The way French is taught in South Africa offers lessons in decolonisation

The influence of countries in francophone Africa, like Ivory Coast, have shifted how universities think about the French language. Reuters/Luc Gnago

French has been taught and learned in South African classrooms for decades, even though it isn’t one of the country’s official languages. The language doesn’t carry the same colonial stigma as it does in other African countries such as Côte d'Ivoire and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In these countries people’s relationship with French is often fraught as a result of France and Belgium’s colonial history.

South Africa’s relationship with the language has gone through a number of changes over the past 30 years. During apartheid, French was offered exclusively at white schools and universities. Its main thrust was the study of literary texts from the French canon – the imagined linguistic, cultural, and disciplinary “centre”. As a result its status was elite and perceptions about it were Eurocentric.

Perceived as linguistically and culturally “exotic”, attitudes towards French started to change after apartheid as South Africa opened up to Africa and the rest of the world. The increased presence of migrant Francophone Africans in South Africa, principally from the DRC, added to this understanding. The changing profile of academics and students at South African universities has also helped to reshape the identity of French studies.

It’s true that French and other modern languages occupy a relatively minor place in the South African academy. But shifts in the way the language and its literatures are taught provide interesting insights into debates on decolonisation in education. These include the kind of texts that are taught, the way they are taught and the evolving notion of what constitutes a text.

Changing times

The teaching and learning of modern languages has conventionally been structured around a nation’s cultural traditions and language. This means that historically the focus was on France’s traditions, its literary canon and language norms.

Over the past 20 years, this methodological nationalism has been supplanted by what’s known as transnationalism. This approach considers the economic, political and cultural processes that extend beyond the boundaries of nation-states.

As an emerging research agenda, transnationalism attempts to respond to globalisation, migration and virtual forms of cultural exchange. It challenges the idea that identities are attached to discrete territories.

In South Africa, this shift has happened alongside calls to decolonise and transform curricula. The discipline of French and francophone studies offers an example of how the transnational can be applied in academia. And, more generally, it suggests how teaching, learning and reading cultures can be democratised.

New reading cultures

The terms Francophone (a speaker of French) and Francophonie have been used to map out newer disciplinary territories and approaches in the field of French Studies.

Debates around Francophonie, broadly used as a marker for post-colonialism and cultural diversity, clearly resonate with the South African project of decolonisation and democratisation. Within this framework of values, Francophone literature in South African academic programmes is consciously being (re)positioned to promote a sense of belonging to the African continent.

This has led to a strong representation of francophone African literature and a shift in how texts are selected. Texts are chosen less as examples of high cultural production and representation and more through the principles of identification and authenticity. They aim at shedding light on the reader’s own culture through an intercultural dialogue with the text. This kind of inclusiveness is evident in the focus on tropes such as class, identity, gender, race and migration which reinsert the text into social contexts and current debates.

Traditionally, approaches to literature have been highly scripted, and have assumed that the roles of teacher and student remain stable and distinct. For example, the French tradition of teaching literature has always been text-centred and formal.

But research points to the advantages of democratising classroom practices. This involves shifting from text-centred to learner-centred approaches. A learner-centred approach, which involves the teacher acting as a facilitator, is widely practised in language education. She takes on a less prescriptive role in engaging and encouraging discussion. There’s enormous learning value in this.

The literary text still plays a central role in the field of modern languages. But the meaning of what constitutes a text has also undergone radical change. The explosion of Media Studies as a discipline speaks to the proliferation and diversification of the cultural archive. This extends beyond the literary field to include participatory modes of cultural production, such as social media, the hypermedia novel and e-poetry.

These practices are challenging the very notion of the text and author as fixed entities inscribed within national traditions.

Lessons from modern languages

French is no longer perceived and taught as a European language representative of “French” culture in South Africa. New modes of teaching, learning and research speak to an inclusive Africanist – and globalised – agenda. Within this transnational paradigm, speaking French would equip learners to become multilingual, global citizens.

The French language is no longer bound to one culture or territory, but seen as another resource in an individual’s skill set. Similarly, the literary text is no longer seen as a cultural “monument”, but an instrument to stimulate critical thought, personal awareness and dialogue.

The broadening of the scope and range of texts taught, and the focus on the reader and learner in the reading process, signals a significant democratisation of the discipline. This is embedded in the collective project of decolonisation, given the European heritage of the discipline and its historically normative teaching approach.

In this way, modern languages can provide valuable examples to other disciplines rethinking their curricula and teaching and learning cultures.