Languages liberate and unify

The University of KwaZuluNatal's announcement last week that it would make the learning of Zulu compulsory from next year, has been hailed by many as a return of African languages to the educational centre, in a true post-colonial sense of the word.

But others have referred to this move as entrenching tribalism and Zulu hegemony The irony of the latter point of view should not be lost on a society that is politically free, yet chooses to remain within the realm of neo-colonial intellectual bondage. If we are not permitted (by our own doing) to think and learn in the languages that we understand best, our mother tongues, we are not free.

This suggests that the only language of thinking and intellectualising, the only language that is of any worth to us, is English. Though English is an important global language to which we must all have access, we need to see how our mother tongues can contribute to effective cognition before transferring to English. We must also see how these languages can assist with social cohesion through vocation-specific additional language courses.

Why would we want to learn an additional language at university? Universities worldwide encourage the learning of a language other than one's mother tongue. It broadens our horizons to include learning about a culture and identity that is not our own. It creates cultural awareness, sensitivity and tolerance.

This is important for South Africa - social cohesion still eludes us. Learning someone else's language also allows for better communication and less misunderstanding between people from various cultural and linguistic groups. So, a multilingual South African citizen will no doubt be a better citizen.

Vocation-specific second or additional African language courses are important at our universities. Whether they should be compulsory is another question. At Rhodes we have opted to allow departments and faculties to choose whether courses should be compulsory This brings us to how we should go about achieving intellectualisation by making use of all our languages in a mutually inclusive way.

At this point in our history the intellectualisation of African languages is an imperative if we are to develop the education system appropriately and respond to Minister of Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande's call to encourage the use of our languages as languages of learning and teaching, at the tertiary and basic education levels.

Neville Alexander states in his Thoughts on the New South Africa: "The case for the use and development of African languages as languages of tuition in tertiary education can be made in terms of a five-dimensional argument that relates the matter to (bio-cultural) diversity, (economic) development, (political) democracy, (human) dignity and effective didactics."

Alexander says it is necessary to intellectualise our languages at tertiary level so that teachers, who understand the notion of mother tongue and mother tonguebased bilingual education, can be fed into the Basic Education Department.

The intellectualisation and promotion of multilingualism needs to feed in from both sides of the education spectrum. The training of teachers by universities will assist the department to implement Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga's vision of a compulsory African language module by next year. The other prickly question concerns tribalism and language hegemony. This country's history is underpinned by language wars.

Today, the language war seems to be between the neo-colonial classes and those who wish to be intellectually liberated from our past bondage. We should not see multilingualism as a "problem", but rather as a rich educational and pedagogic resource to tap into to facilitate cognition and learning. Alexander says: "The language of tuition does not determine whether or not a course or a university is 'racist' or 'tribalist'. It is what is taught that is decisive."

Intellectualisation of our languages requires interventions at mother tongue and second language levels. When it comes to the teaching of African languages as second languages, then generic first additional language or second language courses do have their place. We need a more integrated social approach to the teaching of these languages.

Also, the development of vocation specific courses is vital at this time in South Africa's socio-political history But a linguistic fault line divides the haves and have-nots into a three-tier economic system based on citizens who are communicatively competent in English, those who have a partial knowledge of the language and those who speak no English.

We are still trapped by the linkages between apartheid ideology and our languages. When we want to promote the use of, and thinking in, our African languages we must ask how this is going to be different from apartheid's dark days.

The last thing one wants is to allow our languages to drag us back to tribalism and apartheid, which used our languages to divide and rule. Today we wish to use them to increase social cohesion and economic participation between different language and cultural groups, to improve cognition and understanding of content subjects in our education system by using the mother tongue, while at the same time allowing for successful transfer to additional language English. It is about putting the pupil first, not about ideology or linguistic hegemony.

By: Russel Kaschula

Russel Kaschula is professor of African language studies in the School of Languages & NRF SARChI Chair: Intellectualisation of African Languages, Multilingualism and Education, at Rhodes University.

Source: PRETORIA NEWS (Late Final)