Author: Samantha Carolus
The Centre for Higher Education Research, Teaching, and Learning (CHERTL) hosted an online conversation on Wednesday the 15th of September 2021 for academics, students, and staff interested in using language as a resource for teaching and learning. Chairperson of the Rhodes University Language Committee and Senior lecturer in the School of Languages department, Dr Hleze Kunju, facilitated the event, which focused on the student-lecturer partnership. Participants were invited to share their experiences and creative ways of using translanguaging in the context of online teaching and learning. Pedagogically, translanguaging implies that lecturers purposefully draw on their students' linguistic resources, (e.g. their knowledge and skills of languages and their different varieties) to simultaneously use more than one language for meaning-making in learning contexts.
Dr Hleze Kunju reminded everyone of Professor Ekkehard Wolff's caution that "Africa failing to address linguistic imperialism". There seems to be a lack of willingness across the African continent to address linguistic plurality and diversity. Despite its diverse and multilingual character, the failure of higher education institutions to use students' home languages as resources for learning has detrimental results, such as high dropout and retention rates. Representing the student voice, Lukhanyisa Cezula, Community Engagement Counsellor in the Student Representative Council (SRC), expressed his appreciation for opportunities where participants can share their experiences and ideas on embedding language diversity in curricula at university. Several students referred to their own experiences of translanguaging in the academic context. SCR President, Leboghang Nkambule, commended the Department of Political and International Studies for their translanguaging initiatives and their impact on students' learning and their overall university experience. "If we can start moving towards using language [as a resource], we can somewhat close the gap of alienation within our sector".
Short video clips depicted bright-eyed Foundation Phase school learners with broad smiles effortlessly skipping, dancing and singing along to the isiXhosa and English songs in the bilingual book, Umculo Wam Iklasi Yam, My Music, My Classroom. This empowering teaching and learning tool for both teachers and learners is one of the many bilingual and translanguaging resources created by Dr Boudina McConnachie. McConnachie, a lecturer in the department of music and musicology and a participant in the prestigious national Teaching Advancement in Universities (TAU) programme, shared practical strategies and approaches of translanguaging to support her students' learning. Identifying as someone still learning isiXhosa, McConnachie noted lecturers' and students' anxiety and vulnerability when not truly understanding languages spoken to them or around them. This anxiety sparked her interest in encouraging students to participate and present work in their preferred languages. It has also culminated in pedagogical innovations and research by McConnachie that includes a podcasting series (Afroloops), community engagement projects and peer-reviewed journal articles.
In McConnachie's ongoing research project, Songs of the Ocean - Lingoma zoLwandle, students use music to learn about the relationship between the AmaXhosa people and the ocean. McConnachie's approaches to translanguaging to support her students' learning include exposing them to multiple languages and excursions to the International Library of African Music (ILAM). She also encourages students to use their own languages to talk about their culture, engage in multilingual song and dance activities, and make herself vulnerable by using her third language, isiXhosa. In the Instrumental Music Studies (IMS) programme, musicians and visiting scholars from Africa create and present teaching and learning resources in their own languages. McConnachie attributes this inclusive approach to the success of the IMS programme. "This is key to the success of the course; everyone participates in everything, no one is left out, and no one is allowed to shy away from translanguaging".
McConnachie is cognizant of potential language power struggles when doing research in Ethnomusicology that involves multilingual speakers. Therefore, she purposefully encourages students, participants, and co-researchers to use their own languages or be interpreters during fieldwork. Establishing linguistic partnerships with students and research participants empower them and give them language agency, said McConnachie. When teaching, "I actively look for opportunities for students to be able to speak their own language, [and] explain concepts to each other in a shared language", McConnachie said. McConnachie described students' appreciation when she complements readings in the course with multilingual voice notes. These audio renditions allow students to compare their initial interpretation of the readings with those done by McConnachie.
McConnachie and her colleagues consider Afroloops, a community engagement project, as a highlight of their translanguaging work. This project involves podcasts that introduce student teachers to African music instruments at ILAM. Students choose an instrument, research its origin and cultural significance and use English and their home or second language to present a podcast. "The whole experience made me realise my limited vocabulary as a mother-tongue speaker of English and that I have a long way to go with regards to being fluent in Xitsonga. I also marvelled at how beautiful Xitsonga is". This feedback from one of her students in the Afroloops project solidifies McConnachie's belief in lecturers' ability to empower students. Lecturers empower students when they acknowledge that students live in a translanguaging reality, purposefully seek opportunities to give students language agency and enable students to discover ways to navigate their language development.
Professor Jo-Anne Vorster, the Head of the Department of CHERTL, mentioned that CHERTL, in partnership with the Rhodes University language committee, has over the past years been intentional in creating awareness and sharing ideas and practices about using languages as pedagogical tools for teaching and learning. Vorster commended Rhodes lecturers for the increasing use of diverse languages in their teaching. She believes that these translanguaging practices demonstrate lecturers' recognition of "the importance of language as a resource to enable students to gain epistemic access to the disciplines". Equally significant is that the use of translanguaging displays the institutional commitment to inclusivity, redistribution, and representation.
Prof Vorster noted that the use of English as the dominant language of instruction in most South African universities relegates all other African languages to the background and erroneously constructs them as languages of everyday or verbal communication. These marginalising practices have profound implications for student identity and learning because a student’s home language is an essential part of their identity and integral to developing complex thinking and learning in academic contexts, said Vorster. She cautioned that being immersed in social contexts with little opportunity to speak and hear their home or dominant languages could be alienating for many students. Therefore, one way of validating students as whole beings is to support the use of their dominant languages in the process of making meaning of complex academic discourse. Vorster emphasised that, through "using a translanguaging pedagogy in the classroom, students are enabled to develop their learning and literacies, and their conceptual understanding of the disciplines". Lukhanyisa Cezula urged all faculties to follow the example of departments that currently integrate language as a resource. In this way, students are not disadvantaged because they are forced to learn through English.
This robust conversation, organised by Masixole Booi, Anthea Adams and Dr Nicola Pallitt of CHERTL, covered many areas of the practice of translanguaging in the classroom. One thing is certain: the Rhodes University Language Committee and CHERTL are committed to promoting the use of students’ dominant languages as resources to transform the teaching and learning space at the institution.