Language Struggle Must Make Way for Language Support

Wednesday, 15 July, 2009 - 12:48

The inability of universities to promote multilingualism and develop a practical strategy for language support should be regarded as the number one priority effort aimed at addressing the language issue at institutions of higher learning. Universities should take collective responsibility for developing viable solutions for a problem they all share. In this way, it will be possible to transcend the parochial boundaries currently holding the language struggle at historic Afrikaans universities captive

The Ministerial Committee’s report on transformation and social cohesion and the elimination of discrimination in public higher education institutions, released recently, is one of the most comprehensive and balanced reports on the conditions undermining social cohesion, successful integration and, particularly, academic performance at our universities.

It deals extensively with the role of language as medium of instruction and states that “...the language issue is undoubtedly one of the main obstacles to academic success for the majority of black students.”

The language struggle at Stellenbosch University and other historic Afrikaans universities is therefore merely the tip of the iceberg. Moreover, the preoccupation with the preservation of Afrikaans as a language of instruction and science at these institutions by language lobbyist or so called ‘Taalstryders’ and the prominence it has received in the Afrikaans press have diverted attention from the real issue as highlighted earlier. It is not only an Afrikaans issue but as long as the ‘Taalstryders’ fail to grasp the complexity of the language problem by focusing only on Afrikaans and regard transformation as an assault on Afrikaner heritage and identity, the language struggle at these campuses will be labelled reactionary.

The language problem is much bigger and transcends ethnic and class boundaries. For example, in the Western Cape, it is especially Afrikaans- and Xhosa-speaking students from the working class who are struggling academically due to an English only approach at the University of Cape Town (UCT), the University of the Western Cape (UWC) and (Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT). In other provinces I presume the situation is no different. Yet, they feel too ashamed to complain. They would rather keep quiet to spare themselves the embarrassment of being labelled as those who ‘cannot speak and write English’ and often use other issues to vent their frustration.

At a recent symposium, I noticed the despondence and helplessness of mainly working class Afrikaans- and Xhosa-speaking students. The questions that they raised not only proved that they were grappling with deep-seated mother tongue issues, but also revealed some serious misconceptions, which, in my opinion, stems from an ignorance of their language rights. Some of these misconceptions are:

  • Their mother tongues have no value;
  • Their mother tongues do not provide them with any prospects for the future;
  • They are ‘dumb’ when they cannot master the English subject content;
  • Mother tongue instruction does not provide them with employment prospects;
  • Their mother tongue cannot be used anywhere else in the world;
  • They are not at liberty to demand teaching support in the mother tongue; and
  • Teaching and learning will and must take place in English only.

Although many universities claim that they provide teaching support in the mother tongue and acknowledge their constitutional responsibility in this regard, they are merely paying lip service. This is also highlighted in the report, which states:

“In this regard, all institutions are committed to multilingualism in one form or another, including the development of African languages as academic languages, and the introduction of African languages as languages of communication. However, more often than not, this commitment remains symbolic, as a range of factors, such as the availability of qualified staff, finances and student interest militates against the full implementation of multilingualism”.

The inability of our universities to promote multilingualism and develop a practical strategy for language support should therefore be regarded as the number one priority in any effort aimed at addressing the language issue at institutions of higher learning. A shift of emphasis - from language struggle to language support - is now of the utmost importance. Universities should take collective responsibility for developing viable solutions for a problem they all share. In this way, it should be possible to transcend the parochial boundaries currently holding the language struggle at historic Afrikaans universities captive.

This is vital in order to understand that the language problem is not limited to white Afrikaans-speaking students or communities only, and to fully comprehend the impact of an English only approach. As such and at a recent symposium, Afrikaans-speaking ‘coloured’ students who chose Afrikaans as a major subject revealed that they were being excluded from education bursaries. Why the education department discriminate on the basis of ethnic origins, other then financial needs is beyond my grasp.

Xhosa-speaking students revealed that when they switched from English to Afrikaans during teacher training lessons in order to facilitate learners’ understanding of the subject matter they were penalised by their lecturers. This is despite the research done by Dr Nomlomo, a senior lecturer in the faculty of education at UWC, which clearly shows that Xhosa-speaking learners who received mother tongue instruction are academically far more in control of subject matter than those who received instruction in poor English. The gibberish written by the latter as opposed to the former, is at the heart of our dysfunctional education system, but we foolishly continue with teaching and learning in poor English.

After the symposium I was also told by parents that many Mitchell’s Plain schools in the Western Cape had become English medium schools and that, as a consequence, their children struggled to perform at school. They also complained about the transport costs they have to incur when sending their children to Afrikaans medium schools further afield. What has become of the noble ideal that ‘the doors of learning shall be opened’? Research shows that the highest drop-out rate amongst school children in South Africa now occurs among poor Afrikaans-speaking ‘coloured’ pupils. The Department of Education should therefore, as a matter of urgency, determine whether accessibility and medium of instruction play a role in this regard.

All who are concerned with our indigenous languages and the role it can play in reconstructing power relations and a just society must start working together. Its only in working together that we can reach a common understanding of the language issue and develop support strategies aimed at overcoming the obstacles inherent to an English-only approach.

Such an indigenous language support strategy must however be based on extensive research on the impact of an English-only teaching approach on every area of society. This approach is causing polarisation between communities who have access to opportunities and those who do not. It impacts negatively on education by undermining academic performance and results in early school leaving and all kinds of other social evils such as crime, gangsterism and drug abuse. It also stifles creativity and defeats the possibility of developing cultural industries in all the indigenous languages. These industries, which could have created new employment opportunities, include the newspaper, book, television, film, advertising, design, music, drama and heritage industries and government sectors such as education, communication and arts and culture.

The Ministerial Commission report holds all South African universities responsible for the situation in which higher education finds itself, and urges these institutions to find solutions for the mere lip service they all pay to the promotion and protection of our indigenous languages which include Afrikaans. In so doing, the language struggle by a few white ‘Taalstryders’ could make way for a non-racial collective lobbying for language support. While the former is embroiled in controversy and hidden agendas, the latter is purely in the interest of academic excellence and nation building.

Christo van der Rheede is a regular contributor to NGO Pulse. He is the CEO of Stigting vir Bemagtiging deur Afrikaans (SBA), a NGO working in the field of literacy and skills development through Afrikaans. Find out more about them at www.Afrikaans.com

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