Teaching and research in African Languages have been conducted at Stellenbosch since 1926 in the early history of the institution. The department was housed in the Old Main Building of the university up to 1980 when it moved to its current location in the Arts and Social Sciences Building. The languages studied in this early period included isiZulu, Siswati and some Khoisan languages, focusing on descriptive linguistics of these African languages. The focus of African Languages teaching and research in subsequent year increasingly moved to is Xhosa, which was the African language predominantly spoken in the Western Cape. Students were able to study isiXhosa, and also Sesotho, as major subjects towards a BA degree since 1964, when the independent department for African languages teaching and research was established. Both linguistic and literature study of especially isiXhosa and Sesotho were offered to students taking these languages subjects in the following years, with the academic teaching and research offering of the department increasingly becoming characterised by modern approaches to linguistics and literature study of the African languages that can be situated more widely in African linguistics and literature study internationally.
Since 1970, the department has through deliberate academic planning , further proceeded on the trajectory of introducing innovative theoretical areas of teaching and research in African languages, focusing on isiXhosa and Sesotho, that also lead to increasing numbers of postgraduate students of Honours , Master's and PhD, who wished to do specialised study and research for addressing the modern day needs and challenges for African languages related to a variety of careers such as language education and communication services. The teaching and research in African languages conducted in the department were increasingly expanded in scope and depth in both formal and applied study of linguistics and literature in order to position the department firmly for making a substantive academic impact in South Africa, further on the African continent, and beyond.
Since the second half of the 1980's the department has further innovated and expanded its academic teaching and research agenda to realise its mission and vision and in profound awareness, in anticipation of the introduction of the democratic dispensation in South Africa, of the great responsibilities and challenges it has to advance the status and promote the use of the African languages. In this regard the department strategic academic planning for undergraduate and postgraduate study culminated in the offering of a selection of fields in the linguistics and literature of the African languages, with focus on isiXhosa at undergraduate level and in the study of any one or more African languages in Sub-Saharan Africa at postgraduate level specialising in formal or applied linguistics, including literacy development and language teaching, communication and discourse analysis, in a variety of contexts and literature study including literacy linguistic analysis.
This wide and varied selection of teaching and research areas offered in the department has continuously been renewed and adapted in light of theoretical developments in these fields internationally, and the needs and challenges of relating to advancing the African languages in a multilingual context, taking into account their use in conjunction with world languages like English and other indigenous languages. Staff of the department specialise in their teaching and research in one or more of these fields that characterise the rich variety in the academic offering of the department which is realised in its current undergraduate module and post graduate programme offering directed at meeting the 21st century challenges of study in African languages fulfilling academic and societal needs.