"SA still holding its African tongue" (African languages at S. African univ.'s)

Don Osborn dzo at bisharat.net
Wed May 16 14:49:13 UTC 2007

FYI, this article and interview from the South African paper, Business Day,
was seen at
http://www.businessday.co.za/articles/topstories.aspx?ID=BD4A454553 . It
concerns African languages departments at South African universities, and
their future... Don

Posted to the web on: 07 May 2007
SA still holding its African tongue 
Tessa Dowling

AFRICAN languages departments at South African universities are funny
things. Haunted by the apartheid past of white professors snapping their
fingers for their badly paid black assistants to demonstrate the clicks that
they themselves could not get their tongues around, they are now headed by
brilliant black professors who often, sadly, are caught in a time warp,
unaware of what is required by employers of language graduates. So now most
young black South Africans would rather study Afrikaans or English than
their mother tongues. Visit an African languages department in the late
afternoon. The wind blows some chip packets along the passage; a notice on
the wall tells you there is going to be a test on the past tense on Monday.
Someone has wittily scribbled "free the bound morpheme" in the toilets.

By contrast, the English and Afrikaans departments are stuffed with students
noisily debating their latest contemporary setwork. Advertisements for
courses on media and publishing adorn the walls, and trendy young lecturers
and tutors nod as they listen to their students talk about their

African languages departments need help - and quickly, before they die out
altogether. This year, only two students are studying Xhosa 3 as a mother
tongue at the University of Cape Town. When I asked the secretary in Unisa's
department of African languages if she could give me some figures for
third-year enrolment, she sighed: "That would be too much work." Anyway, at
least we know that Haiti's former president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was
recently awarded his PhD in African languages by that institution, which
says something - I am not sure what.

One optimistic and brave person who believes that African languages
departments can and should submit themselves to extreme makeovers is Prof
Russell Kaschula - professor of the African language studies section (Xhosa)
in the School of Languages at Rhodes University. Russell and I taught
together at the University of Cape Town in the 1990s - when our white
students were so stoned they used to say: "Shu, chill, man. You can ask me
my first name in Xhosa but not my surname, hey. That's like pushing me
beyond my limitations." The black students were angry and militant and would
demand meetings, even if it was to discuss their take on the future tense in
Xhosa, or whether the word "inja" (dog) should be broken up as "i-nja" or

I really, really want to believe that African language teaching can
experience an extreme makeover. So I asked Russell a few questions, because
I had heard exciting things about what he was doing at Rhodes.

Me: So, Prof, would you say that the department of Xhosa at Rhodes is funky,
alive and relevant? Why would anyone want to study Xhosa these days, and why
with your department?

Russell: The African language studies section (Xhosa) in the School of
Languages at Rhodes is hip and happening. The only thing outdated about it
would be the pictures on the walls, those of legendary African languages
scholar Prof Wilhelm Bleek, deceased authors and ancestors.

Why does one want to study Xhosa? I think that you just need to pick up a
newspaper and check the job ads. Many jobs state that knowledge of an
African language is an advantage or a requirement. I think that
mother-tongue students still need to cotton on to this. The interesting
thing is that "whiteys", who major in Xhosa 3 second language, now qualify
for these jobs.

Why with our department? We have had a massive injection of funds and are at
the cutting edge of research in African languages, particularly Xhosa. New
staff members have been appointed and the university is fully behind our

Me: What kinds of things do you do at Rhodes that are different? I have
always wondered why English and Afrikaans departments teach film,
advertising, etc while African languages departments tend to teach the same
grammar and setworks year after year. Do you have a vision for a more
integrated, relevant department of Xhosa?

Russell: Relevance and marketrelated courses are the name of the game and
should be given high priority. Any African language course that does not
take this into account is bound to fail.

We will be introducing Xhosa 1 mother tongue in 2008, Xhosa 2 in 2009 and
Xhosa 3 in 2010. These courses will be totally radical, hip and
market-related. There will be a literature component. But the emphasis will
be on applied language studies and job-related courses.

We will introduce courses that emphasise acquisition of skills in
publishing, broadcasting, drawing up policy documents, etc. We will
introduce Xhosa media studies, plus courses in orthography and terminology
development, editing and publishing, teaching first and second language
Xhosa, contemporary socio-linguistics, and so on.

Me: Can non-mother-tongue speakers of Xhosa - those who haven't even done
any Xhosa at school - study Xhosa at Rhodes?

Russell: They can most definitely study at Rhodes. We have specialised in
these courses. The massive injection of funding has allowed us to put up a
state-of-the-art multimedia computer language learning facility. This is
aimed mainly at second-language teaching. We are also developing
discipline-related courses for those students studying law and pharmacy at

Me: Are you interested in contemporary Xhosa discourse - isicamtho
(Tsotsi-taal), slang, code-switching? Is there such a thing as "pure" Xhosa,
and who speaks it?

Russell: Yes. This will form part of the mother tongue courses and it
already forms part of the cultural aspect of the second and foreign language
Xhosa courses. Not enough research has been done on this, as we have yet to
work out the actual structure/grammar of isicamtho. Pure Xhosa remains now a
dream of those linguists who see themselves as prescriptive. It remains only
in the standard language - that language initially transcribed by the
missionaries because it was spoken in the area in which they happened to
land. Xhosa today is vibrant and ever-changing, like any other language. Our
school is not intent on teaching a dead language; rather a language with a
standard, but with all its vicissitudes.

Me: How do you answer those who ask the question: "But isn't English the
language of world commerce and industry? Why should we waste money on
teaching Xhosa?"

Russell: I think that is a pipe dream. We will end up being global language
idiots - not speaking any language properly, including English. The reason
for this is that we simply don't have the resources to teach English
effectively. We do not have enough suitably qualified teachers and the
system does not graduate scholars who are proficient in English - hence the
high dropout rate from school. That said, I think it is important to develop
skills in both the mother tongue and English. We owe our scholars this. It
is for this reason that we are employed and have jobs. That is why we take
the teaching of Xhosa so seriously.

Me: How does your department liaise with other departments at Rhodes?

Russell: We are already working with other faculties and departments to
create language courses for them. For example, the law faculty needs
assistance when their students practise in the law clinic, where we need to
facilitate a process of understanding between client and lawyer.

Me: How would you describe your leadership style?

Russell: Gentle, yet disciplined. I believe that gentle coercion is more
suited to a university environment. I also believe that you can only win
people's trust and support by providing a good example in terms of work
ethic and interpersonal relations. I am both manager and leader in my style
and do not make excuses for my ideas. That is part of my leadership style.
To encourage people to dream, be positive, to inspire them to greater
heights. I believe that I am responsible for creating a vision and also
managing that vision. This is very necessary when it comes to language
studies at tertiary level today. We need to innovate, be proactive, to
reposition languages in terms of what the country really needs.

Me: What arguments would you use to encourage young South Africans to become

Russell: I think a multilingual citizen is a better citizen. It allows you
to have a window into the world of fellow South Africans. It has enriched my
own life immensely. I cannot imagine my life without it.

- Dowling has a PhD in African languages and is a director of African
Voices, a multimedia development company that produces materials for the
learning and teaching of South Africa's African languages. She uses the word
"Xhosa" instead of "isiXhosa" because she is writing in English, a language
that does not have noun prefixes. In the same way, when a Xhosa speaker
talks about English, she has to introduce a prefix - "isiNgesi".

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