Rhodes University seek ways to preserve African languages and promote multilingualism

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Political and International Studies Head of Department, Dr Siphokazi Magadla, during the colloquium. 
Photo cred: Vusumzi Fraser Tshekema.
Political and International Studies Head of Department, Dr Siphokazi Magadla, during the colloquium. Photo cred: Vusumzi Fraser Tshekema.

By Zindzi Nkunzi

Last week, Rhodes University hosted a two-day colloquium on the Language Policy Framework for Public Institutions of Higher Education. The colloquium was organised by the NRF SARChI Chair for 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).

Academics from different departments and external speakers converged at the Amazwi South African Museum of Literature to unpack and initiate alignment between the main imperatives in the framework and institutional policies and practices. According to Anthea Adams, the colloquium was a platform for staff and students to explore the institution’s responsibility, agency, and accountability in implementing directives in the framework.

“We want to consider existing language practices and initiatives to use language as a resource in key academic activities such as teaching and learning, institutional governance, management, administration and support services. We also want to explore ways in which stakeholders could apply theories and insights on multilingualism to inform pedagogical practices such as curriculum development and facilitate meaningful student learning and experiences,” said Adams.

In highlighting the demand for multilingualism and recognising the importance of using African languages, Faculty of Pharmacy’s Dr Carmen Oltmann and Gcobisa Ngodwane reflected on the success story of their initiative called 'IsiXhosa for Pharmacy' elective, which prepares third-year students for the Community Engagement Programme. Ngodwane outlined the importance of isiXhosa in the professional world. “Health care professionals mostly operate in multilingual spaces where they are bound to deal with patients from diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds. Patients will come from different linguistic backgrounds; communication can be challenging when information is only given in English.” 

In an effort to decolonise education through providing multilingual teaching and developing resources in African languages, various departments such as Pharmacy, Economics, Politics and International Relations, Drama and Education, among others, have collaborated with the School of African Languages and Literatures in a project called 'BAQONDE' (Boosting the use of African languages in education: A Qualified Organised National Development strategy for South Africa). The programme is funded by the European Union and aims to facilitate and promote the use of indigenous African languages for teaching and learning at higher education institutions in South Africa. According to the Rhodes project lead, Prof Dion Nkomo, this is one manner in which the objectives of the Language Policy Framework for Public Higher Education Institutions is advanced. 

In her presentation on teaching and assessing International Relations in isiXhosa, Political and International Studies Department’s Prof Siphokazi Magadla expressed that interventions such as BAQONDE serve as the motivation to translate course outlines into isiXhosa and allow students to write or translate their tutorial assessments into their native languages. Magadla reminded institutions to understand and recognise that some students find it difficult to understand content in English.

A representative from the Economics department, Dr Juniours Marire said they have been trying to utilise language as a resource for understanding concepts in Economics. He highlighted the social injustices of current and past practices where students struggling with English would find tutors to translate their notes at high costs. The department started looking into ways to introduce multilingual approaches when teaching and learning Economics.  “In trying out different interventions, we were trying to, in a small way, mitigate some of those language-related injustices in the learning process,” he explained. Dr Marire said initiatives such as translanguaging and multilingual orientations have the potential to make Rhodes University a more inclusive and transformed learning environment for all staff and students.