Curriculum Conversation 5

African Languages and Curriculum Transformation

Drs Pamela Maseko and Dion Nkomo and Ms Bulelwa Nosilela offered their perspectives on African languages and curriculum transformation at Rhodes University. As relatively new fields of study, African languages have had an interesting and complex historical trajectory. African languages have been devalued since the time of the British and Dutch occupations in the seventeenth century.

Transformation issues related to African languages, particularly in the context of a traditional, historically white university, are equally complex and in some ways surprising.  With the advent of democracy in SA in 1994, there was a surge of interest from students who wanted to study African languages. However, since then student numbers have once again dropped sharply, reasons for which are unclear.  Increasing the number of students in these fields is crucial if we wish to encourage South Africans to value African languages both as domestic and academic discourses. It is crucial to encourage first and additional language speakers to study these languages.

Even though the legislative context in South Africa is enabling for the further development of African languages in the academic domain, it seems difficult for academics and students to disconnect from the legacy of the past. This legacy continues to privilege the use of English as sole or primary medium of teaching and learning across higher education institutions.  

Barriers to communication in isiXhosa

Lecturers teaching isiXhosa at Rhodes are challenged to help students overcome their reluctance and embarrassment to speak isiXhosa in class. This barrier is addressed by reassuring students that they may speak any dialect they are familiar with. Once students understand that multiple varieties of the language are embraced in the classroom, they engage enthusiastically. The next challenge is  to enable students to use the more formal academic register when they write isiXhosa assignments.

Students initially shy away from discussing matters related to African culture in isiXhosa classes. What they initially perceive as taboo topics for discussion in a multi-cultural context, are soon recognised as practices and values that are in reality shared by most cultures, albeit in different guises. Student discomfort in speaking isiXhosa in class is a feature of these classes.  Dr Maseko reiterated, “The challenge is how to get mother-tongue speakers to value the knowledge embedded in their own languages”. Much of this discomfort stems from the dominant white, English culture at Rhodes which does not encourage the valuing of African languages and cultures.

isiXhosa for teaching and learning in professional programmes

The Division of African Languages in the School of Languages teaches isiXhosa to students in a number of professional and vocation-specific programmes including Education, Law, Pharmacy and Journalism. Even though it should be patently clear to future professionals that it would be advantageous to communicate with clients in their primary languages, many are still unwilling to acquire a level of proficiency in order to engage in a rudimentary conversation with isiXhosa speakers. It is thus clear that much work still needs to be done at Rhodes to change attitudes and actively embrace multi-lingualism and multi-culturalism.

The intellectualisation of African languages

Since the early 2000s, lecturers from African Languages have been working on an isiXhosa intellectualisation project. Missionaries were the first to record isiXhosa in writing and analysed its structure as well as its ability to generate words for new ideas and inventions. Despite this linguistic capacity, isiXhosa has not developed as a language for academic communication.  Researchers across the country as well as staff members in African Languages at Rhodes are doing ongoing research and development work in this regard.  The first academics to teach African languages in universities were not native speakers of the languages; nor were they necessarily language specialists. These languages were first taught as part of Anthropology and through the medium of English.  The dominant mode of language teaching has been structural,   following the way Latin was taught and learned. This means that students are often expected to learn, inter alia, lists of noun classes, verb forms and formal grammar. Most students find this alienating and thus give up before they are able to master simple conversations. At Rhodes, storytelling, poetry and relating language usage to personal histories are used as language teaching methods with encouraging results. Dr Maseko shared an innovative example of how the concept of relating the multilingual self to language through poetry is used in their classes. This method is a far cry from the traditional structural approach to language teaching. A safe space is created where students are encouraged to work through their own sense of discomfort.

Post-presentation discussion

In the post-presentation discussion it was suggested that a way of teaching needs to be developed that forms a bridge between the standard or received form of the language and the more colloquial conversational forms of isiXhosa. It  is clear that much work still needs to be done to transform the Rhodes culture and to develop an enhanced and broader understanding of the social, cultural and political value of learning to speak and write African languages. In essence, language should not be used for exclusion and alienation in a context that truly values transformation. The audience was challenged to reflect on the potentially devastating effects of alienating students from their own languages, from who they are and from the “self that is you”. 

By: Dr JoAnne Vorster and Dr Mel Skead

Source:  Dr JoAnne Vorster and Dr Mel Skead