Multiculturalism does not mean everybody speaks English

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Johannes Bertus de Villiers

In the past 20 years I have been both a student and a lecturer at the University of Stellenbosch (SU).

To be blunt: when I was a student there in the late 1990s it was a predominantly white Afrikaans university. When I returned as a lecturer in 2013 and 2014 it was a predominantly white English university.

Different language, same hue.

For anyone who bases their views of the university’s transformation status on events in lecture halls and on campus (as opposed to polemical YouTube videos) this must seriously undermine the widely held belief that a shift to exclusively English tuition guarantees multiculturalism.

In the past, proponents of transformation at formerly Afrikaans universities often argued that changing the language of tuition from Afrikaans to English would necessarily lead to a radical change in the racial composition of the university’s staff and student body.

And yet, at Stellenbosch the demographic whose proportions have grown the most due to the language shift seems to be not black Africans, but white English-speaking students who flock to Stellenbosch from places like Pietermaritzburg and the north of Johannesburg. The main beneficiaries of the university’s language change is a group that is already the country’s most privileged demographic both culturally and economically.

Which raises the question: Why has the removal of Afrikaans as language of tuition at Stellenbosch failed to deliver the racial transformation promised by many supporters of former vice-chancellor Chris Brink a decade ago?

Before exploring that question, it is important to state one fact very clearly: Afrikaans has indeed all but disappeared from the lecture halls of Maties.

Recent reports in the Afrikaans press have quoted both the vice-chancellor, Wim de Villiers (Rapport, 6 September 2015), and the vice-rector for transformation, Nico Koopman (Huisgenoot, 17 September 2015), as affirming that Stellenbosch is neither an Afrikaans nor an English university, but a multilingual one. However, their assurances don’t reflect the situation I see on the campus today. In the arts faculty, the faculty with which I am most familiar, it is now quite possible to complete an entire three-year undergraduate degree without ever having to sit through an Afrikaans lecture – in some cases without even having the option of ever sitting through an Afrikaans lecture.

I know of not a single course or degree at the university that requires knowledge of Afrikaans from students (except, of course, Afrikaans en Nederlands). All textbooks are in English. All notes are available either in both languages or in English only.

The scarcity of Afrikaans in the lecture halls of Stellenbosch is perversely attested to even in the widely discussed Luister video, where one complainant, attempting to illustrate how she was inconvenienced by Afrikaans in the classroom, can apparently come up with no better an example than the fact that an Afrikaans slide was shown during a lecture she attended. Others complain that the English-to-Afrikaans translation services in the one or two situations where Afrikaans is still used are not a hundred percent up to standard. Hardly the 50/50 bilingualism promoted in the T-option.

While I was a lecturer at Stellenbosch I also used English as language of instruction in all lectures. All guest lecturers were requested to speak in English. When students addressed me in Afrikaans, I usually responded in the same language, but the ensuing conversation invariably reverted to English. Most lecturers of undergraduate students that I know of respond to all questions – both English and Afrikaans – in English.

It is undeniable that a student with zero knowledge of Afrikaans can function perfectly well at SU. A student with limited knowledge of English would, however, have no hope of success.

This trend towards English monolingualism makes me wonder if the SU is succeeding in its mandate of preparing young professionals for a multicultural country. It is in this respect that I suspect the university has missed an opportunity for more meaningful transformation.

As a public educational institution, SU has a mandate to train professionals for South Africa, not for Canada or New Zealand. And South Africa is most certainly not an exclusively Anglophone country.

Doctors trained at SU’s Tygerberg medical campus will be expected to work at hospitals like Tygerberg and Groote Schuur – these are not places where all patients and co-workers will be English speakers. Journalists trained at Stellenbosch’s esteemed journalism school will not spend their careers reporting from the southern suburbs of Cape Town, but from ethnically diverse communities. Lawyers who obtain their LLB at the Ou Hoofgebou are guaranteed to spend many days of their career in courtrooms where some litigants are completely unfamiliar with English.

To be prepared for such a world students don’t need to know all 11 official languages. They don’t even need to be fluent in anything more than their mother tongue. But they must, at the very least, know how to navigate a context where not everybody will oblige them by switching to English in every conversation. They must develop the skills to manage a bilingual or multilingual conversation, know how to converse across boundaries, know how to access translations when needed, know how to use innovative strategies to convey meaning.

Training students in a context that has been sanitised of all languages except English, as proposed by Open Stellenbosch, most definitely will not equip students with these skills. English monolingualism will continue to benefit a small – predominantly white – elite.

Instead, imagine if SU embarked on a different model of transformation, one where multilingualism is viewed as an aid to transformation, not a barrier. Imagine if, instead of simply switching to English, SU poured even more resources into awarding scholarships to Afrikaans-speaking learners from poor, rural communities in the northern and southern Cape. Imagine if centres and schools were started at the university to actively boost research, tuition and translation services in Xhosa so that students from Khayelitsha and the Transkei were no longer stuck with the choice of studying in either their second or their third language. Imagine if lecturers engaged one another in their respective first languages and broadened one another’s horizons?

Would that not be true transformation? Would such a Stellenbosch not fill a unique and much-needed niche among South African tertiary institutions?

And would that not – at last – accommodate a more diverse student body?

If SU goes ahead with its projected plans of implementing a compulsory undergraduate module on transformation and multiculturalism in the next few years, I hope there is one equation they will include on the first few pages of their class notes, one hard-learned equation from the limited success of their transformation attempts these past two decades:

                   Multiculturalism does not equal English.

Johannes Bertus de Villiers is a member of the editorial staff of Huisgenoot and former Rykie van Reenen lecturer in practical journalism at the University of Stellenbosch.

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  • Sakkie Spangenberg

    Johannes, jy slaan die spyker op sy kop! Verengelsing word dikwels gesien as die taal wat nie-rassigheid versimboliseer. Dis verre daarvan.

  • Englene Ferreira

    Ek het net een vraag om te vra. Waarom verskyn die bogemelde artikel slegs in Engels?

    • André Viljoen

      Want dit is juis die Engelssprekendes wat moet kennis neem. Alle of bykans alle Afrikaanssprekendes is Engels magtig en sal die artikel kan verstaan. Dit is juis dit wat deur die stelsel en wit Engels eentaliges by Stellenbosch universiteit uitgebuit is en die laat omvorm het tot dit wat dit is. Ja, wie is uitgesluit van Stellenbosch - dink mooi. Die antwoord lê in Joan Kruger se skrywe.

  • Bertus het hier iets saamgevat wat die debat na 'n heel ander vlak neem -- na 'n punt waar bygevoeg, eerder as weggeneem word.
    As 'n mens jou net buite die bevoorregte enklaves begeef, sal jy verstaan dat dit ook 'n universiteit se plig is om studente met veeltaligheid toe te rus. Studente begeef hulle nie almal na die buiteland nie. Hulle kom word ook gesondheidswerkers, onderwysers, munisipale amptenare, sakemense, noem maar op, in die res van Suid-Afrika: dorpe, dorpies, gehuggies, plase. Daar waar Afrikaans en een van die ander inheemse tale die mense se taal is.
    Deur te betoog vir slegs Engels op universiteit, draai ons die horlosie terug na die Middeleeue. Ja, jy kan gaan studeer, maar slegs deur middel van Latyn. Die taal van geleerdheid. En kyk wat het daarvan geword. Toegegee, jy kan nog in die Vatikaan in Latyn jou geld by 'n OTM onttrek ...
    Aan almal wat so hoog opgee oor Engels as enigste voertaal op universiteit, en daar is ontstellend baie Afrikaanse mense wat van beter behoort te weet onder hulle, wil ek vra: Kom vertel dit vir 'n visserskind hier op Paternoster. Ook die eerste in 'n gesin, van die eerstes in 'n gemeenskap, wat op Stellenbosch wil gaan studeer. Praat van 'ek kry nie asem nie'!
    Stellenbosch het soveel om te bied ten opsigte van kundigheid oor termskepping, leksikografie, taalsosiologie. Dit behoort 'n eiesoortige Max Planck-instituut op te rig met voorpuntnavorsing oor veeltaligheid. En dit deurentyd in die praktyk toe te pas.
    Dit is iets wat 'n mens opgewonde maak oor die toekoms van tale, nie 'n stiksienige terugdraai van die horlosie na 'n bestel wat 'n groot deel van ons mense van universiteite gaan uitsluit nie.

    • Maak Latyn die voertaal vir almal en veral vir die studeer van regte, dan sal beskawing terugkom ... hehehe

    • Valerie Ember

      Wat het geword van -"jou inskryf by die universiteit wat klas in jou taal gee"? In my tyd was dit Afrikaans op Stellenbosch en Engels by UCT. Wat's fout daarmee? My huistaal was Engels dus het by Rhenish skool gegaan. Die Afrikaanse dogters was by Bloemhof. Paul Roos het vir albei tale plek gemaak. Hierdie hele "Taal" storie is slegs 'n bedekte rasse opstoking - niks anders!

  • George Bekker

    Johannes se artikel is van die ontstellendste oor US, want hy skets die ware toestand van Afrikaans by US en dit lyk nie goed nie. Skynbaar is die enigste aanvaarbare werklikhede van NSA-instellings dat die taal Engels moet wees met 'n swart hoof, terwyl die groot meerderheid personeel en studente ook swart moet wees. Enige organisasie wat nie hieraan voldoen nie, word teengestaan. Slegs deur die saak van Afrikaans en minderheidsregte te internasionaliseer het ons 'n kans om mettertyd beperkte minderheidsregte te bekom.

  • Terzel Rasmus

    In South African, language is an aspect of culture but not the other way around. I can speak Afrikaans, but that does not necessarily make me an Afrikaner. I can speak isiXhosa, but that does not mean I practice Xhosa rituals.
    When you write about multiculturalism as a means towards Transformation, you reduce it to language and I agree with you to a certain extent. Mono-lingualism is boring. Living in a multicultural society is more exciting to say the least.
    My problem and question I pose is: Is my Afrikaans good enough to be included into your culture?
    You invite me, as an Afrikaans speaking women, into the institution yet will not invite me into your circles of cultural activities. And if you do invite me and I partake - you will not extend the same offer and come into my circles.
    When my friend who is a 'suiwer' Afrikaans speaking Coloured woman from the Northern Cape, is discriminated against because of the colour of her skin. She, like you in many regards, shares the same culture. She should be welcomed into the Afrikaans community and be made to feel equal in Afrikaans spaces. Not to be made feel outcasted, yet she is.
    So tell me, where in your theory does transformation lie in that context?
    I will fight for multilingualism and multiculturalism but I will not stand for discrimination.
    It is easy to say "Multiculturalism does not equal English" but Multiculturalism does not equal discrimination.

    • Tersia Greyling

      I CAN NOT believe you people in South Africa STILL want to force each other to dictate who to be friends with. It is one thing to be socially accepted and another to go out as friends. Is it really about the colour of skin, could it not be that people just see and like things different? A guy I knew once told me that he does not like 'fat' girls, I was quite shocked. I asked why, he told me that they never like to be active and he does, so it creates problems. Still, when I was in South Africa last year, from Johannesburg, Cape Town to the Free State, I saw people interact with one another on many levels, so reading your comment was quite disappointing. It is time everybody get this colour thing out of their minds and throw the chips away, where it will never be seen again. Enjoy South Africa!

  • Op Tygerberg word eerstejaarstudente wat slegs Afrikaans en Engels kan praat Xhosa geleer en Xhosa en Engels sprekendes word Afrikaans geleer. So word daar verseker dat almal nie net hul pasiënte verstaan nie, maar ook mekaar. Ek wens dieselfde was toegepas op hoofkampus.

  • Dit is waar dat die US profesioneles vir die SA werkplek voor beter & daarom maak dit sin dat die taal van onderrig die aanvaarde SA gemene werkstaal wat Engels is. Die meerderheid Suid-Afrikaners maak 'n toegewing deur in Engels te kommunikeer & dit op sigself veronderstel 'n mate van transformasie. Dit is nie universiteitsvakansies se plig om taal & kultuur te preserveer nie. Wat egter nie aanvaarbaar is nie, is die skynbaar afdwing van rasse-kwotas om die "kleur-balans" terwille van transformasie af te dwing. Die geleentheid tot tersiêre onderwys is nie 'n reg nie maar 'n voorreg waarvoor ons as oud-Maties hard moes werk & sonder beurse self moes betaal. Die huidige "transformasie" grens egter aan neo-rassisme & het met respek, bitter min met suiwer & ordelike transformasie te doen. Inteendeel, dis 'n staatsgesteunde geforseerde oorname van die US.

  • Gerhard van Huyssteen

    Goeie analise en argumente - dankie, Bertus.
    Ek is ook bly jy het dit in Engels geskryf. Waldimar Pelser het hoeka gesê die gesprek oor Afrikaans (waaroor jou stuk nie handel nie) en veeltaligheid moet ook in Engels gevoer word, want anders neem die besluitnemers nie noodwendig kennis van dié standpunte nie.

  • Eerstens, ek moet sê hierdie artikel verras my nogal lekker. As dit wel waar is dat Engels die voertaal by SU geword het is die mediaberigte meesal baie misleading. ek moet sê daar is iets in my wat nie wil glo dat Stellies so verengels het nie, maar soos hulle sê - lets keep an open mind. Dat wit, Engelssprekende studente die hoof beneficiaries is verras my glad nie. Dit gebeur al vir baie eeue in Suid Afrika.
    Ek dink nie Afrikaans is die probleem nie. Ek dink rassisme is. Die wat graag Afrikaans wil bevorder sal moet fluks werk en rassisme aanspreek, anders verminder die kanse by die dag. Op die ander kant van die spektrum sal die wat Afrikaans aanspreek as die hoofprobleem, 'n wake-up call mote vang en besef dat die taal nie die probleem is nie. Hoeveel Afrikaans en hoeveel Engels waar en wanneer moet gebruik word is 'n kwessie van debat.

  • Daniel Jacobus Fourie

    Die warboel redenasies oor die waarde/geldigheid/regmatigheid/verantwoordbaarheid/gewildheid/suiwerheid van Afrikaans deur veral Afrikaanssprekendes [!] dui op 'n psigopatiese verwarring en ambivalensie wat ek geen ander taal toewens nie. Die arme sprekers probeer so hard om redelik te wees dat hulle selfs hierdie redenasies liewer in Engels voer. Good luck to you all, chums!

  • Uitstekende artikel Johannes. Hoe kan diversiteit uit homogeniteit ontstaan? Dit is `n 1984 verskynsel hierdie! Ek sal graag die US Raad en die US Rektoraat se reaksie op jou artikel wil lees. Onderliggend tot die Open Stellenbosch opstand is `n totaal ander logika as wat deur die opstandelinge voorgehou word - of wat by die US Raad en Algemene Bestuur moontlik veronderstel word. Die artikel in Die Burger deur Me Hofmeyr - M Ekonomie student aan US skets `n ontstellende prentjie. Die artikel van Dr Elias Phaahla (Politics Web, 13 September 2015) skets na my mening die werklike situasie en die werklike motiewe wat agter Open Stellenbosch sit. Dr Phaahla het sy doktorsgraad in politieke ekonomie aan die US verwerf. Ons het nou hier te doen met wat wyle Frank Churchman, Amerikaanse sisteemdenker, "The enemies of rationality" genoem het. Ek het groot bewondering vir Prof Wim de Villiers se kalme rasionele benadering tot hierdie kwessie, maar hoe rasioneel en redelik is mense wat eintlik `n ander agenda het en daaroor net baklei soek. Hulle is nou `n 'kollektief' - `n ou rewolusionêre benadering wat amorfie en spoke in onderhandelings inbring. Ek hoop regtig dat Prof de Villiers sal slaag want ek soek ook `n beter ontwikkelende samelewing waarin mense mekaar respekteer en ag.

  • Azraa Akherwaray

    I'm an English-speaking student and I completely agree with everything said in this article. Stellenbosch University goes out of its way to accommodate English-speaking students, sometimes at the expense of the Afrikaans population. My whole course is offered in English, but sometimes I attend Afrikaans lectures because the lecturers are better than their English colleagues. I completely sympathise with the Afrikaans students because their home language is slowly, but surely, being phased out.

  • What is the relationship between monolingualism and multiculturalism with regards to meaningful transformation?

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