Mother tongue the dissertation language

Studying is all in a day's work for Zinhle Nkosi, the first UKZN student to graduate with a PhD in teaching reading in Zulu at the foundation phase. Photo: Ryan Shepherd

Studying is all in a day's work for Zinhle Nkosi, the first UKZN student to graduate with a PhD in teaching reading in Zulu at the foundation phase. Photo: Ryan Shepherd

Published Sep 21, 2015


Durban - Local language and education lecturers who are determined to see indigenous languages afforded equal status to English at universities are publishing their work in Zulu and increasing the number of postgraduate students who submit their dissertations in Zulu.

It was a fallacy that one’s intelligence was commensurate with one’s competence in English, it was argued last week at a language colloquium (academic seminar) held by the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Two years ago the University of KwaZulu-Natal announced that it was working towards becoming a dual-medium institution, developing Zulu terminology for disciplines including law, accounting, physics and maths, and had introduced bilingual tutorials for students.

Opening the colloquium, Professor Gregory Kamwendo, dean of the school of education at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, said the fear that mother-tongue education meant doing away with English was unfounded.

English and indigenous languages ought to be partners, he said. The battle in Africa, he said, was for the recognition of indigenous languages but also not wanting to exist in a “linguistic cocoon”.

University lecturer Zinhle Nkosi wrote her 2011 PhD thesis on the teaching of Zulu at primary school, in Zulu. It meant finding the right terms to describe research methodology and theories of language and learning – which professors of Zulu helped with.

Since then Nkosi has supervised four Master’s students who submitted dissertations in Zulu. She has also published research written in Zulu in accredited academic journals.

Hilda Israel, the head of applied language studies at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, challenged academics on whether they were listening to the language needs of their students.

“Africa has over 2 000 languages and dialects. Each African child grows up with a wonderful mosaic of sounds and practice reflecting a variety of languages, with English being one of them. And then, as the child grows up, this mosaic gradually loses its unique beauty and transmogrifies into the grey monotone of only English,” Israel said.

“We are African because the language of Africa forms a unique blood that runs through our veins … A blood that gives life to meaning and metaphor and nuance that is rooted in African indigenous knowledge.

It is this identity that is being compromised in the teaching and learning context, with English becoming the sole medium of instruction and assessment.”

Multilingualism, she argued, was a gift and a resource, which, for students, could make the difference between mediocrity and excellence. She said attitudes to African languages needed to change. Language was both a supreme divider, and a tool for uniting people.

“Scorn for a language is actually a masked form of scorn for its speakers … We must remove the perception that competency in English is an indicator of elevated social status, economic progress, and charm.”

Israel argued that a student’s understanding of content in English was enhanced if it was understood in the student’s mother tongue as well.

The Mercury

Related Topics: