Sunday Times

Varsity language policy bombs

Researcher finds that language policy at UKZN is not working


● When University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) student Nombuso Cele* chose to do Zulu in her first year, she thought it would be a sure-fire way to boost her marks.

But instead, the criminolog­y and forensic studies student, now in her final year of study, was left gobsmacked after she failed dismally and was forced to drop the module.

“I am Zulu-speaking so I expected things to be easy,” said Cele.

The 22-year-old is among the many students that associate professor Mike Murray believes opted for Zulu as a “soft course” because it’s their mother tongue.

Murray’s research found that “by choosing to take what [for Zulu speakers] would be a soft option course in Zulu, they are not performing as well as they could have in their other subjects ...” It found that students’ overall marks dropped 3% as a result of the language policy.

In his paper, titled “The unintended consequenc­es of learning a new language at a South African university”, Murray argued that students like Cele are likely to secure better overall marks if they choose modules aligned with their courses.

The research paper — published in scientific journal Plos One last week — examined the academic performanc­e of more than 48,000 students enrolled for a degree at UKZN in 2014, the year the language policy was introduced.

The policy compels all non-Zulu-speaking students or students who did not do Zulu in matric to complete a six-month course in Zulu when they enrol at the university.

Cele said she struggled to pass the module in her second year because she thought the module would be “easy” and often skipped lectures.

48,062 THE SAMPLE size used in the research

“It wasn’t the same as the Zulu we learnt in school, it was much harder,” she said.

Murray’s contention rang true for thirdyear English literature and classics student Megan Raftery who, despite passing Zulu with flying colours, found it difficult to structure her academic programme.

“It limited the number of electives [subjects you can do outside of your field of study] I could take, without actually giving me any meaningful skills,” said Raftery.

Both Cele and Raftery agreed there’s value in learning one of the most spoken languages in the province but felt there’s room for improvemen­t in how it is taught.

“It made me even more confused about my own language and I still can’t use it proficient­ly in academic work,” said Cele.

“The Zulu module did not help with conversati­onal Zulu, beyond greetings and asking how people are. The rest of the module was focused on vocabulary and grammar.”

Professor Langa Khumalo, director of the university’s language planning and developmen­t office, said it was important to look at student attitudes towards learning an African language and how that might affect their marks. “There are some students who look at it and say it is a language course so I will attend half the classes,” said Khumalo.

“The problem with statistics is that they don’t take into account the attitude.”

Murray, in his research, also suggested the university consider offering English as a compulsory language to help English second-language speakers.

“Because Zulu home-language speakers are also underperfo­rming significan­tly ... perhaps the source of this problem relates to a lack of proficienc­y in English which is being used as a medium of instructio­n for all their other courses at UKZN,” said Murray.

“To mitigate against this unintended consequenc­e, perhaps the language policy at this university needs to be adjusted so as to include compulsory bridging courses in English for Zulu home-language speakers to help them overcome the language barrier that they are being confronted with,” he said.

*Not the student’s real name.

It made me even more confused about my own language and I still can’t use it proficient­ly in academic work ‘Nombuso Cele’

 ??  ?? Megan Raftery
Megan Raftery

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