Multilingualism revisited

17 October 2005

The Centre for African Studies and Associate Professor Mbulungeni Madiba, coordinator of the newly established Multilingualism Education Project, jointly hosted a lively debate on the topic: Why Multilingualism? Is English enough?

While the participants all agreed that UCT students need to be both highly proficient in English and multilingual, they disagreed about how much emphasis should be placed on the development of African languages as media of instruction.

To the surprise of many in the audience, Professor Neville Alexander, director of PRAESA and well-known proponent of multilingualism, argued for agreement among the tertiary institutions in the region about their language orientation, suggesting that UCT, Stellenbosch and UWC could be English, Afrikaans and Xhosa-orientated, respectively, with students able to take courses from all the institutions in the region.

Postgraduate studies would have a strong orientation towards English. However, he also lashed out at the lack of engagement with multilingualism by government and tertiary institutions, and stressed that it was urgent that all the institutions in the region collaborate to ensure that isiXhosa be developed as a medium of instruction at school and tertiary levels.

He emphasised the importance of development of the country's African languages for use in all domains to ensure the promotion of bio-cultural diversity and to enable all the country's citizens to participate fully in the democratic system.

Speaking from the perspective of science and technology, Dean of Science, Professor Daya Reddy, stressed the need for high-level proficiency in English, both from a practical point of view (at least 65 languages are spoken in the UCT context and 70% of UCT's students have English as a home language) and because English is the lingua franca of science.

He argued that while we need to "get beyond our stifling monolingualism, tampering with the medium of instruction is not sensible".

He stressed that while the grammatical and syntactic structure of scientific language is relatively simple and arguably easy to transfer to African languages, the precision of the vocabulary would provide a far greater resource challenge because new terms would have to be coined. In his view, South African science has to move from being mainly "consumers" to full "participants" and leaders.

To achieve this, our students need to be fully proficient in English. However, students should not be refused access because of a lack of proficiency. Rather, we need to provide appropriate language support to facilitate proficiency.

Andrea Africa, the SRC's outgoing transformation officer, delivered a passionate plea for the recognition of multilingualism as a resource rather than an obstacle. She argued that UCT needs to factor multilingualism into recruitment and access. The institution also needed to celebrate its linguistic diversity and to work out appropriate mechanisms for equipping its graduates to succeed in a multilingual society.

A lively discussion followed between colleagues across the campus and visiting dignitary, Adama Samassekou, the president of the African Academy of Languages (ACALAN), established by the African Union. Issues ranged from translation to institutional culture and assessment.

Madiba concluded the discussion by stressing the need to balance local needs with the imperative to engage internationally.

He hoped that the staff and students would get involved in the process of helping the Multilingualism Education Project develop appropriate models to achieve this goal.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Please view the republishing articles page for more information.