Embracing Africa’s languages

Professor Russell Kaschula, Head of the School of Languages at Rhodes, opened his inaugural lecture last week by referring to a Sunday Times headline, 'Saving the Rhino, One Bullet at a Time', which he paraphrased to 'Saving our Linguistic Heritage – one language at a time'.

His lecture, entitled Challenging the Forked Tongue of Multilingualism – scholarship in African languages at South African Universities with specific reference to Rhodes, highlighted his passion for African languages. Prof Kaschula spoke isiXhosa before he spoke English.

Language, he believes, should be viewed as a natural resource, one which he likens to the natural environment. Languages can be endangered, and it is estimated that, of the 6000 languages currently spoken, a full 50% will be lost by the end of this century, a stark reduction in the diversity and heterogeneity of our planet. 

Language Planning in South Africa is a National Government initiative intrinsically linked to the creation of social cohesion.  While many universities, including Rhodes, have a Language Policy, very few have successful implementation plans, a situation Prof Kaschula is determined to change, “Arguably the Forked Tongue of Multilingualism allows for paper policy and little more, thereby encouraging language death – unless we collectively take over the implementation process.”

For the increasingly heterogeneous student population of this country, African languages are “important in affirming an identity that has been undermined by dominant societal and institutional systems.” Arguing that no learner should leave school without some fluency in an African language, he also proposes that what is needed at universities is intersection, not opposition, and reassurance that the visibility of African languages is not being encouraged at the expense of English.

Language and culture are vital elements in the challenge to make students feel that they belong, and in helping them to negotiate that sense of belonging. A step which has not yet been embraced by the Government, but which Prof Kaschula regards as indispensable, is the learning and teaching of African Languages as mother-tongues.

Here at Rhodes University, figures show that 40% of students do not have English as their mother-tongue; in Grahamstown as a whole that figure rises to 80%, an accurate microcosm of the Eastern Cape demographic.

A university needs to be located within the society in which it operates, and Rhodes therefore will increasingly have a student population mother-tongues other than English. Given the demographic, the majority will be isiXhosa speakers.

The Rhodes Senate adopted a Language Policy in 2005, and in 2011 the Rhodes University Language Committee was formed and yet, asserts Prof Kaschula, there is still no clear implementation plan in place. The policy includes the stipulation that students should have appropriate academic literacy in English, which is the language of teaching and learning, and staff and students are to be encouraged to speak an African language to participate fully in the multilingual South African society.

Additional requirements are the teaching of, and in, isiXhosa, i.e. scholarship in the mother tongue; the offering of support in languages other than English; and the development of indigenous languages to ensure they can meet the demands placed on them in an increasingly globalised and technological world.

The School of Languages has the task of implementing the Rhodes University Language Policy, which it has taken on enthusiastically. At this point, isiXhosa classes are being run in Pharmacy, Education and Law, with Journalism and Psychology discussing their implementation.

Discipline -specific language courses to equip students with basic non-mother tongue skills are vital at this time in South Africa's socio-political history, Prof Kaschula believes, and added that, “the implementation of this policy is my vocation in life.” A measure of his success is that African Language studies have grown substantially between 2006 and 2010, a fact which had him beaming at his audience and stating, “I feel very excited about that actually!”

Closing his lecture with a number of suggestions for the way forward in implementing and nurturing language diversity, Prof Kaschula noted that, “University scholars need to be language activists, and I will ensure that we continue to champion our quiet revolution, creating space for all languages at Rhodes University, and African Languages in particular.

”The road to multilingualism is a forked one – let us take the appropriate fork in the road to truly transform the continent to educationally serve all of its peoples. All of South Africa's languages are my languages – let us embrace them even if we do not speak all of these languages. They are part of our heritage.”

Story by Jeannie McKeowin



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