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Learning and language

Date Released: Tue, 4 June 2013 13:59 +0200

Using a mother tongue makes progress at school or university easier for students the University of KwaZulu-Natal's announcement that it will make it compulsory to learn Zulu at that university from next year has been hailed by many as a return of African languages to the educational centre, in a true postcolonial 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 neo-colonial intellectual bondage. If we are not permitted to think and learn in the languages that 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 should and 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 assist with social cohesion through vocation-specific additional language courses. Why would we want to learn an additional 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 that is 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 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 mother tongue 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 Minister of Higher Education and Training 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 was also necessary to intellectualise our languages at tertiary level so that teachers could be fed into the Basic Education Department, teachers who understood the notion of mother tongue 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 African-language 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 would 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 in order to facilitate cognition and learning, whether you as a teacher or pupil, are mono or multilingual.

Alexander wrote further: "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, I think, important points for us as a society to ponder.

Intellectualisation of our languages then requires interventions at both mother tongue and second language levels. When it comes to the teaching of African languages as second languages, then generic first additional language or second language courses do 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 South Africa's socio-political history.

There remains little evidence of a normalised, integrated, transformed, multilingual society, at least from a linguistic point of view Instead, what exists now is a "I inguistic fault line" which divides the "haves" and the "have-nots" 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 different language and cultural groups, to improve cognition and understanding of content subjects in our education system by using the mother tongue, while at the same time 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.

Picture Caption: CINDY WA)(A HELPING HAND: Teacher Aiuwani Tshabuse help pupils learning a subject in their mother tongue at the Roseneath Primary School in Parktown, Joburg. If we are not allowed to think and learn in the languages we know best, were are not free, says the writer.

Picture by: ALON SKUY

Russell Kaschula is a professor of African language studies in the School of Languages and NRF SARCh7 Chair: Intellectualisation of African Languages, Multilingualism and Education, at Rhodes University BOSS: Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande.

Source: The Star, Africa