Statement by NWU vice-chancellor on language policy

Marelize Santana -- Mon, 03/26/2018 - 08:42

Statement by NWU vice-chancellor on language policy

The process of revision of the language policy of the North-West University (NWU) has led to widespread and often constructive debate in the press, social media and among our stakeholders.

The language policy and plan task team, that has been appointed by Senate and that is led by Prof Robert Balfour, the deputy vice-chancellor for teaching and learning, notes and processes all the inputs as part of the drafting process in preparation for a submission to the university’s Senate and Council.

It is timely to reflect on some important considerations which inform this process.

We acknowledge the fact that our language policy and plan must satisfy demands from various stakeholder groups that seem contradictory. However, we take our cue from the Language Policy for Higher Education (LPHE) that prescribes a functionally multilingual environment, as well as our 2017 Statute that states that the language policy of the university “must be flexible and functional, and must redress language imbalances of the past and promote multilingualism, access, integration and a sense of belonging.”

The NWU has always been clearly multilingual and strives towards further enhancing its multilingual nature; therefore current speculation suggesting the university is contemplating monolingualism as an option, is misinformation and untrue.

The NWU’s language policy must be consistent with provisions of the LPHE according to which access to languages must be developed. The LPHE makes specific provision for the development of African languages as a means of widening access and supporting student success. These provisions place an obligation on the university to use various resources to do this, including the medium of instruction, translation of study materials and interpreting in-time and off-line. These are all options designed to support access and increase student success.

Simplistic calls for either English or Afrikaans as the only choices for education at the NWU are therefore irrelevant and damaging. The question is not which language to support, but what provision is needed to enable other languages to function in support of learning at the NWU?

Binary approaches also have the potential to polarise and detract from the need to achieve education transformation and integration of groups through the use of different languages, rather than in spite of them. Widening access satisfies both educational and transformational goals and it is for this reason that associating one language with one campus is incongruent with any vision for education and diversity at the NWU.

It is worthwhile to consider the words of Constitutional Court Judge Johan Froneman when he urged language rights activists to recognise “the complexity of the language rights of others and the unequal treatment of oppressed people of other races in the past, let alone the continued existence of historic privilege.”

Some commentators argue that the NWU’s Potchefstroom Campus is the last campus in the country where Afrikaans is perceived to be the exclusive language of teaching and learning and that this should stay so, even if it excludes other languages. The fact is that the Potchefstroom Campus is not an exclusively Afrikaans campus and has not been for some time.

On the Potchefstroom Campus the majority of postgraduate programmes are conducted in English. Undergraduate programmes are delivered in a variety of languages and modalities (parallel, interpreting and single language), sometimes mandated for educational reasons and/or required by professional bodies.

To argue that Potchefstroom is exclusively Afrikaans, is therefore a misrepresentation of its academics, students and its programmes. Such rhetoric has the danger of focussing attention on defending false ‘positions’, rather than engaging in the work of building bridges – through our languages – to academic success and understanding.

A minority of commentators allege that management has already made a decision on the language policy of the NWU. This is not true. Management, like any other consulting structure, must explore all possibilities aimed at maximising student access and success in relation to the sustainability of the university as community and institution.

This allegation also ignores the fact that the language policy is approved by the NWU Council with the approval of the Senate. Labelling leadership as hypocritical or as agents or betrayers of any one language group, reveals instead an impulse to simplify complexity, ignore constitutional imperatives and focus instead on perspectives of race, language and identity not supported by thinking South Africans. Responsible South Africans must be concerned with building the whole nation, as all public universities are committed to do.

I know that the vast majority of our students, staff and alumni detest such attempts to divide, and want only that which seeks to embrace our rich language landscape and allow all to feel included.