Embracing language rights

Dr Dianna Moodley reveals perceptions and preferences of African and non-African language speakers concerning African language usage in Higher Education

Amid the current turmoil about student dissatisfaction with the Higher Education system in South Africa, the question of language choice for instruction continues to swelter. The need to construct a national multilingual identity has never been more critical than at present, where there appears to be increasing tensions about implementing multilingual language policies.

Language usagemay beheading towards a cul-de-sac if institutions do not address language attitudes and preferences of students and staff in a meaningfully engaged way, says the writer. Credit: EPA

These tensions revolve around potential conflict between the resuscitation of previously disadvantaged languages on one hand, and maintaining the already established “high status” languages on the other. Further, there are challenges from affirmative action for African languages.

Almost two decades into democracy, after being riddled by a system of government, fittingly referred to as “virtual heresies”, South Africans should be readily embracing language rights that were previously denied to them.

However, African language usage seems to be facing hindrances from within institutions and could thus be potentially dangerous. Policy will not thrive in an inconducive environment that does not have the co-operation and understanding of its constituents at heart.

Efforts to advance African languages may be heading towards a cul-de-sac if institutions do not address language attitudes and preferences of students and staff in a meaningfully engaged way.

The hegemony of English as a medium of instruction cannot simply be overturned because, successful implementation of language shift is dependent on and entwined with attitudes towards language use. Garland (2006) puts it aptly when he states that:

It is clear from several modern examples that a dying or dead language can turn around and become vibrant again, depending on people’s determination and the government policies that are put in place.

While institutions can be commended for the revamping of their language policies in line with national legislation and imperatives, they are merely paying lip-service if they do not remove the encumbrances to African language usage in education the provision of an African “facelift” to institutions is mere tokenism.

Simply changing signage, posters, websites and engaging in pockets of pilot projects incentivised by substantial funding is not enough. In fact, these small initiatives only thrive because they are supported by handsome funding.

Otherwise, they would ultimately lose fervour and fizzle out if funding is removed or depleted, resulting in a futile waste of valuable time and resources.

Funding should be used more prudently to motivate students and academics rather than invested in isolated projects that seem to glorify the use of African languages, albeit merely a facade for what is really happening on the ground.

On a superficial level, African languages seem to be advancing, but persuading university communities to actually use an African language in a predominantly English-speaking environment is the real challenge. And while mandating the acquisition and use of African languages creates the impression of “imposing” a language on unwilling users, it comes across as overly prescriptive and merely reverts South Africa to precisely what apartheid was trying to achieve – ethnic institutions.

How successful are revised language policies in education? The answer lies in the measure of its users’ attitudes towards it and their acceptance of it. With purposeful interrogation, getting beneath the skin of resident attitudes about language could ultimately drive the move towards multilingualism forward.

Rather than regarding the university population as inflexible racists or cultural conservatives, it would better serve the scholarship to investigate user-inclinations about the policy and constantly test modifications of the language status quo, testing whether the linguistic environment is being appeased over time. Isolated university endeavours must be more closely scrutinised to determine whether they are yielding actual policy usage on the ground.

The bottom line is that there is very little progress in the use or acquisition of African languages in South African higher education. Bi/mulitilingualism policy is still at odds with popular demand for the language of power (English). Suffice to say, a covert policy of de facto mono/unilingualism is here to stay unless universities incentivise their students to use or acquire the language and channels funding in a more appropriate direction, yielding more favourable outcomes of actual African language advancement.

Although the logistical obstacles appear to be rather severe, the facts cannot stand in the way of good policy. The zeal of policy makers is appreciable; nonetheless there is very little hope that revamping language policies will result in practical fruition in the near future.

It will involve perseverance and a long term collective commitment from all its stake-holders. Only then can we begin to move faster towards creating and consolidating a multilingual environment in our higher education institutions, providing a quality, decolonised education that meets the needs of our students and academics.