/ 19 March 2020

Use African languages to promote learning

African languages graphic
(Graphic: John McCann)


To achieve the objective of a fully-fledged academy that is culturally sensitive, fosters locally sensitive knowledge production and overcomes the epistemic framework of Western scholarship, there needs to be a shift regarding how teaching and learning is executed.

This means addressing the culture inside classrooms and lecture halls. In my short career as a tutor I have been inspired by the teaching style of Dr Jacques de Wet, who incorporates multilingualism in his courses at the University of Cape Town. As a result, I have been motivating for the use of languages other than English in tutorials when students need to express themselves in the best way they know.

I have developed a deep appreciation for African languages, their value in teaching and learning (especially at first-year level) and their role as an instrument for social justice in the classroom by giving recognition to students’ insights.

The higher education sector is aware of the important role of African languages, but English retains its position as a yardstick for intellect, particularly among non-English speakers. This lingering high regard for the English language is largely because of our history as a country as well as the global status of English. For the majority of South Africans, the language still holds its dominant position in the current generation of primary and secondary school learners.

In my introductory first-year tutorials I ask students to state the number of languages they can speak. This allows them to, first, identify with one another and, second, become brokers and advocates for each other so that if I have not understood what is said another student can explain it to the rest of us.

I have learned that this encourages participation in tutorials and the barriers separating me from the students are dismantled. Their learning is enriched because participation becomes meaningful. The tutorial moves from being a hierarchical space, where knowledge dissemination is top-down, to one that is horizontal and knowledge is shared.

Another outcome is that students who only speak English develop an empathetic disposition towards students whose home language is not English.

My rational for introducing this approach in the tutorials I facilitate is based on the fact that students have been conditioned to society’s high regard for English. Black students who have attended under-resourced schools often assume positions on the margins at universities because they are under the impression that they cannot contribute to the knowledge sharing and inquiry process. What happens is a silencing that leads to feelings of being worthless.

Universities have invested in driving transformation to make the space more inclusive. We can contribute to this process by creatively moulding the teaching and learning space to be culturally sensitive.

The society we live in — even outside of the higher education context — gives preference to, and caters for English speakers. Being on the outside of this band of people can be alienating. I was subjected — and subjected myself — to silencing, because I regarded myself as one of those people who could not express themselves meticulously in English. I became a silent observer for most of my time in higher education.

Such feelings affect people’s confidence levels. They give rise to doubts and insecurities about one’s abilities and their place in the university and this can cause emotional stress and may interfere with learning.

Transformation, Africanisation, decolonisation — these processes are not going to result in tangible outcomes overnight. Language policy formation and implementation is happening incrementally. Scholars who can influence pedagogical and epistemological changes, no matter how insignificant it may seem, need to participate in this process.

The esteemed proponent of multilingualism, Neville Alexander, wrote that, to an extent, the lack of creativity, spontaneity and initiative that comes with people using a second or third language in important public domains predisposes the project of developing a distinctively African academy to one that is characterised by mediocrity or failure.

For me this means that in the advocacy and practice of the use of African languages, there needs to be intent and a forward-looking vision. Ultimately, the unapologetic use of African languages in the academy will show they are instruments to conceptualise and theorise with.

The ultimate goal is to enhance the development of epistemological traditions that will draw on African languages and the experiences of African people, as well as to enrich the academy with African knowledge traditions. Undertaking this project in classrooms in consultation with students is foundational in the bid to validate our history and experiences. By raising awareness among students about this project, they may participate and take pride in it.

Zimingonaphakade Sigenu is pursuing an MPhil in development studies at the University of Cape Town