Rhodes University promotes indigenous languages through language colloquium

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Vice-Chancellor Professor Sizwe Mabizela, together with some of the organisers of the Language colloquium at the South African Museum of Literature.
Photo cred: Vususmzi Fraser Tshekema.
Vice-Chancellor Professor Sizwe Mabizela, together with some of the organisers of the Language colloquium at the South African Museum of Literature. Photo cred: Vususmzi Fraser Tshekema.


By Sylvia Mugagwa, LLB Penultimate Year Student

A vibrant and diverse group of academics, linguistic experts, language activists, students, and other members of the Rhodes University community converged on Friday at the Amazwi South African Museum of Literature. The University hosted the second day of the Colloquium on the Language Policy Framework for Public Institutions of Higher Education. Distinguished guests, Professors Monwabisi Ralarala, Esther Ramani and Michael Joseph attended the Colloquium.

The colloquium was organised by the NRF SARChI Chair for the Intellectualisation of African Languages, Multilingualism and Education at Rhodes University, Prof Dion Nkomo, in collaboration with Dr Hleze Kunju, Chairperson of the Rhodes University Language Committee, Anthea Adams and Masixole Booi from the Centre for Higher Education Research, Teaching and Learning (CHERTL).

Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs, Professor 'Mabokang Monnapula-Mapesela, gave a hearty welcome to the audience. She acknowledged the difficulties of language policy development in educational institutions. However, she said she viewed the colloquium as a space in which clear and implementable solutions would be provided to facilitate the development of a language policy that acknowledges and responds to the linguistic diversity of the Rhodes University student body and staff. 

The Department of Botany’s   Dr Tiffany Pillay delivered a presentation on “Using translanguaging as a support tool for undergraduate science: the Cell Biology case study”. Dr Pillay brought the audience’s attention to the large disparity between the requirements for student success at the undergraduate level and the actual capabilities of students when they enter their first year of study. She reflected, through the presentation of statistics, on the impact, the Covid-19 pandemic has had on students’ academic literacy. She expounded on how science writing has been vastly affected as it is a field that requires students to communicate precisely and rigidly. She thus exclaimed that “the narrative that science cannot be taught in any other language other than English is failing us”.

Pillay presented a case study on how members of the Botany department, particularly tutors and lab technicians, have started informally using translanguaging to help teach students cell biology. She emphasised how this has helped improve students’ understanding of scientific concepts and elevated their confidence when it comes to the subject. Dr Pillay proposed a formalisation of the implementation of translanguaging as a teaching technique through a proposed model of hybrid structured practical work. In her proposed model, practicals and practical reports in the cell biology module will be conducted and written in a strategic combination of English and IsiXhosa. She said: “The goal is to go beyond translation, as translation should be a form of support, not a solution. Home language should be used to facilitate cognitive understanding of the content in order to bridge the initial disparity between course requirements for success and student capabilities.”

The Institute for the Study of Englishes in Africa’s (ISEA) Dr Rethabile Mawela and Ntombekhaya Fulani talked about “Efforts made to redress the displacement of African indigenous languages from a position of power”. Dr Mawela said the very nature of the name ISEA reflected how the “use of the English language differs in the various contexts in which it is used across the continent and across the globe”. She said the contextual use of the language in Africa is largely influenced by indigenous languages. Fulani said: “Students’ inability to express knowledge in English does not mean they have no understanding of the imparted knowledge”.

She elaborated on how students often demonstrate a deeper understanding of concepts in their own language, and it was this acknowledgement that inspired some of the ways they redressed the issues pertaining to language in their Bachelor of Education (Honours) degree. She illustrated that in her English Language Teaching (in service) classes, they use translanguaging tasks where students can draw on their mother tongue or preferred languages to display a better understanding of the theories they have learned in the course. She then presented examples of students using various idioms and expressions from indigenous languages such as Setswana, isiXhosa, isiNdebele and Venda to explain theories by educational theorists such as Vygotsky, Piaget, etc. She acknowledged that though the programme is still in its infancy stage, it has had a great impact on students’ abilities to communicate their ideas clearly and confidently.

In her topic “Towards an Africa(n) centred psychology: a case for multilingual practice at a professional training institution”, the psychology department’s Nqobile Msomi, mentioned that trainee psychologists have a challenge communicating with diverse communities. She proposed that support should be provided to trainees in transferring psychotherapeutic practices into their practice with non-English speaking groups.  

Academic, theatre maker, story teller, playwright and performer, Selloane (Lalu) Mokuku and students from her applied theatre class demonstrated the use of Playback Theatre to advance epistemological transformation in teaching and learning contexts. Using applied theatre techniques, which are delivered without a predetermined storyline, Mokuku engaged the audience as ‘the storytellers’ and asked them to reflect and share their experiences at the colloquium and what it meant to them. A key component to the exercise was that they could express themselves in their preferred language, and her students (who were allocated the role of ‘the players’) would then physically re-enact and translate the reflections on stage. The exercise was met with great enthusiasm from the audience and several insightful and engaging reflections were shared.

Representing the Rhodes Language Committee in a collective engagement session, Dr Jeanne du Toit commented on the strong language consciousness amongst participants at the colloquium. du Toit lauded lecturers for showcasing the how and why in their case studies on multilingual pedagogies. These case studies demonstrated the importance of lecturers’ critical reflection on their practices and working collaboratively across the institution to put in place concrete and practical steps to use language as a resource. du Toit echoed Prof ‘Mabokang Monnapula-Mapesela’s challenge that everyone should think about how to move their own language from the margins of the university to the centre of the curriculum.

Expert observer, Prof Monwabisi Ralarala of the University of the Western Cape, highlighted an awareness of the importance of language and the culmination of a concrete language implementation plan that will lead to the urgent review of the Rhodes language policy as the two main outcomes of the colloquium. Amongst others, he emphasised that resources, timeframes and milestones and accountability through monitoring and evaluation will be needed for the implementation of such a language plan. Reflecting on the main opportunities and challenges of the colloquium, Ralarala reiterated the need for deliverables such as the establishment of a Language Centre to move beyond a policy in name only. He encouraged the Rhodes community to continue showcasing exemplars of how language is used to promote and protect, transform and decolonise and support students’ epistemological access and success.