Durban - African languages must be developed and integrated into universities’ formal programmes to enhance their status and reinforce their use, the Department of Higher Education has said.

African language experts support the department and have pointed a finger at white South Africans for not making an effort to learn indigenous languages.

The White Paper for Post-School Education and Training, launched by Minister Blade Nzimande last week, emphasised the need for universities to continue the Department of Basic Education’s language policy of ensuring that African children are eventually taught in their own languages.

It said the demise of African languages in academia posed a threat to linguistic diversity, and that many African language departments had been closed due to resource cuts and diminishing student numbers.

“In 1997, White Paper 3 noted the important role of universities in developing, elevating the status (of) and advancing the use of all South African languages… Unfortunately this vision has not been realised; in fact the situation has worsened,” the paper said.

“A cross-disciplinary approach to a renewed focus on developing African languages in universities is necessary, one that integrates African languages into the formal programmes of institutions,” it stated.

Some universities’ policies that required students of some courses to take a course in an African language would be extended.

Reacting to the White Paper, Professor Noleen Turner, head of African languages at UKZN, said 80 percent of KwaZulu-Natal’s population was Zulu-speaking, and that it was “pathetic” that the other 20 percent did not bother to learn the language.

“It is about time for them to make an effort. (An African language course) will only be a basic course and allow them to be able to greet and have a basic conversation in that language.

“In other countries those in the minority make an effort to learn the majority language, but that does not happen here,” she said.

There was a problem though with a shortage of teachers who could teach an African language as a second language.

“Mother tongue Zulu teachers often teach at a level that is too high for non-mother tongue speakers, and so they end up giving up. That is why we need to have trained teachers who can teach it as a second language.”

Dr Susan Coetzee-van Rooy, chairwoman of the South African Association for Language Teachers and director of Research Development in the Faculty of Humanities at North-West University, agreed with Turner that the lack of teachers was a hurdle, but believed there were skills and capabilities to overcome it.

“I don’t think the lack of capacity is hindering us, we need the will. It is this culture that English is the language of academia and that other languages are merely for communicating, that is the problem.”

Coetzee-van Rooy said she believed an integrated citizen in South Africa was a multilingual one and that people, particularly white South Africans, needed to become multilingual.

She added, however, that it was important for school pupils to be competent in their home languages, English and another spoken or communicated dominant African language in their region.

The Mercury