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Evolving through language

Date Released: Tue, 4 June 2013 13:40 +0200

The University of KwaZuluNatal's announcement that it would make it compulsory to learn Zulu there from next year, has been hailed by many as a return of African languages to the educational centre, in a true post-colonial sense of the word.

However, others have referred to this move as entrenching tribalism and Zulu hegemony I guess the irony of the latter point of view should not be lost on a society that is politically free, yet chooses to remain within the realm of neo-colonial intellectual bondage.

If we are not permitted (by our own doing) to think and learn in the languages we understand best, our mother tongues, then we are certainly not free. This suggests that the only language of thinking and intellectualising, the only language that is of any worth to us, is English.

Talk about hegemony There is no doubt that English is an important global language to which we must all have access, but we need to see how our mother tongues can contribute to effective cognition before transferring to the often unattainable English. We also need to see how these languages can help with social cohesion through vocation-specific additional language courses. Why would we want to learn another language at university?

Perhaps we need to try to answer this simple question as a point of departure. Throughout the world universities encourage the learning of a language other than one's mother-tongue.

The reason for this is that it broadens our horizons to include learning about a culture and identity not our own. In doing so it also creates cultural awareness, sensitivity and tolerance. This is very important for a country such as South Africa where social cohesion largely still eludes us.

There is also the simple reason that learning someone else's language allows for better communication and less misunderstanding between people from various cultural and linguistic groups. For these simple reasons, a multilingual South African citizen will no doubt be a better citizen. Vocation-specific second or additional African language courses are important at our universities.

Whether they should be compulsory or not is another question. At Rhodes we have opted to allow departments and faculties to choose for themselves whether courses should be compulsory However, whether they should be on offer is not even a question in the new South Africa.

At Rhodes we now offer Xhosa for pharmacy, law and education (as electives that form part of the curriculum), whereas Xhosa for journalism (both at the mothertongue and second-language levels) has been made compulsory. The objective is to infuse Xhosa into university-wide curricula wherever appropriate with the future workplace needs of the student in mind.

This brings us to how we should go about achieving intellectualisation by making use of all our languages in a mutually inclusive way It can be argued that at this point in our history the intellectualisation of African languages is an imperative if we are to develop the education system appropriately and respond to Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande's call to encourage the use of our languages as languages of learning and teaching, at both the tertiary and basic education levels.

Neville Alexander, in his final and posthumously published intellectual offering, Thoughts on the New South Africa, states in this regard: "The case for the use and development of African languages as languages of tuition in tertiary education can be made in terms of a five-dimensional argument that relates the matter to (bio-cultural) diversity (economic) development, (political) democracy, (human) dignity and effective didactics."

In relation to didactics, it is also necessary to intellectualise our languages at tertiary level so that teachers can be fed into the Basic Education Department, teachers who understand the notion of mothertongue and mother tongue-based bilingual education, said Alexander. The intellectualisation and promotion of multilingualism therefore needs to feed in from both sides of the education spectrum.

The training of teachers by universities will assist the Department of Basic Education in also implementing Minister Angie Motshekga's vision of a compulsory African language module by next year. This brings one to the other prickly question of tribalism and language hegemony.

The history of this country is underpinned by language wars; between the English and the Dutch, the English and the Afrikaners, the Afrikaners and Africanlanguage speakers. Today, the language war seems to be between the neo-colonial classes and those who wish to be intellectually liberated from our past bondage.

In this regard, I'd like to caution against us seeing multilingualism as a "problem"; we should rather see it as a rich educational and pedagogic resource to tap into to facilitate cognition and learning, whether you as a teacher or pupil, are mono- or multilingual. Alexander states further that: "The language of tuition does not determine whether or not a course or a university is 'racist' or 'tribalist'. It is what is taught that is decisive."

And perhaps what we are exploring today at our universities is also how and why it is taught. These are important points. Intellectualisation of our languages then requires interventions at mother tongue and second language levels. When it comes to the teaching of African languages as second languages, generic first additional language or second language courses have their place.

However, there needs to be a more integrated social approach to the teaching of these languages. Furthermore, the development of vocation-specific courses is vital at this time in our socio-political history. There remains little evidence of a normalised, integrated, transformed, multilingual society, at least from a linguistic point of view What exists is a "linguistic fault line" which divides the "haves" and "havenots" into a three-tier economic system based on those citizens who are communicatively competent in English, those who have a partial knowledge of the language and those who speak no English at all.

At the back of our minds we are still trapped by the linkages between apartheid ideology and our languages. When we want to promote the use of, and thinking in, our African languages we need to also ask how is this going to be different from the dark days of apartheid?

The last thing one wants is to allow our languages to drag us back to tribalism and apartheid. In a nutshell, apartheid used our languages for the purposes of divide and rule. Today, we wish to use them to increase social cohesion and economic participation between language and cultural groups, to improve cognition and understanding of content subjects in our education system by using the mother tongue, while allowing for successful transfer to additional language English.

It is as simple as that. It is about putting the pupil first. It is not about ideology or linguistic hegemony. Being taught in your mother tongue and/or learning another language will not only make us better citizens, but better thinkers.

By Russell Kaschula

Russell Kaschula is a professor of African language studies in the School of Languages and NRF SARChl Chair: Intellectualisation of African Languages, Multilingualism and Education at Rhodes University. THE ANSWER: A greater familiarity with each others' cultures through multilingualism is likely to result in more empathy, open-mindedness and social cohesion.


Source: The STAR