Speaking many languages

07 May 2007

Language issues have dominated the political landscape since 1994 and universities all over South Africa are grappling with the complexities of multilingualism in their constituencies.

At UCT, important successes have been made following the implementation of the Language Plan, approved by Senate and Council in 2004.

Take a moment to consider headway being made by the Multilingualism Education Project (MEP), launched in 2005.

Have you noticed the multilingual signage on campus? Or that the corporate logo now carries three official languages, as do the website and corporate publications. Colleagues in the Centre for Higher Education Development (CHED) and Libraries staff are greeting each other "Molo bhuti/sisi. Kunjani?", the result of participating in a pilot isiXhosa communication skills course in 2006.

This year the courses have been extended to chemical engineering, health sciences, the Development and Alumni Department and the Graduate School of Business.

"Our target is to train 160 staff members a year - and we've filled that quota already this year," MEP co-ordinator, Associate Professor Mbulungeni Madiba, noted.

The plan is to extend these classes to students.

"Our students are not going to work in a monocultural/ monolingual society," Madiba added. As a result, MEP together with the School of Languages and Literatures, has drafted a proposal to introduce isiXhosa and Afrikaans service courses for law. These courses are already running in the health sciences.

In promoting African languages to academic status, important work is being done after the launch of a pilot project for multilingual glossaries in the Department of Statistical Sciences, headed by Professor Tim Dunne.

In this project, 250 mathematical and statistical terms, or "frequent concepts", suitable for undergraduate level have been selected from a list of around 3 680 terms. The plan is to get students to translate these terms into their languages and to provide their own equivalents.

"As students translate, we can see the conceptual gaps," Madiba said.

Madiba believes this is where the greatest challenge lies - in teaching and learning, where student throughputs are affected.

"It's important that students acquire concepts in their own languages," Madiba added, "otherwise they rote learn and plagiarise."

CHED's Language Development Group has also played a pivotal role in developing academic literacy skills for students who came in with English as a second language.

Another pilot project has been initiated on the construction of Special Language Corpora for African Languages (SpelCAL), which are aimed at providing language resources for the development of multilingual glossaries in science, health sciences and law.

But the work requires significant resources. Here, the R1.3 million from the South African Norway Tertiary Education Development Programme has been welcome and instrumental in the new language practitioner's post, filled by Nolubabalo Tyam.

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