A history lecturer teaching a class about the history of the Xhosa people in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province stops speaking English for a few minutes. She switches to isiXhosa, the home language of nearly 80% of the Eastern Cape’s residents. Although she translates the phrases she is using, students in the class later complain that they felt excluded when she spoke a language they didn’t understand.
This is not a hypothetical scenario. It happened earlier this year in a lecture hall at Rhodes University in the Eastern Cape – and it proves just how reluctant some students at African higher education institutions are to embrace language as a resource. These students, who are often monolingual, cling stubbornly to the familiar comfort of English and don’t realise just how much they are short-changing themselves intellectually.
There are 11 official languages in South Africa. English comes in behind isiZulu, isiXhosa and Afrikaans as only the fourth most commonly spoken tongue. An estimated 2000 languages are spoken across the African continent.
Bearing these figures in mind, it is striking that African languages do not have pride of place at the continent’s institutions. Why are they sidelined in some many lecture halls and discussion groups? The answer lies in our collective history: colonialism made us look down on everything that is African. This includes our languages, cultures and religions.
But it is time to reclaim this space as part of the African transformation agenda. It’s hardly a radical notion – the rest of the so-called first world demands recognition of mother tongues. Germans teach and learn in German. The British learn in English. South Koreans learn in Korean. In Africa we learn largely through languages that are not our own, like English, French and Portuguese.
It is a myth to suggest that one is superior to another. What can be articulated, studied and negotiated in one tongue can be done in any other language. Now we need the political will to teach and boost different languages.
Taking big strides
There are changes happening in some South African universities. The University of KwaZulu-Natal has made isiZulu a compulsory first-year subject. At Rhodes University, journalism students must pass an isiXhosa for journalism course at either mother tongue or second language level.
Also at Rhodes, I have this year started teaching a language and society, or Ulwimi noluntu, course. The classes are conducted in English and isiXhosa concurrently. This space brings students back to the centre of the debate about the role universities serve in African society and what sort of graduates should be produced.
Students who are normally quiet in class now ask many more questions because they are allowed to do so in their mother tongue. Students will submit evaluations in the next few months and I am recording all of the lectures. I hope to use the course as a possible model for bilingual teaching.
The University of Limpopo’s bilingual course in English and multilingual studies, taught in Sesotho sa Leboa and English, is a shining example of how to bolster the status of African languages.
Elsewhere on the continent, Ethiopia’s Adama Science and Technology University uses Afan Oromo bilingually with English in its classrooms.
There is a lot more to be done
African universities need to identify key local languages as the media of instruction and encourage students to speak these at the level of a mother tongue. This is in the interests of better cognition and conceptual understanding, the core business of any university.
These languages should also be taught as second languages to bolster social cohesion between students from different linguistic and cultural groups across Africa.
This is a way to create real understanding and could help diffuse the sort of xenophobic violence that erupted again in South Africa in April.
Breaking down the barriers
History will judge African universities harshly one day when the youth of the time arise and ask: “Who gave someone the right to decide in which language and about which languages I should learn?”
Universities must work hard to undo the disconnect that’s been created between African people and intellectual thought. Research shows that you think best in your mother tongue. Negative attitudes towards multilingualism and multiculturalism are stopping us from using Africa’s own languages in prestigious domains like education and the sciences.
The discussion around language is actually about the transformation and Africanisation of the continent’s universities. We must identify how to use languages to re-establish the African voice in universities. This will require research and curricula that robustly engage with issues of transformation so that universities escape the trap of simply reproducing knowledge that already exists.