Abstract: Kathleen Heugh

Southern Multilingualism and Diversities: a South African perspective

Kathleen Heugh  


After 150 years of imagining homogeneity (cf. Anderson 1983), the recent revival of an interest in multilingualism in the North Atlantic zone is a matter of curiosity to those who have engaged with linguistic diversity in southern contexts, such as South Africa. This interest, in multilingualism and multilinguality as the ‘new linguistic dispensation’ (Singleton et al. 2013) or as ‘the multilingual turn’ (May 2014) coincides with a change in the balance of economic dominance of the north to the global south (A T Kearney 2014). The turn towards the south has also drawn increasing interest in the prospects of ‘southern theory’ (Connell 2007), southern epistemologies (e.g. Comaroff and Comaroff 2012, Santos 2012), and ‘decoloniality’ (Mignolo 2011).

As 21st century changes in economic and political power cause disruption we may expect jostling over competing epistemologies of north and south. The first purpose of this paper is to introduce a southern perspective to multilingualism and diversity. In order to do this, multilingualism will be traced through different historical understandings and experiences in literature of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. This history reminds us that knowledge of linguistic diversity comes from this continent. It also signals that northern assumptions of the south are ahistorical and theoretically flawed. The second purpose is to show how the discourses of multilingualism have been appropriated from Africa and Asia into northern discourses, then recast and returned to Africa in ways that no longer reflect their origins. Collaboration with the (post-) colonial enterprise involves amnesia and purchase of theories of southern deficit. These are illustrated in the debates of multilingual education and multilingual policies that assume northern intellectual supremacy despite 140 years of practice and expertise in Southern Africa. This will be followed by a discussion of contemporary practices of multilingualism (e.g. ‘translanguaging’) which are currently fêted in northern contexts. Such practices are well-known and well-used in South African education, but hitherto regarded as illegitimate practices. It is time for educators in South Africa and other southern contexts to reclaim ownership of their expertise in practices of multilingualism, and to reassert voice and agency in the contemporary discourses of multilingualism and multilingual education that circulate in northern contexts. What few South Africans recognise is how far the debates in this country have travelled elsewhere and how these are leading towards multilingual policies in education in many countries of South and South East Asia.


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A T Kearney Global Policy Council. Economic Shift from Global North to Global South. Viewed 27/09/14


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Mignolo, W 2011. The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options. Durham: Duke UP.

Santos, B de S 2012. Public Sphere and Epistemologies of the South. Africa Development, Vol. XXXVII, No. 1, pp. 43 – 67.

Singleton, D, Fishman, J, Aronin, L, and O'Laoire, M (eds) 2013. Current multilingualism: A new linguistic dispensation. Contributions to the sociology of language, 102,339-372. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.


Last Modified: Mon, 27 Jul 2015 09:20:45 SAST