Universities South Africa [USAf] colloquium: "The challenges in the implementation of the new language policy"

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Online USAf [Universities South Africa]* colloquium on the new language policy framework for public higher education institutions

28–29 September 2021 

* Universities South Africa, formerly known as Higher Education South Africa (HESA),
is a membership organisation representing South Africa’s universities.

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USAf colloquium: 28 September 2021 
The challenges in the implementation of the new language policy”
Wim de Villiers
SU Rector and Vice-Chancellor

Introduction

Good afternoon everyone, and thank you for the opportunity to speak here today.

Thank you, Professor Bawa, for the introduction.

I’ll be broadly looking at some of the challenges in the implementation of the new Language Policy Framework for Public Higher Education Institutions, and will touch on how Stellenbosch University approaches the implementation of our own language policy within the context of the new Language Policy Framework.

New Language Policy Framework

According to a policy advocacy brief, titled “Why and how Africa should invest in African languages and multilingual education”, published in 2010 by the Unesco Institute for Lifelong Learning in partnership with the Association for the Development for Education in Africa (ADEA), there is enough evidence that multilingualism is an asset to the development of a nation.

The brief made recommendations for policy making in multicultural and multilingual Africa. One recommendation is this: “Normalise multilingualism for social cohesion, individual and social development through language policies that build on the natural mastery of two or more languages. Such policies should be embedded in the social vision for a country, operationalised in legislation, and reflected in planning, budgeting and research covering all societal sectors.”

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As far back as 2017, in our comprehensive feedback on the DHET’s draft revised Language Policy for Higher Education (2017), Stellenbosch University supported the position that Afrikaans is an indigenous language of South Africa. Unfortunately, universities were not given an opportunity to comment on the final version of the new national Language Policy Framework for Public Higher Education Institutions promulgated in October 2020. Stellenbosch University has since brought the matter to the attention of Universities South Africa (USAf). We have stated since the release of the New Policy Framework that we remain committed to Afrikaans as an indigenous language as part of inclusive multilingualism.

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In terms of this recommendation it seems as though higher education in South Africa is on the right track. Normalising multilingualism is in part what the New Policy Framework is trying to achieve.

South Africa’s approach to multilingualism is embedded in the 1996 Constitution and recognises 11 official languages. But implementing a multilingual approach presents many challenges. These range from financial implications, lack of investment in multilingualism in basic education, and bridging the gap between high school and higher education, to the continued trend towards the globalisation, internationalisation and the Englishification of higher education.

As you’re all aware, back 2002 the then Minister of Education developed and promulgated the previous Language Policy for Higher Education. The aim of the policy was to promote multilingualism in institutional policies and practices of South African public higher education institutions.

But the reality of implementing such a policy is complicated.

The New Language Policy Framework for Public Higher Education Institutions, gazetted in October last year (2020), states that language continues to be a barrier to access and success for many students at South African higher education institutions. Despite their status as official languages, indigenous languages have in the past structurally not been afforded the official space to function as academic and scientific languages, and this situation still prevails.

It goes on to say that since the promulgation of the previous Language Policy there have been various initiatives on the part of the DHET to monitor progress and assess the extent to which institutional practices are in line with national policy. But they have not been deemed successful.

Which brings us to the current Policy Framework – the new one promulgated last year. I quote from the gazetted preamble: “It seeks to address the challenge of the underdevelopment and underutilisation of official African languages at higher education institutions while simultaneously sustaining the standard and utilisation of languages that are already developed.”

Herein lies one of the main challenges: simultaneously sustaining and developing different languages.

Afrikaans’s status as an indigenous language is another challenge presented by the New Policy Framework. But I’ll touch on that later.

General challenges with implementing policy

Policy implementation is challenging.

The OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) has done extensive research, specifically regarding the challenges of implementing policies across all sectors. In its book Tertiary education for the knowledge society it states, “A key challenge ahead for policy makers is to identify which policies would work best in their national context and circumstances, and in a second stage to move from knowing what changes are needed to implement those changes successfully.”

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Which brings us to the current Policy Framework – the new one promulgated last year. I quote from the gazetted preamble: “It seeks to address the challenge of the underdevelopment and underutilisation of official African languages at higher education institutions while simultaneously sustaining the standard and utilisation of languages that are already developed.”

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Using that model in the South African national context, DHET and the USAf Community of Practice for the Teaching and Learning of African Languages, or CoPAL, have, in the first stage, identified multilingualism to inform policy as a principle of the Framework.

And here, at this colloquium, we are at the second stage: trying to figure out ways to implement it as policy and create successful change.

Higher education requirements from policies

The OECD report gets more specific about the challenges related to higher education: “Tertiary education policy is relevant to – and impacts on – a number of different stakeholders who have an interest in tertiary education, but whose views on its roles and goals, and hence on the strategies and policies needed to achieve these goals, often diverge.

“As a result, a challenging task for policy makers is to find a balance between these diverse views and aims in developing and implementing tertiary education policy, so as to build consensus.”

And this is true in the South African context as well.

According to the OECD report we have to keep in mind that different stakeholders have different requirements of policies in the higher education sector.

  • For students and graduates, educational quality, teaching performance and career opportunities are what matters.
  • Employers and industry representatives share this concern. They want students to acquire the skills and attributes that will prepare them for working life, but they are also interested in the capacity of higher education to contribute to research and innovation and regional development.
  • By contrast, academics often show more interest in knowledge transfer, learning environments, the quality and motivation of students, research quality and the level of interaction between teaching and research.
  • Higher education managers look at numbers of students, the standing of their institution, their ability to compete internationally in research, and sufficient autonomy to fulfil their mission.
  • Government authorities – as significant funders of higher education – are concerned with the efficient allocation of scarce public resources and hence policies enhancing value for money and accountability towards taxpayers.

Framing these requirements within the South African context and implementation of the new Language Policy Framework, confirms that the various stakeholders at universities expect different results from policies.

Gornitzka (1999) presents it like this: “For organisations to change as a result of government initiatives a normative match is necessary, ie congruence between the values and beliefs underlying a proposed programme or policy and the identity and traditions of the organisation.”

I believe colloquiums like this help with this congruence.

Afrikaans as indigenous language

A unique challenge presented to us, and specifically Stellenbosch University, is that the New Policy Framework excludes Afrikaans as an indigenous language.

This is something Stellenbosch University would like to see amended.

As far back as 2017, in our comprehensive feedback on the DHET’s draft revised Language Policy for Higher Education (2017), Stellenbosch University supported the position that Afrikaans is an indigenous language of South Africa.

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Normalising multilingualism is in part what the New Policy Framework is trying to achieve. South Africa’s approach to multilingualism is embedded in the 1996 Constitution and recognises 11 official languages. But implementing a multilingual approach presents many challenges. These range from financial implications, lack of investment in multilingualism in basic education, and bridging the gap between high school and higher education, to the continued trend towards the globalisation, internationalisation and the Englishification of higher education.

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Unfortunately, universities were not given an opportunity to comment on the final version of the new national Language Policy Framework for Public Higher Education Institutions promulgated in October 2020.

Stellenbosch University has since brought the matter to the attention of Universities South Africa (USAf).

We have stated since the release of the New Policy Framework that we remain committed to Afrikaans as an indigenous language as part of inclusive multilingualism.

In response to the exclusion of Afrikaans from the classification of indigenous languages in the 2020 Policy Framework, the Stellenbosch University Council accepted the following motion at its meeting on 21 June 2021: “Stellenbosch University has taken note with concern of the Department of Higher Education and Training's classification (of Afrikaans) in the Language Policy Framework for Public Higher Education Institutions. Stellenbosch University supports the view that Afrikaans and the Khoe and San languages are indigenous languages. Council requests Stellenbosch University's management to take appropriate steps to engage with the DHET to address this issue." 

Developing Xhosa

Simultaneously, we’re committed to developing Xhosa as an academic language in the higher education sector.

As an emerging formal academic language, Xhosa is receiving particular attention with a view to its incremental introduction into selected disciplinary domains. These are prioritised based on student needs through a well-planned and systematic process.

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Stellenbosch University’s medical students, for instance, are taught vocational communication in Afrikaans and Xhosa. Similar modules are offered in our Faculty of Education. Our Faculty of Theology offers a module that is presented in Xhosa and interpreted into Afrikaans and English. Excellent work is also being done in the Extended Degree Programme in our Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, where Xhosa (and other) interpreting is used as one of the Faculty’s initiatives to promote multilingualism.

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Stellenbosch University’s Department of African Languages has extensive experience in advanced-level teaching and research in language and linguistic fields. Going forward, therefore, their academic role and leadership will be fully harnessed. Xhosa is already being used in certain programmes to facilitate effective learning and teaching, especially where it may be important for career purposes.

Stellenbosch University is committed to increasing the use of Xhosa to the extent that this is reasonably practicable. Examples of existing initiatives in this regard include short courses in basic Xhosa communication skills for staff and students, career-specific communication in Xhosa, discipline-specific terminology guides (both printed and mobile applications) and phrase books.

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The Language Centre at Stellenbosch University also translates podcasts and other learning and teaching material into Xhosa, and a mobile application known as MobiLex was created in the Faculty of Education to provide students with access to multilingual glossaries in specific subjects.  The platform provides subject-specific terminology in three languages (Afrikaans, English and Xhosa), as well as definitions of terms in each of these languages, thus providing language support as well as conceptual knowledge support on undergraduate level in the Faculty. 

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Stellenbosch University’s medical students, for instance, are taught vocational communication in Afrikaans and Xhosa. Similar modules are offered in our Faculty of Education. Our Faculty of Theology offers a module that is presented in Xhosa and interpreted into Afrikaans and English. Excellent work is also being done in the Extended Degree Programme in our Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, where Xhosa (and other) interpreting is used as one of the Faculty’s initiatives to promote multilingualism.

The Language Centre at Stellenbosch University also translates podcasts and other learning and teaching material into Xhosa, and a mobile application known as MobiLex was created in the Faculty of Education to provide students with access to multilingual glossaries in specific subjects.  The platform provides subject-specific terminology in three languages (Afrikaans, English and Xhosa), as well as definitions of terms in each of these languages, thus providing language support as well as conceptual knowledge support on undergraduate level in the Faculty. 

Since 2014 the platform and its subsequent multilingual glossaries have been expanded and currently include terms and definitions for the Faculties of Education, Theology, Arts and Social Sciences, Science and Economic and Management Science.

The project is unique in the higher education sector in South Africa, arguably in Europe as well, since several universities in South Africa have developed terminology lists, but theese are not (1) available online, (2) available in a user-friendly tailor-made mobile application format,  (3) open-source, (4) available on undergraduate level, and (5) available in Afrikaans and Xhosa.

The challenge, however, is to keep this momentum going. And to figure out ways to do the same for other indigenous languages across South Africa. This is where collaboration with other institutions in the higher education sector comes into play. We have to work together to make this happen.

Challenges on faculty and PASS level

We also have to think about the consequences that implementation of the policies has on a practical level in learning and teaching.

Different faculties will have different requirements. And here flexibility is key. I’ve often spoken about the significance of agile institutions, and how adaptability is necessary for universities to thrive.

The actual circumstances of academic multilingualism should be in step with professional environments and expectations.

In Stellenbosch University’s case there’s a clause our Language Policy (2016) regarding language planning that states the following: “Every faculty reviews its use of language for learning and teaching and records the language arrangements in its Faculty Language Implementation Plan annually, at the least. This Plan is reported to Senate via the faculty board and Senate’s Academic Planning Committee. Senate has the power either to accept the faculty’s Language Implementation Plan or to refer it back to the faculty. Once accepted, the language arrangements for learning and teaching of a particular module are published in the relevant module frameworks.”

So the implementation of a policy requires faculties and departments – and all other internal structure of a university – to interpret and use it accordingly.

Implementing the New Policy Framework will therefore require institutions in the higher education sector to develop, sustain and monitor extensive plans to promote multilingualism. Part of this includes setting up transparent mechanisms across all university structures to ensure the implementation and not just accept the policy framework on paper.

This is possible. In terms of Stellenbosch University’s own Language Policy an analysis of the Language Implementation Plans of Faculty and PASS (Professional and Administrative Support Services) from 2017 to 2020 point to some positive trends.

One is that the annual reporting and planning for language implementation through formalised mechanisms is becoming increasingly effective, because it not only ensures that faculties and PASS environments adhere to the formal provisions of the Language Policy (2016), but with the introduction of a template it also allows environments to reflect on the consultation process followed and include how they promote multilingualism in their respective environments.

Our Language Planning and Management Committee’s feedback on these reports and plans further stimulates discussions within the respective environments. This has resulted in a shift from 2017 to 2021 in the conversation from a “language rights” to a “language justice” discourse.

Financial implications

All of the challenges I’ve mentioned as well as the promotion of multilingualism naturally also have financial implications.

Paragraph 32 of the Language Policy Framework could have huge cost implications. It states: “All official internal institutional communication must be conveyed in at least two official languages other than English, as a way of cultivating a culture of multilingualism. Institutions must consider all possible options to accentuate the use of indigenous African languages in official communication and ceremonies.”

This is a laudable ideal, but depending on the definition of what is classified as official internal institutional communication, it could possibly not be financially viable.

How the terms of the Policy Framework will be interpreted by higher education institutions is a challenge in itself – another reason why this colloquium is so valuable. The sense-making of what we can do as a collective is important here.

So, the financial impact of formalised multilingualism presents unique challenges, but it’s important to collaborate to find solutions.

Conclusion

In conclusion, implementing the New Language Policy Framework will not always be smooth sailing. But the benefits of multilingual education have been proven time and time again to outweigh the contrary.

And in the South African context I continue to believe that a policy of multilingualism will give students broader access and a better future.

Also view and read on LitNet and Voertaal:

"All African languages can be used as academic languages"

Eileen Pooe’s Setswana PhD: an interview in three languages

BAQONDE, boosting the use of African language in education: an interview with Bassey Antia

Masakhane leads the way for low-resourced African languages online

Suid-Afrika is ideale plek om meertaligheid te bestudeer

Die Afri-Kwé-taalprojek beklemtoon historiese en toekomstige verbintenisse

“Swartafrikaans”: Afrikataalmoedertaalsprekers en Afrikaans?

Wat is Afrikaans se plek in ’n meertalige Suid-Afrika? [Reguit met Robinson: ’n Zoom-gesprek met Hein Willemse en Conrad Steenkamp]

 

 

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Kommentaar

  • Wim-suurlemoen

    Die ooglopend-ongrondwetlike polities-gedrewe siening van mnr Blade Nzimande dat Afrikaans nie 'n inheemse taal is nie, is mos nou ongrondwetlik bevind deur die hoogste hof. Dus, die "new national Language Policy Framework for Public Higher Education Institutions promulgated in October 2020". So wat gaan US nou doen, of gaan hulle soos Unisa voort om studente se grondwetlike regte te vertrap soos mnr Nzimande die sweep klap? Dis nou mooi koekies bak en alles verdoesel agter 'n politieke raamwerk van 2020, maar US (Prof De Villiers) se kolonialisering (verengelsing) van die US kom al die afgelope 4 jaar of so. Nou spring hy soos 'n kat op 'n warm plaat rond. Hy gaan nou seker 'n regverdiging vir Edwin Cameron se aanstelling ook in die publiek opkook en aan 'n regeringsbeleid hang. Plaas hy sê maar net reguit hy is 'n instrument om die ANC-regering se beleid af te dwing.

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