South Africa: Is Multilingualism The Silver Bullet?

Published on 2nd January 2019

The Apartheid government’s Afrikaans Medium Decree of 1974 forced black schools to integrate Afrikaans as a language of instruction. This event struck a nerve that triggered the Soweto uprising of 1976 and contributed to exposing the Apartheid system for what it was: government tyranny. 

Since the end of Apartheid, English has established itself as the dominant language of instruction in higher education. Yet the issue of language in education remains a hot topic of debate in a very multilingual South Africa.

In a country of so many mother tongues, the question of how best to enable scholastic success has become an unrelenting problem for tertiary institutions and the government alike. If most first-year students are linguistically ill-equipped to participate in their education, how can they possibly realise their potential to enter the job market fully prepared?

In an effort to tackle this “language problem”, the government recently proposed a new policy framework – applicable to all public tertiary institutions. According to the draft of the Language Policy for Higher Education (2017), one purpose of the policy is to “ensure transformation in higher education through enhancing the status and roles of previously marginalised languages to foster institutional inclusivity and social cohesion.”

The state has come to view multilingualism as the essential mechanism by which an inclusive institutional environment can be developed. In its view, universities have failed at establishing this. 

The policy’s stated goal is to “enforce the use of all official South African languages across all institutional function domains” – scholarship, teaching, learning, and wider communication. A further priority is the promotion of “parity of esteem” of South Africa’s ten official indigenous languages in an effort to deliver on the provisions of the Constitution, granting citizens the right to receive an education in the official language of their choice in all public educational institutions, if this is “reasonably practicable”.

At face value, these proposed changes attempt a form of inclusivity that will enhance access to education, improve learning, and build knowledgeable workers who can contribute to the economy. However, while the Constitution aims to provide education in all official languages, it balances this goal with considerations of practicality, which naturally prompts the question: how feasible is this policy?

To my mind, the policy is unrealistic even if applied in a limited capacity by including only a select number of official languages – an approach many tertiary institutions are currently committed to. Extensive resources will be required for such a comprehensive development and integration of indigenous languages. To start with, interpreters, translators and language teachers must be hired to generate teaching material and linguistically upskill current staff.

Further, as the policy itself notes, the jargon of academic discourse does not exist in all official indigenous languages. Consequently, these languages require development through the expansion of African-language departments before existing material can even be translated.

Here’s the rub: how will the government fund these changes? It has already committed itself to expanding the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, despite expert opinion that this move is not financially feasible.

Nonetheless, universities are under pressure to meet the demands of government policies. In all likelihood, institutions will limit their own hiring options to academics already competent in the select African languages rather than spending time and money to upskill existing staff. An academic’s teaching and research skills will thus become secondary considerations, resulting in the loss of competent educators to overseas institutions because they can no longer find work in South Africa. Yet if the policy’s goal is to improve education, it is misguided to sacrifice overall academic skill at the altar of language ability.

The policy’s impractical formulation also blocks the achievement of one of its aims. As mentioned, universities have already made policy commitments to the integration of a select number of designated languages precisely because it is not possible to provide instruction in them all. For example, Wits University has selected Zulu, Sesotho, South African Sign Language, and English. The most popular languages in the university’s vicinity have been adopted as the designated languages because this benefits the greatest number of Wits students.

However, this “practicable” compromise means that the “parity of esteem” requirement isn’t met. Since only a select number of languages can realistically be integrated, these languages (and the cultures that go with them) are elevated above others that must necessarily be excluded. Universities will be setting the scene for cultural ties and group loyalties to become more entrenched.

If the majority of students at Wits speak Zulu, this will become their language of instruction. As a result, core academic engagement will take place in relation to people from their own culture because they will spend most of their time with one another. If we want to avoid cultural dominance of any kind and create a meaningfully “inclusive” environment – where people from different cultures consistently interact in a respectful and tolerant manner – it is not clear how the policy serves this goal.

Such governmental interference appears not only impracticable but potentially harmful. The benefit of a single language of instruction, which the Constitution explicitly keeps in play, is that it establishes a shared platform of communication, placing all cultures in the same room to talk to one another. A lack of English proficiency can be addressed with focused resources and provides students with the advantage of learning a language that has international traction, creating opportunities to compete overseas. If anything, the government must recognise and address its failure to provide the basic education necessary for English competence at the tertiary level.

Now is the time to knuckle down and get real about the tangible ways of providing quality education. We have to take economic constraints into account and cannot resort to further interventions propping up the pursuit of shallow “inclusivity” as the solution to all South Africa’s problems. History is rife with the unintended consequences of government involvement. In this case the cost will be a further crippling of our universities’ ability to educate and a further entrenchment of identity politics as cultures divide along the boundaries of language.

By Dioné Harley

Dr Dioné Harley is a freelance consultant, writer, and educator.

Courtesy: FMFSouthAfrica

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