanac. Council approved the timeline and project plan on 1 December 2020. The intention is to table a final draft Language Policy (2021) for Council’s approval on 2 December this year. (Click here for more information on the process).

The revision process is part of a proactive five-year revision cycle that started in October 2020.

The SU Statute (2019) stipulates that Council must determine the language policy of the institution with the concurrence of Senate and in accordance with section 27(2) of the Higher Education Act 101 of 1997, as amended.

Multilingualism is important to SU. We chose multilingualism because, as an institution, we value the diversity of our society – including our linguistic diversity – as well as the intellectual wealth found in that diversity. SU believes its students have more choices, greater access and a better future because of this approach.

Afrikaans specifically has developed an academic repertoire over decades, to which SU has made, and continues to make, significant contributions. Harnessing and enriching the academic potential of Afrikaans is a way to empower a large and diverse community in South Africa, and SU remains committed to do so. Therefore, SU remains dedicated to using Afrikaans along with English as languages of instruction against the backdrop of inclusivity and multilingualism.

The University continues to promote the use of Afrikaans. In 2020, for instance, the Ton and Anet Vosloo Chair in Afrikaans Language Practice was established. Based in the Department of Afrikaans and Dutch, the chair constitutes a centre of expertise for the scientific study of translation, interpreting and editing. The research focus of Afrikaans language practice helps expand Afrikaans as a scientific language.

SU also lends significant support to the Woordfees, one of the biggest Afrikaans festivals in the country, as well as to the Woordeboek van die Afrikaanse Taal (WAT).

Yes. Both Afrikaans and English are languages of learning and teaching at SU. SU supports the academic use of these languages through a combination of facilitated learning opportunities for students, including lectures, tutorials and practical sessions, as well as technologically facilitated learning support. Each faculty drafts an annual Language Implementation Plan to indicate its language options for each module.

No. The use of Afrikaans and other South African languages in SU residences and social settings has been in the media spotlight since 5 March 2021, when claims of an ‘English-only’ policy in certain residences started surfacing. The University subsequently investigated the allegations, and also commissioned an independent inquiry by Deloitte.

Deloitte concluded that there was no ban or prohibition on Afrikaans in SU residences. There is no English-only policy in residences, and students should not be prohibited from speaking Afrikaans or any other language. The University would not condone this, as it is out of keeping with our Language Policy, our vision and our values.

The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) is also investigating the matter. For further updates, click here.

Yes. In its feedback on the Department of Higher Education and Training’s draft Language Policy Framework for Public Higher Education Institutions of 2018, SU already expressed strong support for the view that Afrikaans is indigenous. We have also brought the matter to the attention of Universities South Africa (USAf), as all universities will have to take into account the implications of the new framework.

SU remains committed to Afrikaans as an indigenous language as part of inclusive multilingualism. At its meeting of 21 June 2021, Council accepted the following motion on indigenous languages: “SU has taken note with concern of the Department of Higher Education 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 SU's management to take appropriate steps to engage with the DHET to address this issue.”

No. SU remains committed to using Afrikaans along with English as languages of instruction against the backdrop of inclusivity and multilingualism.

Undergraduate students who are not fluent in English have the option to attend Afrikaans classes of modules offered in parallel medium. Students also have many language support mechanisms at their disposal, including those offered by the SU Language Centre. Academic literacy and language support is also embedded in modules of certain programmes, while lecturers make a special effort to help students wherever possible.

In addition, the teaching approach has changed considerably. SU follows a learning-centred approach to teaching, which sees learning as a partnership, and students as co-creators of knowledge and learning environments. In a learning-centred approach, teaching activities facilitate knowledge-building and engage students in their own learning. Therefore, instead of a one-way transfer of knowledge, lectures are increasingly used to develop insight in and apply knowledge through discussion, which can occur in multiple languages. Lectures are also supplemented with tutorials and other learning opportunities, during which students often use their languages of choice.

Question papers for tests, examinations and other summative assessments in undergraduate modules are available in both Afrikaans and English. Students may complete all assessments and submit all written work in Afrikaans or English.

In postgraduate learning and teaching, including final-year modules at NQF level 8, any language may be used, provided that all the students concerned are sufficiently proficient in that language.

When the 2021 undergraduate distribution of students’ home language is compared to 2017, both English and other official South African languages increased by two percentage points, whereas Afrikaans decreased by five percentage points. The 2021 distribution is as follows: 48,7% (47,8% in 2017) identify English as their home language; 37,4% (42,4% in 2017) Afrikaans and 6,8% (4,9% in 2017) other official South African languages, with the remaining 7,1% (4,9% in 2017) identifying an international language as their home language.

English as the preferred language of learning and teaching for undergraduate students increased from 68,2% in 2017 to 80,8% in 2021. In 2021, nearly 100% of undergraduates with a home language other than Afrikaans, as well as 49,5% of undergraduates with Afrikaans as home language, preferred English as their language of teaching and learning.

In 2021, almost 100% of black African and Indian/Asian undergraduates preferred English as language of teaching and learning, as well as 80,7% of coloured and 73,8% of white undergraduates.

In 2017, approximately a quarter of undergraduates and newcomer first-years with Afrikaans as home language preferred English as language of teaching and learning. By 2021, this proportion had increased to nearly half in both instances, namely 49,5% for undergraduates and 46,1% for newcomer first-years.

This year (2021) the Faculties of AgriSciences, Education and Theology have the highest percentage of students who prefer Afrikaans as language of teaching and learning: between 35% and 39%. A total of 26,2% of undergraduates in the Faculty of Engineering prefer Afrikaans. In each of the remaining faculties, less than 20% of undergraduates prefer Afrikaans as language of teaching and learning.

As an emerging formal academic language, isiXhosa receives particular attention with a view to its incremental introduction into selected disciplinary domains. These are prioritised based on student needs through a well-planned and systematic process.

SU’s Department of African Languages has extensive experience in advanced-level teaching and research in language and linguistic fields. Going forward, therefore, their academic role and leadership will be fully harnessed. IsiXhosa is already being used in certain programmes to facilitate effective learning and teaching, especially where it may be important for career purposes. SU is committed to increasing the use of isiXhosa, to the extent that this is reasonably practicable. Examples of existing initiatives in this regard include short courses in basic isiXhosa communication skills for staff and students, career-specific communication in isiXhosa, discipline-specific terminology guides (both printed and mobile applications) and phrase books.

SU’s medical students, for instance, are taught vocational communication in Afrikaans and isiXhosa. Similar modules are offered in the Faculty of Education. The Faculty of Theology offers a module that is presented in isiXhosa and 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 Faculty’s initiatives to promote multilingualism.

The Language Centre also translates podcasts into isiXhosa.

If the matter relates to implementation by a faculty, complaints may be lodged in accordance with the relevant faculty’s appeals/complaints procedure. Where such a procedure does not exist, complaints are to be lodged with (in this order of preference) the staff member concerned, the departmental chairperson or head, or the dean. Complaints that are not satisfactorily resolved at faculty level and relate to academic contexts can be referred to the Academic Planning Committee (APC) via the Student Academic Affairs Council. If not resolved at the APC level, the APC will refer the matter to Senate, along with a recommendation.

If the complaint relates to implementation by a support services environment, it may be lodged with the hierarchy of line managers in that environment, or, where the broader University is concerned, with the Rectorate via the executive of the Students’ Representative Council.

Where implementation in student living environments is concerned, complaints may be lodged with the house committee or the residential head. Complaints that are not satisfactorily resolved at the level of the residence or private student ward may be referred to the senior director of Student Affairs.

Should the use of the complaint procedures above prove unsuitable, complaints may be submitted to the SU Ombud, who will resolve the matter in consultation with the relevant SU environments.

If the matter relates to implementation by a faculty, complaints may be lodged with (in this order of preference) the departmental chairperson or head, or the dean.

If it relates to implementation by a support services environment, complaints may be lodged with the hierarchy of line managers in that environment, or, where the broader University is concerned, with the Rectorate via the Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Learning and Teaching.

Should the use of the complaint procedures above prove unsuitable, complaints may be submitted to the SU Ombud, who will resolve the matter in consultation with the relevant SU environments.

Extensive monitoring, reporting and oversight mechanisms are in place and faculties and the professional and administrative support services (PASS) provide regular feedback to Senate and Council. Various surveys conducted among students and staff all indicated a significant appreciation and satisfaction with the implementation of the Language Policy. This does not mean everything has been perfect. There have been challenges and these have been addressed. However, the current revision of the Language Policy provides an opportunity to bring about further improvements.

SU makes a substantial investment in multilingualism with R45 million budgeted for the implementation of the current multilingual Language Policy in 2021, not taking into account the money spent by faculties, and administrative and support environments for additional language support. This direct investment amounts to 0,7% of SU’s total integrated budget.

An additional ±R90 million (professional and administrative support staff, as well as academic staff) is added to the institutional cost of multilingualism in the form of implicit staff related costs (e.g. translating lecture materials, exam papers, reports, presentations, e-mails etc.).

The discretionary part of SU’s main budget, i.e. funds that are not committed to servicing obligatory expenses (e.g. salaries) and allocated on an annual basis, amounts to R318,5 million. The 2021 language implementation budget constitutes 14% in relation to the total discretionary funds in the main budget.

If SU were a single-language English university it would not have incurred these costs. Multilingualism is a costly choice with known challenges and complexities, but is a deliberate choice with specific institutional objectives and outcomes.

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