history lecturer teaching a class about the history of the Xhosa people in the Eastern Cape 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 uses, students in the class later complain that they felt excluded when she spoke a language they did not 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 do not 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 2 000 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 so 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 is 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.
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 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 (Northern Sotho) and English, is a shining example of how to bolster the status of African languages.
Elsewhere on the continent, Ethiopia’s Adama Science
LANGUAGE AS A RESOURCE Mam Cirha and Mam Tolo with the Vezubuhle cultural group from Cendese during the 90th birthday celebrations of Nelson Mandela in 2008 in Qunu, Eastern Cape