Debating multilingualism at higher education institutions

Debating the extent to which South African higher educational institutions have and ought to adopt multilingualism into their curricula, newly appointed Professor of Education at Rhodes University Michael Joseph presented “The access -diversity Issue in Multilingualism Education: Dichotomy or Dialectic?” at the second annual Rhodes University Multilingualism Colloquium recently.

As one of the leading national and international scholars on issues pertaining to multilingualism, education and identity today, Prof Joseph’s most notable achievement is in contributing to developing and establishing the first dual-medium degree in South Africa at the University of Limpopo.

Known as the BA Contemporary English language and Multilingual Studies, Sesotho sa Leboa is used as a medium of instruction and assessment along with English, a model where half the BA subjects are taught and assessed in the mother tongue and the other half are assessed and taught in English.

Subsequently this model has been selected as one of the top 10 innovative curriculum projects in South Africa Higher Education and was awarded a commendation at the National Excellence in Teaching and Learning Awards in 2011.

According to Prof Joseph, all forms of innovation are met with two possible reactions: ‘why should we?’, and ‘why not?’ In the hope that it will be the latter approach that predominates at Rhodes University, Prof Joseph said contemporary debates on African languages, however well intentioned, are limiting and need to move beyond identity-based analyses.

He said there are many examples of students not focusing on their identities but rather on knowledge production, using English and Sepedi interchangeably for the best learning outcomes.

Chairperson of the Rhodes University Language Committee and National Research Foundation SARChI Chair in the Intellectualisation of African languages, Multilingualism and Education in the School of Languages at Rhodes University, Professor Russell Kaschula said the event was established to “create a space for reflection and discussion on the role that languages more generally can play within the learning and teaching environment, as well as in transformation, identity and social cohesion within Higher Education and society more generally”.

Approximately 66 countries are represented on campus, including mother tongue speakers of 24 languages (many of them African languages)and approximately 1500 isiXhosa first language speakers.

According to Prof Kaschula, Rhodes is seen as a leading university in terms of language teaching and practice and has been recognised as such through the awarding of a Pan South African Language Board Award for promoting Multilingualism in 2008.

He said: “there is no doubt that there is still much work to be done to accommodate multilingualism as part of an effective strategy to learning and teaching at Rhodes University more generally.”

The colloquium aims to celebrate and highlight the importance of multilingualism at Rhodes University, and forms part of exciting new multilingualism developments such as the new school building.

The construction of the new school of languages building at a cost of R31 million, including R6 million pledged by Rhodes University. 

The School of Languages also received NRF Chair in the Intellectualisation of African Languages, Multilingualism and Education which began its operations this year.

Mr Simthembile Matyobeni, an Honours student in the School of Languages originally from Qumbu was awarded the prize for the winner of the multilingual short story competition that was organised by the Language Committee in conjunction with RMR and Activate.

Mr Matyobeni recently contributed to an anthology of poetry as well as to a short story collection, both to be published by UNISA Press.

Ms Karlien van der Wielen’s “The Humanities” received a highly commended nomination, alongside Mr Fundile Majola’s “The Debate” and Kerstin Hall’s “Words Were Always a Problem” that received commendations.

Professor Joseph holds a PhD in education and science from the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, India. He has lectured in India, the United Kingdom and at various universities in South Africa. He has headed up projects for the National Research Foundation and SANPAD at various universities, focusing on postgraduate throughput.

Photo by Kirsten Makin

By Sarah-Jane Bradfield