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Language teaching ‘not just a political statement’

Date Released: Thu, 6 December 2012 09:00 +0200

Teachers and lecturers from as far afield as China, Ethiopia and Germany congregated at Rhodes University recently to share their experiences of teaching second or additional languages.

Dedicated to the late multi-linguist Prof Neville Alexander, the two-day colloquium (held from 30-31 October) focussed on language teaching in a multilingual context and was hosted by the School of Languages, the Confucius Institute and the Rhodes University Language Committee.

The HOD of the School of Languages, Prof Russell Kaschula says that multilingualism (ML) is a hot topic and there aren’t many conferences held to fully focus on it. Exchanging ideas, practices and different models of teaching languages in different contexts, there was an open exchange between the delegates to mutually benefit from their shared experiences.

“What we got [at the colloquium] was not just a political statement, but unpacking the practicalities of engaging with second language teaching abroad and on the continent.  What are the best practices across the different institutions and how these can inform our teaching of languages in the future,” says Prof Kaschula.

One of the keynote speakers was Prof Yanping Dong, who teaches Foreign Studies and psycholinguistics at Guangdong University in China. She focussed on how the brain forges new pathways while learning a new language and how this benefits brain functions on the whole. Professor Emeritus Ekkehard Wolff, also a keynote speaker, discussed a case study from Ethiopia where bilingual or dual media teaching is used in English and Afan Oromo.

Dr Pamela Mosoko, Ms Jeanne du Toit and Ms Bulelwa Nosilela represented a joint effort from African Language Studies and Journalism in promoting ML at Rhodes. Prof Kaschula believes that we still need to think out of the box and provide students with the option of being able to write theses in languages other than English. “Thinking best in the language you know best” he says has a distinct advantage in producing work of high quality.

An important point that was made is how important mother tongue tuition is, as learners are more likely to enrol and succeed through their parents communicating with their teachers. In Zimbabwe, mother tongue tuition is used in the early childhood phase and English is introduced later as a second language, or L2, as one of the subjects.

But because of a lack of resources, teachers often translate their own learning materials, which ended up being one of the conclusive suggestions towards the end of the conference, as many teachers are waiting for their respective governments to provide adequate materials.

Marijke du Toit’s paper on teaching history to UCT students using archival indigenous texts written in isiZulu- while the language was still developing - was another highlight. Prof Kaschula says this model is helpful in allowing students to engage with the texts in translation as well as in an indigenous language, which allows them to gain different points of reference on political issues present in a non-threatening way.

Prof Kaschula’s presentation centred on teaching isiXhosa oral poetry to second language students. Coining the termed technauriture, from David Coplan’s auriture (aural literature), this cross-disciplinary approach encompasses the fluid movement of oral poetry from auriture to digital media. 

“The emergence of technauriture in the form of contemporary poetry such as performance poetry, including rap, dub-poetry, slam and izibongo (Xhosa oral poetry) should form part of the poetic corpus when teaching second language African oral poetry in the twenty-first century. Such an approach moves between languages and spaces.”

Prof Kaschula says the current debate around the medium of instruction doesn’t negate the importance of English as it’s a matter of acquiring good English as well as thinking skills in your home language. In terms of the current traditional languages debate in South Africa, where it has been suggested that African languages should become compulsory subjects, the opinions expressed at the colloquium were mixed.

As Prof Kaschula says, “There is a difference between the practical and political implications of such a policy, as 100s of people would have to employed” as well monitoring whether the students have benefitted from the cultural and linguistic experience a few years down the line. “If they’re hostile about it, they won’t learn,” he says.

In terms of ML at Rhodes, Prof Kaschula feels great strides have been made since 2006 with quite a few vocation-specific courses in place, such as the isiXhosa courses for Law, Pharmacy and Journalism.

By Anna-Karien Otto