Speaking of intellectualism

South Africa’s first and only dual-medium degree, the BA in contemporary ­English and multilingual studies (BA Cems) at the University of Limpopo, was the focus of a Mail & Guardian article last year (”With many tongues”, April 16 2010).

As two of those responsible for designing that degree we are pleased to say that, as a logical extension of it, we have introduced a one-year honours degree in applied ­language and multilingual studies this year. It was a response to the pleas from BA Cems graduates for a ­postgraduate qualification that would further their specialisation in ­multilingualism and, more specifically, multilingual education.

To contextualise this honours degree, it is useful to consider the spate of M&G articles that followed Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande’s recent call for every ­university graduate to learn at least one African language.

His position has been endorsed strongly by ­various scholars such as John Sharp, Sandra Klopper, Russel Kaschula, Thandeka Mapi and Nan Yeld.

However, their concern seems to be the value of non-African language speakers learning an African language for professional communication in vocations that require its knowledge to further national ­solidarity-building and cross-cultural reconciliation. The value of African languages for African identity has also been highlighted.

There is nothing new in the teaching of African languages as subjects or as additional languages at school. Although it is tragic that some African language-speaking pupils do not have the opportunity to develop their home language at school—because many, especially the former Model C schools, do not offer indigenous languages—it is even more tragic that African-language pupils are not using their home languages as mediums to access knowledge, express their understanding and apply that knowledge in their academic work.

What is missing from the debate is the strong form of ­additive multilingualism for which our national language policies argue, in particular the language in education policy (1997) and the national language policy for higher education (2002); that is, the use of African languages as mediums of instruction for the ­learning of content subjects.

In her M&G article Mapi pointed out that “African languages have never been given enough chance as languages of intellectualism”. Yeld (University of Cape Town) and Kaschula (Rhodes University) echoed this when they argued for the need to integrate African languages into professional courses such as health sciences, law and social development.

They described multilingual practices that have been initiated at their universities, but these, too, are meant for non-African language speakers and in our context that means coloureds, Indians and whites. So these initiatives do not address the need for African-language pupils to learn content in their own language, something that English- and Afrikaans-speaking students take for granted both at school and university.

In South Africa what is missing are ­university degrees in disciplines such as education and applied language studies that will produce bilingual and multilingual specialists to carry out the mandate of language both as a subject and a medium of instruction and of assessment, up to and beyond grade three. Without such specialists, who must be fluent users of African languages, there will be no agents to implement our progressive language policies.

There is nothing to stop universities from developing such specialist courses, which exist in English-only curricula, and for government to support them actively through funding, bursaries and recognition. But the reality is very different.

The proposed African language policy, it is said, will put additional pressure on ­universities that are already spending considerable time and energy on correcting the failures of the schooling system to prepare students for higher education.

On May 6 the M&G carried a ­photograph of a university with the caption: “Doomed to fail?” The caption reinforces a widely held perception that the learning of an African language is an expensive and time-consuming luxury, yet its absence in schools as a medium of instruction beyond grade three is acknowledged by educationists as one of the main causes of school failure.

So although we agree that coloured, Indian and white students should learn African languages to redress language inequality and for vocational purposes, it must not eclipse the more important need for black students to achieve their full academic and intellectual potential, while also gaining excellent access to English, through using their home languages for knowledge acquisition and dissemination.

Useful in this context is the distinction that Richard Ruiz, an ­eminent bilingual educationist, makes between three kinds of orientation towards indigenous languages: people see them as a problem, a right or a resource. It is the last of these—African languages as resources for intellectual and academic growth—that has been sidelined in the M&G‘s debate.

The BA honours degree in applied language and multilingual studies we started at Limpopo University is an exemplar of a postgraduate degree aimed at creating bi- or multilingual specialists who critique the view that African languages are a problem and develop the view that they are more than just a right: they are a resource or, in Mapi’s words, “languages of intellectualism”. This resonates with the long-standing call from the University of Cape Town’s Neville Alexander for the intellectualisation of African languages.

The inspiration for our BA honours degree, like that for the BA Cems dual-medium degree, is our belief that educational change does not have to be initiated by the entire spectrum of schools and universities at the same time. Such changes can be small and introduced wherever possible to serve as sites for reflection, debate and ­possible replication.

The honours degree is a one-year full-time programme offering four semester-long modules in bi- or multilingualism, including foundations of applied language studies, language, learning and social ­constructivism, biliteracy, theories and models of mother tongue-based bilingual education and research methods for bilingual-multilingual studies.

Students will be required to complete a research-based dissertation. The aim of the degree is to produce applied language scholars and multilingual specialists who will play a key role in ­promoting multilingualism in Africa through careers in areas such as language policy and planning and language education and research.

Professor Esther Ramani is the co-ordinator of the new Limpopo ­University honours degree and Dr Michael Joseph is a senior researcher in three language projects at the ­university. For more information, email [email protected]

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