Mother Language Day celebration – this is how the NWU builds for the future

Marelize Santana -- Fri, 03/03/2017 - 09:12

Mother Language Day celebration – this is how the NWU builds for the future

By Prof Dan Kgwadi, vice-chancellor of the NWU.

We've recently celebrated International Mother Language Day (IMLD). The theme for this year’s IMLD is Towards sustainable futures through multilingual education, which places the role of educational institutions in promoting mother-tongue education firmly in the spotlight.

The Pan-South African Language Board (PanSALB) has declared this month a month of language activism and as a highlight of the celebrations hosted a debate in Sandton entitled How official is our official languages?

This is a question that we rightly need to ask ourselves regarding all three tiers of education. At present, little more than lip service has been paid to mother tongue education in all our official languages except for English, and to a certain extent, Afrikaans. Very little justice is done to mother tongue education from primary school, through high school and on the tertiary level in particular. Yet extensive literature exists on the benefits of mother tongue education.

It opens up access to education for speakers of minority and indigenous languages. It is particularly conducive to conceptualisation of new learning content and creative expression. It makes class participation on learning content between educator and learner possible.  It is the bearer of the content of the cultural matrix within which language is cast; and it enhances the accurate conveying of knowledge, while valid assessment of such knowledge really only comes into its own in the mother tongue.  

Finland, which has one of the most successful education systems in the world, uses Finnish and Swedish as languages of education – none of which is one of the major world languages!


However, all the above have to do with mother tongue education, while the theme for IMTD refers to multilingual education. And if one says that little justice is done to mother tongue education in South Africa, even less is happening in the case of multilingual education.

That is why the NWU has in recent times been doing some soul-searching.  We have been working for over a decade to establish a so-called functionally multilingual university environment in which there is room for English, Afrikaans and the two regional languages spoken in the environs of our campuses, namely Setswana and Sesotho.

Our language policy states that the NWU has three official languages, English, Afrikaans and Setswana, with Sesotho at the Vaal Triangle Campus being used as an additional working language.  All four these languages are utilised for certain instances of internal communication, as well as for campus signage, although not on all three campuses and on all boards. On the Potchefstroom Campus though campus signage is in all three languages.

Afrikaans is currently primarily used in lecture rooms on the Potchefstroom Campus, but some classes are offered in English Access is ensured by parallel and dual medium and single medium classes, as well by utilising educational interpreting (into English and Afrikaans), because our language policy determines that we need to be adaptable to language needs and prevailing circumstances. Modules where English-preferring students are present are therefore accessible in English. Limited interpreting into Setswana also exists at the Potchefstroom Campus for the BEd Foundation Phase classes.

The medium of instruction on the Mafikeng campus is predominantly English. On the Vaal Triangle Campus Afrikaans and English are used on first-year level, and thereafter classes are offered in English only.
The language policy is therefore implemented differently on each campus, depending on the particular circumstances.

With the preceding we do not imply that we are doing everything right, but we are trying hard to be fair to everybody. And although we realise that interpreting is not the perfect solution, it is interesting to note that some students experience no problem with it and pass their programmes with flying colours. Others again experience it as exclusive – meaning that interpreting prevents them from feeling 100% part of the class. We take this feedback seriously and are going to quite some trouble to give due attention to this matter.

We acknowledge that much more needs to be done for students who are not mother-tongue speakers of English and Afrikaans – in our case, for Setswana- and Sesotho-students students.

No classes, except where these languages are taught as language subjects, are presented through the medium of Setswana or Sesotho. A number of study guides as well as test and exam papers are translated into Setswana and Sesotho. We see that this service definitely assists students' comprehension.

The Department of Higher Education and Training expects of universities to realise the potential of indigenous languages (in addition to Afrikaans) as academic languages of tuition. A task team of the department (in which the NWU is represented) is currently working on a new language policy for higher education.

We are looking forward to this task team providing the foundation for the intellectualisation of indigenous languages. However, because the foundation for this intellectualisation is not yet established in primary and high schools, universities struggle to carry out this task.  Subject terminology has been developed over the years and made available by the National Terminology Service, hence this issue is not the main stumbling block.

The NWU is again at the point where its language policy has to be revised, something that happens every five years to keep up with language trends, and to ensure the sustainability of the multilingual pathway that the University has chosen. The policy was developed and approved in 2007 and revised in 2012, and has to go through the revision process again in 2017. We take the trouble to do the revision as accurately as possible, making use of a comprehensive language audit to guide the revision process.

In the run-up to this year’s audit, the NWU management appointed a task team last year to investigate any shortcomings in our policy so as to ensure provision for inputs in this regard in the audit.

The language plan revision task team found that time is ripe to move from the current  bilingual teaching environment to a multilingual one in order to  intellectualise Setswana and Sesotho proactively in all spheres of the NWU. This will also include that we focus on developing and cherishing interculturality by means of a multilingual environment – in particular by developing multilingual pedagogies.

Our plan inter alia comprises the offering of classes in Setswana and Sesotho in identified key modules of vocational programmes, with study material available in three languages and educational interpreting into English and Afrikaans. Class interaction will also be in three languages, thereby encouraging the active use of all three languages in the class.

We foresee that non-mother tongue speakers of these languages will gain a working knowledge thereof in their professional fields. This initiative will be supported by basic language acquisition courses for non-mother tongue speakers of these languages.

The foundation of this multilingual (or more correctly, interlingual) approach is the principle of mother tongue-based multilingualism, where conceptualisation takes place in the mother tongue, forming the basis for acquiring language to express the same concepts in other languages.

It is in accordance with this principle that many South Africans have acquired bi- and multilingual skills. We are living proof that it works!

The NWU remains serious about nurturing multilingualism but we realise that it will demand flexibility and a positive attitude from both students and lecturers.

We therefore appeal to everybody involved to make a positive contribution to this ongoing programme. This will support the sustainability of the NWU.

Read the Sesotho version of this article.

Read the Setswana version of this article.