Multilingualism in Class: a Transformation Strategy?

04 May 2012 | Story by Newsroom

Associate Professor Mbulungeni MadibaAssociate Professor Mbulungeni Madiba (Multilingualism Education Project, Centre for Higher Education Development)

In this article, Associate Professor Mbulungeni Madiba of the Multilingualism Education Project reflects on a recent seminar on multilingual education, and on UCT's language policy.

"UCT has done a great deal to embrace the cultural and linguistic diversity of its students and staff, but do we still see a gap between policy and practice when it comes to approaches to teaching?"

This was a question posed by Associate Professor Adam Haupt at a seminar I recently attended, organised by the Humanities Transformation Committee. Professor Haupt further raised questions about the effects of the exclusive use of English in the classroom on (diverse) students' experiences of the university and their academic achievement.

As head of the Multilingualism Education Project (MEP) in UCT's Centre for Higher Education Development and a member of the university's language policy committee, this was a discussion of particular interest to me. To my mind, the current university language policy, although it opens up agentive and implementation spaces for multilingualism in the classroom, falls short of transforming what I consider the historically entrenched English monolingual ideology in the university.

Since its establishment, UCT promoted the English-only policy and as such its language policy casts a long historical shadow of this Englishness. According to Professor Martin Hall, former deputy vice-chancellor at UCT, this policy was designed to suit the needs of "a homogenous community (overwhelmingly white, predominantly male, English speaking, economically privileged)".

But, this policy is now challenged by the new linguistic and racial diversity in the institution. Against this backdrop, the university developed its new language policy in 1999 and revised it in 2003 to meet the demands of the new and changed linguistic environment.

My fellow panellists - Dr Jacques De Wet of the Department of Sociology and Dr Musa Ndlovu of the Centre for Film & Media Studies - gave different reflections on this policy.

Dr De Wet began by referring to the current language policy and its objective, which is to further "the promotion of multilingual awareness and proficiency". The policy also links to "the need to prepare students to participate fully in a multilingual society". Furthering the promotion of multilingual awareness and proficiency, the policy states that "all academic programme convenors and teachers will be required explore and implement ways in which these aims may be achieved through the undergraduate and postgraduate programme structures".

However, according to Dr De Wet, if we accept the policy then we need to ask: What are the consequences, at the point of policy implementation, for teaching practices in the classroom and in tutorials?

This is a crucial question in view of the fact that although the university has adopted the multilingual language policy, its implementation in teaching and learning poses several challenges. The first challenge is an ideological one.

UCT needs to critically rethink its traditional approach to language use in class. There is a need to forge new multilingual pedagogies that promote inclusivity and active participation of all students in the learning process. Paying particular attention to language use in the classroom is therefore crucial, in the sense that if we are not careful, this is where the goals of transformation could be promoted or undermined.

As former vice-chancellor Professor Njabulo S Ndebele pointed out in his Living Transformation document, "What goes on in the lecture rooms, seminar rooms and laboratories is most probably at the heart of the goals of transformation." According to him, the classroom is the social space where "institutional practices are handed down as well as challenged by historic change".

The past few years have seen an increased tension between students' observable daily multilingual life experience outside class, and the exclusive use of English in the classroom. To overcome this tension, a language-use complementarity approach, which promotes both the use of English and students' primary languages, could be implemented at curriculum and course levels.

In the Faculty of Health Sciences, for example, students are taught through the medium of English, but are also required to learn isiXhosa or Afrikaans as an additional language. This multilingual curriculum model can be easily implemented in other professional disciplines such as law, education, psychology and social development.

Other additional language courses may be offered outside the normal curriculum. MEP, for example, offers non-credit-bearing short language courses such as the Xhosa Communication skills course to enrich students' curriculum and knowledge base. At course level, multilingualism can be implemented by employing multilingual tutors and providing multilingual tutorials. Multilingual learning materials such as glossaries may also go a long way in enhancing multilingual learning.

MEP is currently developing the multilingual concept literacy glossaries that are aimed at providing academic support to students for whom English is not a first language. As the glossaries are in English and all the other ten official languages of South Africa, they cater for the conceptual and linguistic needs of the majority of South African students.

Dr Ndlovu concluded the seminar by giving more concrete examples on how multilingualism can be used effectively to prepare students for their future careers such as being media practitioners. He cited, for example, how teaching students multilingualism can prepare them for professions such as journalism and multilingual script writing.

He referred to recent research showing a growing demand for journalists able to write for newspapers in African languages, and includes publications such as Ilanga and the isiZulu version of Sunday Times. The critical question he concluded with is: Is UCT is producing students with linguistic resources that enable them to function effectively in a multilingual society?. Full podcast.

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