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CityPress - - Voices - Voices@ city­press. co. za

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

PHOTO: LEON SADIKI

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

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