How multilingualism can build communities: a glance at the recent workshops on multilingualism for SU student communities

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Foto: Unsplash

What is multilingualism actually? And what is multilingualism at Stellenbosch University (SU)? For some, there are associations with words like “frustration”, “media storm”, “rules”, “farce”, and “a mist behind which Afrikaans is slowly but surely disappearing”. Others feel that multilingualism is connected with ubuntu, and that it is something that, in actual fact, celebrates and protects language – language, which forms the core of our ability to express ourselves. Some are of the opinion that it entails mainly translation and interpreting; to see and hear other languages around you. Others would say it is chaos, where we add various languages to a pot, hoping that when we take a serving from the pot after swirling it, our bowl will contain a smattering of everything. For some of us, multilingualism is a dream, to be able to stop strangers in the street and to amaze them by speaking to them in their own language, like the polyglot on Youtube.

A willing mindset

Our experience at the SU Language Centre is that multilingualism can also be something that is less tangible; something more fundamental; and, indeed, less of a “something” and more of a “way of being” – a willing mindset.

Language is central to our name and our work. However, we do not take up arms to fight for language in books or on paper. Rather, we lay down arms to take people by the hand.

Language is central to our name and our work. However, we do not take up arms to fight for language in books or on paper. Rather, we lay down arms to take people by the hand. As the Language Centre we do not want anyone having to leave behind any part of their identity, including their language identity, in order to walk through the university’s doors and achieve success. We would like to build a university community where all people and their languages are important and essential building blocks.

Workshops on multilingualism

In this spirit, the Language Centre launched a project entitled “How multilingualism builds communities” in April and May 2023 in the university community, in collaboration with the university’s Centre for Student Communities. The project entailed 20 workshops of about three hours each, which were attended by 730 residence heads, house committee members and mentors.

Our intention with the project was to create a safe space within which to reframe the discussion about language, where participants could share their views and experiences of language and language identity with one another in a compassionate manner. In this space they could learn together as well as from one another, in the process becoming better equipped to deal with potential barriers related to language and cultural aspects in their respective communities.

Although the project gained momentum after the recommendation by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) that leaders in student communities should receive training in dealing with language issues in view of allegations of the prohibition of the use of Afrikaans in some residences during the welcoming period in 2021, this initiative was not the first of its kind. The Language Centre has already facilitated similar workshops on a small scale with students and student leaders for the past three years. That was where the need for a broader discussion about experiences of, and challenges pertaining to dealing with language was identified. The current initiative is, however, innovative in terms of its structure and scale, and has paved the way for reaching a much larger group of students.

Facilitators’ experience

After meticulous planning, 22 facilitators from the Language Centre were co-opted and trained to present the sessions. All of them have educational and/or language-related qualifications and an in-depth knowledge of the various facets of language practice in a university context.

As facilitators, we would like to share more about the workshops and what we noticed.

It was the intention from the beginning that the workshop dialogue would focus on the use of language in social spaces, and that it would be based on the idea of a multilingual mindset. We understand a multilingual mindset to be a willingness to accept that multilingualism is important and beneficial for inclusivity and diversity, and then intentionally to create spaces for individual and institutional multilingualism. While individual multilingualism comprises one’s personal language repertoire – all the languages that form part of your identity, including languages in which you are not necessarily fluent – institutional multilingualism is more about the use and visibility of different languages in the spaces of an institution. Language policy and the resources that are made available to promote multilingualism also form a part of institutional multilingualism. But for us the heart and soul of multilingualism is a multilingual mindset. It does not necessarily involve learning a new language, but it does mean accepting and accommodating people who speak other languages. It is all about a willingness to meet other people at the place where they find themselves, and not to begrudge them space to be themselves.

From the approach described above it could be deduced that the workshops would not focus on rules. However, two clear lines were drawn in the sand: first, that the use of a language other than one’s own does not necessarily amount to exclusion, and, second, that it is unconstitutional to forbid anyone to speak any language.

At first there were signs of an unwillingness and mental fatigue among the participants, particularly concerning language-related issues. Despite the participants initially being able to connect the concept of multilingualism to positive values like respect, inclusion and empathy, the concept also evoked fear and feelings of frustration, because multilingualism is sometimes not realised on campus and also because some were of the opinion that it does not necessarily provide a solution for more serious challenges. In short, the participants regarded multilingualism as something that could potentially be positive, but not as a panacea.

Enriching and far-reaching language journeys

We kicked off by asking the participants to reflect on their personal journey with language and to share their respective language histories with one another in small groups. The wide range of experiences in many different languages that came to the fore in these narratives were astounding and at times moving.

SU student leaders giving feedback on their language journey discussions (Photo: Susan Lotz)

As an activity, the discussions about language journeys succeeded extremely well in gaining participants’ buy-in and participation.

We experienced how the participants gradually developed a better understanding not only of one another, but also of themselves. They could step back and understand their involuntary reaction to language better; why they felt so strongly or were so passionate about certain things and so sensitive about others. It was clear that they gradually gained insight into the challenges experienced by others. They could see how their first assumptions about one another were often incorrect, but also how similar all of them were, despite the obvious differences. This activity created space for a new type of dialogue about language and its creative force. There was a clearly discernible shift in their attitudes and a more empathetic approach to one another.

We experienced how the participants gradually developed a better understanding not only of one another, but also of themselves. They could step back and understand their involuntary reaction to language better; why they felt so strongly or were so passionate about certain things and so sensitive about others.

A subsequent activity encouraged participants to apply value-driven leadership by seeking solutions to hypothetical problem scenarios in their residences and private wards as a group. House values and a multilingual mindset were important resources for this activity. The participants expressed several practical insights, such as:

  • Everyone should be at liberty to speak their own language. 
  • Stop overcompensating out of fear.
  • Stop feeling excluded or being affronted so easily when you don’t understand a language – ask the person to repeat what was said if you are unsure or don’t understand, and help one another by interpreting or by translating text. This does not mean that the onus rests only on the person who feels excluded to do something about it. It is a delicate balance between giving and taking: First try to ensure that no one feels excluded, but when you do feel excluded, you are invited to have the confidence to mention it instead of summarily assuming that the exclusion was calculated.
  • Be curious about and fascinated by languages.
  • Be charitable and help one another feel comfortable.
  • Include people as a matter of principle rather than excluding them.
  • Learn one another’s languages.
  • Be pragmatic.
  • Be reasonable and friendly towards people whom you experience as being different.

During their group reflection after the sessions the facilitators were unanimous in their amazement at the calibre of leadership and the work these student leaders were already doing for the promotion of language, cultural diversity and mutual acceptance. They were pleasantly surprised to find leaders who were that open to dialogue and willing to absorb information. It was noticeable that the discussions had inspired the participants anew and that a positive mindset gradually emerged. In principle, the students wanted to include everyone, but they also wanted to be practical. Broadly speaking, their approach was as follows: If we have to speak a specific language for practical reasons, we will do so, but that does not have to exclude our other languages – everyone has the freedom at all times to speak their own language.

Reservations, but also new hope and insights

At the conclusion of the sessions the participants had the opportunity to talk about new insights they had gained, but also about their reservations and fears. We found that they were cognisant of the close connection between identity and language, and that a multilingual mindset actually gives everyone the space to use their chosen language and to express themselves; that multilingualism gives recognition to being human and to humanity; and that multilingualism can connect rather than divide. They experienced at first hand that diversity is an asset and that it can be a valuable resource, and that language barriers can be transformed into opportunities and do not necessarily have to cause conflict or exclusion. They also realised that speaking English is not the only way to be inclusive. They came to understand that language use is not something one can forbid or regulate by means of rules, and that language need not be part of a political agenda or a reason for choosing sides, or something that is enforced. There was a noticeable shift to a better understanding of the potential of multilingualism.

However, not all responses were positive. There were still signs of the spectres of the dogma of language politics, causing Afrikaans students to be wary of speaking their language, because of the stereotypical negative image it could create of them, which is fanned in the media. There were also students who felt that the best way to ensure inclusion was by speaking English only. Important to note is that the participants felt safe enough to be honest and to start speaking about language in a different manner.

After the sessions, the facilitators found that the participants had generally been inspired. They repeatedly expressed their appreciation for the lively and insightful manner in which the sessions had been facilitated, and they realised that the Language Centre is a valuable partner. Also, they had again been made aware of the resources and support available to them.

Potential of unity within diversity

A number of participants asked, at the conclusion of the sessions, whether such sessions could also be presented to the broader university community and be made part of the training of new student leaders.

A series of similar workshops aimed at newly elected student leaders is already being planned for later this year. As the Language Centre we hope that the “way of being” – living a multilingual mindset to the full – will expand to recognise the full variety of identities in our university community. This entails everyone having the freedom and confidence to realise their humanness through language, while at the same time continuously seeking ways to make unity within diversity possible and a reality.

By Carmen Brewis, Susan Lotz, Sanet de Jager and Helga Sykstus of the SU Language Centre

This opinion piece is available in Afrikaans here.

Opinions expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of the Management of Stellenbosch University.

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