Decolonialism rhymes with multilingualism

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Dr Hleze Kunju
Dr Hleze Kunju

By Tswelopele Maputla, fourth year Bachelor of Journalism and Media Studies student

Rhodes University’s language policy is based on the principles of ‘promoting multilingualism and the intellectualisation of African languages’. However, the language of teaching and learning in the University is English. This can constrain the process of learning for those who are not provisioned in it. 

To overlap a conversation on the relationship of language to learning, the Centre for Higher Education Research, Teaching and Learning (CHERTL) and the Language Committee held a multidisciplinary conversation on the use of languages in teaching and learning.

People of different language biographies and sectors of the University attended the dialogue on 23 August. The dialogue was an interdisciplinary one with speakers from the School of Languages, Economics Department and the Student Representative Council (SRC).

The first speaker, Dr Hleze Kunju made history last year by being the first person to write a PhD thesis in isiXhosa at Rhodes University. He noted that although the University is doing some work to empower African languages, there is still a long way to go. Dr Kunju currently supervises four Masters students in isiXhosa at the School of Languages & Literatures, but he believes it would be a great achievement for the University to have theses from other departments written in isiXhosa. “If you celebrate a thesis written in isiXhosa from the isiXhosa department it doesn’t make a lot of sense because that’s something that should’ve happened from the beginning,” he said. Having used multiple languages in his lectures at Sol Plaatjie University, Dr Kunju suggested that there is a need to establish a Languages Unit that is created specifically to deal with translating academic concepts and making lecture slides available in different languages.

“It’s a lot of work for us to expect African Languages to do that on top of their work load,” he said. “But if we do that we can have more success toward using languages as resources rather than barriers, resources to include students and empower them” he added.

To illustrate how multilingualism creates a vibrant environment in the classroom, Dr Kunju requested audience members to summarise their understanding of his talk in their home languages. People gave the summary of the talk in Afrikaans, isiXhosa, Sepedi and Yoruba which proved how much of a diverse and multilingual space Rhodes is.

Economics lecturer, Dr Juniours Marire shared the impact of a multilingual programme in the teaching and learning of Economics at first year level. The programme came about after students asked for the lecture material to be translated into isiXhosa. Marire soon realised that this problem is not unique to the Department of Economics and Economic History, as some Management students had gone as far as paying someone for translations.

“From a social justice perspective that means there’s a lot of burden imposed on them. They’re struggling students and they still have to find some resources to have people translate stuff for them,” Marire pointed out. To deal with the issue, the department opened an online forum for students to define economic concepts in isiXhosa. “Those who spoke the language we used in addition to English are the ones who derived benefit from this intervention,” Marire said. He added that other students didn’t find this helpful because they were not interested in a language that isn’t their own. “They thought it reversed the pace at which we were covering the syllabus,” he stated.

SRC academic counsellor, Siyabonga Malaza explored monolingualism as a barrier in academic spaces. Malaza touched on how students from previously disadvantaged communities are disempowered by the use of academic language and how concepts are conveyed. “They find it so difficult to keep up with the accent of the lecturer when they come to this University,” he said. Malaza added that the accent and confidence of students from former Model-C schools can affect the participation of those who haven’t occupied those spaces. “Those who don’t have a ‘good accent’ don’t participate because they think their intelligence is measured by their accent,” he lamented.

Phumelele Nkomozakhe, activism and transformation counsellor, spoke about the intersection of language and gender. On arrival at Rhodes University, students are welcomed with gender binaries of ladies and gentlemen. “We rarely speak about people who do not identify as a man or a woman and because society is so gendered, we always speak in binaries,” she said. Although Nkomozakhe advocates for the empowerment of African languages, she believes that we need to develop better terminologies for trans, queer and gender non-conforming people. “What dignified words do we have to identify members of the LGBTQI++ communities? The words that are there are derogatory,” she said.

Using responses from last year’s Transformation Summit, CHERTL and the Language Committee saw it fit to host this dialogue encourage an awareness of and sensitivity towards multilingualism in the institution.