Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande Photo: Jeffrey Abrahams

Multilingualism advocates say there is considerable evidence that university students and academics are keen to learn an African language as part of their courses.

A group of academics who call themselves the South African Interest Group on Multilingualism (Sigom) plan to meet in September to discuss ways in which universities and academics can promote the use of and instruction in African languages at university level.

The group comprise academics from various tertiary institutions, including lecturers from the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, the University of Johannesburg, the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) and the University of Cape Town (UCT).

Last week Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande renewed his call for all university students to learn “at least one African language as a condition for graduation”.

When announcing his budget last month, Nzimande told Parliament his department would “increase the number of universities offering foundation phase teacher education programmes, specifically for the preparation of teachers who are able to teach in the African languages” between 2011 and 2014.

He has also set up an advisory panel on African languages “to strengthen the teaching, research and development of African languages at universities”.

Meanwhile, academics at UKZN and UCT have rubbished the idea that students are not interested in learning African languages. Both universities offer an African language component as part of their medicine and medical sciences courses.

While UKZN offers aspiring doctors, physiotherapists, chemists and medical technicians a semester course in Zulu, medical courses at UCT currently include four semesters of Xhosa and Afrikaans.

Head of the School of Zulu at UKZN Professor Nhlanhla Mathonsi says there has been an increasing interest in Zulu courses among those who are not mother-tongue speakers.

The numbers applying for the second language course far outstripped those of the mother-tongue course, with the university seeing 300 students registering at the Durban campus, between 150 and 200 at Pietermaritzburg and a further 150 at the Westville Campus per semester, Mathonsi said.

“There is a big demand. Last year we had to start teaching lecturers because some of them noticed that there was a communication breakdown with some students,” he said.

Mathonsi said medicine and health sciences students found the course helpful, but said it should be shifted towards the end of their programme instead of the first year, where it is now.

“Where they are going to be working they are going to come across mostly Africans and have to know the language. The problem is that they start them early (in the course) and by the time they go into communities they have already forgotten.”

Mathonsi said he saw Nzimande’s call as a way “to improve relations” between different races in South Africa. “He’s trying to say ‘let’s meet each other half way’,” he said.

However, Mathonsi said it would be better if African languages were taught at high school and primary school levels, so that more students already had an understanding of the basics once they entered tertiary institutions.

He also said there were too few people qualified to teach African languages, but hoped the numbers would increase as universities continued to train more teachers.

Meanwhile Professor Mbulungeni Madiba, who co-ordinates the multilingualism education project at UCT, also agrees that there needs to be a greater push to ensure African languages are taught at basic education level.

“The basic education curriculum should encourage learning an African language. Most of the kids are from former Model C schools and many (of these) don’t cater for African languages.

“In some cases even the mother-tongue speakers can’t write and read in their own languages.”

“If the opportunity is provided for learners at a basic education level, it would give them an advantage once they got to university level. Then we would be teaching them the specialist language,” Madiba said.

He explained that instead of learning the specific terminology of their industries, most university students were learning the basics of Afrikaans or Xhosa in order to help them relate to the rural and township communities they would eventually work in.

As at UKZN, the health faculties had made an African language course part of the curriculum and the departments want to expand the current four semester course to six semesters.

Madiba said law students were also requesting an African language course because they “find it very difficult” when practising in Western Cape communities where the dominant language is not English.

Last year UCT piloted a Xhosa course for 30 law students and, at the request of students. This year the course will include Afrikaans.

“We are hoping that by 2012, 2013 it will be incorporated into the main course,” Madiba said.

He added that lecturers and students from other faculties had expressed interest in “non-formal courses” in both languages.

“In 2006 we had 800 staff members who had gone through the course and they did this during lunch and after hours. A number of students from the psychology department were also doing the course during lunch-breaks,” he said

Madiba said among those who took Xhosa classes were Sotho, Venda and Xhosa speaking students who recognised that they needed to know the dominant languages of the province. -Sunday Independent