Rhodes University seek ways to preserve African languages and promote multilingualism


Last week, Rhodes University hosted a two-day colloquium on Language Policy Framework for Public Institutions of Higher Education. Various academics from different departments and external speakers converged at the Amazwi South African museum of Literature. According to Postgraduate Diploma Lecture, Anthea Adams, the colloquium was a platform for staff and students to explore the institution’s responsibility, agency, and accountability imperatives in implementing the Language Policy Framework.

“We want to consider existing language practices and initiatives to use language as a resource in key academic activities, institutional governance, management, administration and support services. We also want to explore ways in which stakeholders could apply theories and insights on multilingualism to inform pedagogical practices such as curriculum development and facilitate meaningful student learning and experiences,” said Adams.

In highlighting the demand for multilingualism and recognising the importance of using African languages, Faculty of Pharmacy’s Dr Carmen Oltmann and Gcobisa Ngodwane reflected on the success story of their adopted initiative called ‘IsiXhosa for Pharmacy’ elective. They said the initiative is for third-year Pharmacy students to prepare them for the Community Engagement Programme. Dr Oltmann said language plays a significant role in communication. As a result, it becomes a hindrance when people from diverse linguistic backgrounds interact in their native languages because they struggle with using the English language as a mediation.

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Ngodwane outlined the importance of isiXhosa in the professional world. “Health care professionals mostly operate in multilingual spaces where they are bound to deal with patients from diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds. Patients will come from different linguistic backgrounds; communication can be challenging when a patient is unable to speak English and information is given in English. That is why we felt this programme is important,” Ngodwane explained.   

In an effort to decolonise education through providing multilingual teaching and developing resources in African languages, various departments such as Pharmacy, Economics, Politics and International Relations, Drama and Education, among others, have collaborated with the School of African Languages and Literatures in a project called ‘BAQONDE’ (Boosting the use of African languages in education: A Qualified Organised National Development strategy for South Africa). The programme is funded by the European Union and aims to facilitate and promote the use of indigenous African languages as mediums of instruction at higher education institutions in South Africa. This advances the objectives of the Language Policy Framework for Public Higher Education Institutions. 

In her presentation on teaching and assessing International Relations in isiXhosa, School of Language’s Dr Siphokazi Magadla expressed that interventions such as BAQONDE serve as the motivation. She said institutions should understand and recognise that some students find it difficult to understand content in English. She took the initiative to get course outlines translated into isiXhosa and would allow students to write/translate their tutorial assessments into their native languages. Reflecting on the Multilingual Pedagogic Practices Initiative, a representative from the Economics department, Dr Juniours Marire said they have been trying to utilise language as a resource for understanding concepts in Economics. He said their stride is small scale compared to the Politics department.

In the past, students struggling with English would go out looking for tutors to translate their notes and sometimes at a cost. “That means there was a lot of social injustice that even up to this day is being reproduced,” said Dr Marire. The department started looking into ways to introduce multilingual aspects to the way they teach Economics.  “In trying out different interventions, we were trying to, in a small way, mitigate some of those language-related injustices in the learning process,” he explained.

Dr Marire said these strides by Rhodes University and the multilingualism and translanguaging have the potential to make Rhodes University a more open and transformed learning environment.

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