File photo: Gcina Ndwalane

An article in an academic journal questioning the wisdom of exclusively mother tongue instruction at universities in developing countries has meant revisiting the debate on bilingualism and the status of African languages in South Africa’s lecture halls. Leanne Jansen reports

Teaching university students exclusively in their mother tongue may help their academic performance, but it could also jeopardise their success in the workplace, an article in the most recent issue of the South African Journal of Science argues.

The article by the University of the Witwatersrand’s Aceme Nyika, a researcher in the faculty of health sciences, explores the possible implications of introducing vernacular languages as the official languages of instruction at universities in developing countries.

Poor student achievement at universities has been attributed to students being taught in their second language – most often English – and how proficient students were in the language of instruction affected their performance in non-language subjects such as maths and science.

Research published in the Perspectives in Education journal last year suggested there was strong evidence of disadvantage for matric pupils who were taught in, and wrote their final exams in, their second or third language.

The Perspectives in Education study suggested that more than 90% of pupils at schools with mainly African-language children had not yet learnt to read with comprehension by Grade 5, and that was likely to contribute to “insurmountable” learning deficits in all subjects.

The University of KwaZulu-Natal, which is working towards becoming a dual-medium institution, is developing Zulu terminology for disciplines including law, accounting, physics and maths and has introduced bilingual tutorials for students, as it goes ahead with affording South Africa’s most widely spoken home language equal status to English.

But in his article Nyika questions whether the “mammoth task” of ensuring that university level reading materials such as textbooks and journals are made available in the chosen vernacular language is feasible. He believed that for a university anywhere in the world to exclude a language as widely spoken internationally as English could in the long run inadvertently disadvantage the very people who were meant to benefit from such a policy.

“In fact, anecdotal evidence shows that graduates from countries that use local vernacular language as the medium of instruction until tertiary levels eventually face challenges adapting to real-life environments in which English is the official language of communication,” Nyika said.

“Some empirical evidence has shown that, controlling for other confounding factors, proficiency in English is significantly associated with increased wage earnings.”

Graduate employability aside, there was also the matter of university competitiveness.

Factors which gave universities the edge included high-quality demand-driven research outputs, participation in national and international collaborative programmes, innovative research, and the publication of research outputs. Generally, this to a large extent required the use of an international language.

Nyika argued that graduates taught in vernacular languages could find it difficult to secure grants which needed to be applied for in English.

“Journals in various vernacular languages may have to be established. However, the readership would be restricted to specific groups of people, which would negate the whole purpose of publishing, which is mainly to enable widespread dissemination of research outputs.”

The choice of one vernacular language over another, and of the risk of discrimination were also worth careful consideration.

“What would happen to the vernacular languages of the minorities? Use of local vernacular languages as the medium of instruction at specific universities located in particular geographical or political regions of a country or continent could inadvertently increase the risk of discrimination along ethnic or racial lines because vernacular languages are generally specific to particular ethnic or racial groups.” In contrast, Nyika said, using an international language as a medium of instruction would promote the mixing of people from different ethnic and racial groups.

Although English was a former colonial language, its widespread use made it relatively neutral. This was not to say that English was superior to other languages – it was merely a convenient tool.

“Policy changes that will introduce vernacular languages as the medium of instruction at university levels may not lead to the desired results… There is a risk of being short-sighted and to focus only on university pass rates of indigenous students without considering the possible long-term negative impact on:

* “The eventual competitiveness of students in terms of securing employment in the national and international markets after obtaining their degrees.

* “The productivity of the universities in terms of attracting high-quality students, workforce and research funding.

* “The ability of the universities to significantly contribute towards national and international socio-economic development through production of graduates who can effectively participate in the mainstream economic activities without being restricted to vernacular language-specific localities.

* “National and international cohesion without the risk of ethnic and racial segregation being inadvertently promoted.”

Professor Russell Kaschula, a professor of African languages studies and chairman of the Rhodes University Language Committee, begged to differ.

“ It is a real misnomer to think we must wait for a corpus of scientific literature before we can teach in our languages. We create terminology as we go along. We do not wait for a magical moment when there is a certain volume of terminology. Even English creates terms all the time as the need arises. Not so long ago we had never heard of the word ‘hashtag’; the same goes for African languages. There is no magical moment when to begin to use them in the classroom. They are living languages and should be seen as a resource to be used and to aid cognition and understanding at all times when the context and classroom environment allows for this,” Kaschula countered.

“Our languages are being intellectualised. There are now scientific journals in the humanities in which you can publish in African languages. Many abstracts are now also appearing bilingually even in some international journals. We are even writing academic theses in African languages in the humanities.

“This is the emerging reality rather than trying to achieve the utopian English hegemony which the late Neville Alexander referred to as ‘assailable’ but ‘unattainable’ for many. Also, by learning content subjects in a language other than English does not mean that you will not be proficient in English in the workplace.

“Many of us studied our content subjects in Afrikaans, but this does not mean that we cannot read and write and work in English.

“If we continue with this line of thought then we must accept that we remain neo-colonial hypocrites where we see all that is African (including our languages) as infinitely inferior.

“I am sure that the Russians, the Japanese, the Germans or the South Koreans do not view their own languages as some of us Africans view ours,” Kaschula said.

Noleen Turner, an associate professor in the African languages department at UKZN, said a bilingual university education was feasible in the South African context, and existed in several countries around the world.

But a truly bilingual system could only exist when schools taught those languages effectively from primary school right through to matric.

“Currently at UKZN, the vision is to introduce bilingualism in the future, but how long that would take depends on how effective the school system is.

“At the moment students are taught in the medium of English, but students who struggle with English as an additional language in some colleges are assisted with tutorials in their mother tongue.”

The Mercury