[lg policy] Forcing South African students to learn African languages won't do them any good
hfsclpp at gmail.com
Fri Oct 2 15:22:52 UTC 2015
Forcing South African students to learn African languages won't do them any
The status of languages is a political hot potato
on South Africa’s university campuses. The country’s minister of higher
education and training believes
that all university graduates in South Africa should have learned at least
one African language during their studies.
The University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), located in South Africa’s
KwaZulu-Natal province, became the first to heed the minister’s call when
it introduced Zulu
a compulsory subject for all new students from 2014. This is part of its
broader language policy
which emphasises “the need to achieve for Zulu the institutional and
academic status of English”.
UKZN has been hailed for this move, but some have also warned
that making only Zulu compulsory is a political decision that may
contribute to linguistic and cultural nationalism.
My current research, which I recently presented at a conference
<http://www.britac.ac.uk/events/2015/African_Multilingualism.cfm> of the
British Academy, explores the interplay between language dynamics and
ideological constructions in South African higher education. It examines
UKZN specifically in light of the introduction of the compulsory Zulu
Some of the findings suggest that the university’s top-down approach in
this instance has alienated even some Zulu language lecturers. They feel
this policy is actually doing their language a disservice.
Problems and paradoxes
Nearly 78% of KwaZulu-Natal’s residents speak Zulu as a first language
<http://census2011.adrianfrith.com/place/5>. The university argues that,
given this demography, choosing Zulu as a compulsory African language can
contribute to social cohesion and nation building in the province and
There is no doubt that all South Africans, no matter their background,
should ideally be fluent in at least one African language. UKZN’s non-Zulu
staff and students can benefit enormously from learning the language.
But there are two major problems with the policy. The first is ideological.
Quite simply, Zulu is not a pan-African language. It’s not even a
transnational one like Kiswahili, which is the *lingua franca* in Tanzania
and Kenya. Zulu is inextricably linked to Zulu ethnicity – and the policy
is therefore seen by some as prioritizing one nation or group above any
The policy is seen by some as prioritizing one nation or group above any
The second problem is more practical and relates to the content of the
course. The 2014 policy sees Zulu taught for just one semester – that’s
about five months. Zulu language lecturers say this system has created so
many problems that any real value is being lost.
During November and December 2014 I interviewed seven people who are
involved in developing and championing UKZN’s language policy and six Zulu
lecturers at two of the institution’s campuses.
The lecturers said that morale among students in the compulsory module is
so low that they are little more than “resistance learners”. One lecturer
called the module a “Mickey Mouse” course that gives students only the most
basic knowledge of the language.
There is also a paradox between the university’s stated policy and its
practice. In interviews with UKZN language policy stakeholders I was
informed that the objective of the module is for students to acquire
“communicative competence” in Zulu. But there are so many students in each
class that there is simply no space for the sort of “conversational”
component that would teach them how to “chat” in Zulu.
The UKZN *Basic isiZulu *module had 325 students in 2013, 1381 in 2014 when
the policy was implemented and has 2254 in 2015. Oral practice lessons are
absolutely impossible with such huge classes.
The danger of stigma
Any language can acquire a stigma because of sociopolitical circumstances.
During the apartheid era, Afrikaans was viewed as the language of the
– a tag it has still not shaken off
And this is despite the majority of Afrikaans speakers today being
“coloured”, and not Afrikaners.
Some of the Zulu lecturers I interviewed actually drew explicit links
between the compulsory teaching of Afrikaans during apartheid and UKZN’s
mandatory Zulu lessons. This emphasises that it is the compulsory aspect of
the course which is seen as particularly problematic.
It is absolutely necessary for South African education to move away from
the English hegemony, and African language learning will play a crucial
role in this shift. African language learning – both for mother tongue and
second language learners – must be fostered at primary and secondary school
level. Linguistic diversity should be approached as a resource and a tool
for creativity and nation building
The early practice of academic reading and writing in African languages
should be taken for granted for all South Africans. My previous research
shows that fostering Zulu as an academic language at tertiary level is far
too late in academic development.
Linguistic diversity should be approached as a resource and a tool for
creativity and nation building. Ideally, every child in KwaZulu-Natal
should learn Zulu from a very young age. But this type of change needs to
emerge from the bottom up rather than being imposed from the top down. The
UKZN language policy seems to be an example of a top-down approach that is
deeply shaped by ideological and political interests rather than with sound
educational practice in mind.
Ultimately, shouldn’t South African universities aim to make non-African
language speakers aware of the beauty and benefits of knowing an African
language – rather than forcing students to study them?[image: The
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