/ 26 May 2017

English only at varsity is not a remedy

(John McCann)
(John McCann)

Much has been written about last year’s ground shift in higher education. Universities responded to calls to reconsider the extent to which curriculums are Western in their orientations ­— whether in terms of content or epistemological framing.

In some institutions, language policies have changed to reflect a recognition and development of African languages under the broader ambit of multilingualism.

In Afrikaans-medium institutions, particularly the universities of the Free State, Pretoria and Stellenbosch, policy change has been motivated as responses to calls to decolonise the curriculum and to enable wider access.

English is often motivated as a language of access on the basis that most second-language speakers who might have an African language, or indeed Afrikaans, as a home language will very likely have English as a second language, thanks to our schooling system.

The language-for-access argument has also been stretched to become a language-for-inclusion argument, because English is a “universal” second language in South Africa — yet the South African Institute of Race Relations statistics show that the number of speakers with English as home language has not increased over the past 20 years. Thus using English based on the rationale that it is more inclusive is belied by the experiences of black students and staff protesting about the absence of inclusion at institutions such as the universities of the Witwatersrand and Cape Town. English is not culture-free.

At the other extreme, a coterie of voices has argued, again from mostly Afrikaans-medium institutions, that the introduction of English is a relegation of rights explicitly granted in the Constitution — the right to education in one’s home language and the right to express oneself in one’s own language. Though institutional leadership bodies such as senates and university councils have motivated for the use of English as a way to provide for equity and increasing diversity, groups in and outside these institutions (such as Solidariteit and Afriforum) have protested about the perceived diminution of Afrikaans as an academic language for teaching, learning and research.

Former North-West University (NWU) vice-chancellor Theuns Eloff has described the implications of this diminution, arguing earlier this year in the Volksblad that Afrikaans would be extinguished as a language used at universities within eight years, nationally, and specifically at the NWU — where he lauds the NWU Potchefstroom campus as an “Afrikaans” campus under threat from its own vice-chancellor’s restructuring initiatives — within five years.

The arguments are fallacious and very “old” South Africa. Afrikaans, much like isiZulu or Venda, does not need institutions to survive, let alone thrive in the broad range of print and other media available. We do not need universities to become mini-ethnolinguistic Bantustans, whether for Afrikaans or any other language.

That it is convenient and that access to a home language as a medium of instruction aids learning goes without saying. But, for the vast majority, access to that convenience has never been a possibility, and in the first 20 years of our modern South Africa, despite protest and a wealth of research to demonstrate the contrary, such access (real access) remains elusive for two reasons.

Our teacher-education programmes, as offered by our universities, do not require competence in an African language that, irrespective of subject area, would enable a teacher, at worst, to practise multilingual pedagogies (also called “translanguaging”) or, at best, to develop an active biliteracy sufficient to enable the child in the school and the student at the university to use his or her home language to support successful learning.

A second reason real access is not enabled is universities do not, with the exception of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, make mandatory the use and development of African languages in professions such as nursing, law, education, psychology, where it is obvious that the future clientele are not likely to consist only of English-literate middle-class people. For as long as our school system and teachers do not know how to gain access to the home literacies of children, and our universities cannot access the language worlds of our students as part of their curriculum (in terms of content and in terms of epistemology), real access remains elusive, as do related aspirations.

How do you “include” students in a sense of institutional ownership and participation if the language of the classroom is both “second” and “second-best”, and if the academics themselves cannot know and do not know themselves how to shift between the biliteracies of home and additional languages?

And how do you deal with the chronic “challenge” of student under-preparedness in the context of inadequate literacy development in the home, let alone additional language throughout schooling, unless the teacher is able to “translanguage” in a scientific and pedagogically sound manner in the primary school, or have sufficient literacy in English to be able to teach English as a language in a subject area throughout secondary schooling, to make that transition a smoother one to the university?

Even as a first-language speaker of English, literacy in that language was never developed by my science teacher and I too had to take academic literacy courses in English as a student in our higher education system. If academic literacy is difficult even for mother-tongue speakers of English or Afrikaans, by what stretch of the imagination do universities (or schools) think that introducing English as the only medium of instruction will be more equitable or inclusive?

The introduction of English at the University of the Free State or the University of Stellenbosch has not made those institutions feel more welcoming for black students or members of staff there. Nor has this happened at traditionally English-medium universities such as the universities of Cape Town and the Witwatersrand.

Why? Because language is a part of culture and without the inclusion of our languages — in higher-education academic programmes specifically — the development of intercultural awareness (inclusion in the “real” sense) will not happen and universities will not feel like South African spaces, biliteracy development will not happen, and neither will improved literacy and performance rates. Wake up, South Africa, please.

Professor Robert Balfour is the dean of the faculty of education ­sciences at North-West University