Fostering multilingualism on campus

15 May 2019 | Story Niémah Davids. Photo Brenton Geach. Read time 4 min.
isiXhosa and Afrikaans short course graduates received their certificates at a special ceremony this week organised by UCT’S Multilingualism Education Project (MEP).
isiXhosa and Afrikaans short course graduates received their certificates at a special ceremony this week organised by UCT’S Multilingualism Education Project (MEP).

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.” – Nelson Mandela.

That was the message Professor Mbulungeni Madiba, coordinator of the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Multilingualism Education Project (MEP), shared with recipients of isiXhosa and Afrikaans short-course certificates on 14 May.

The isiXhosa course was launched in 2006 and forms part of UCT’s New Language Policy, introduced after the government identified the need to promote different languages at South Africa’s institutions of higher learning.

Madiba said UCT selected isiXhosa as its language of choice and committed to providing students and staff with additional learning opportunities in the language. An Afrikaans short course was introduced to the campus community for the first time this year.

The graduation, following the two-month short courses, comes at an opportune time, he said – as the world observes the International Year of Indigenous Languages, as declared by the United Nations, as well as Africa Month this May, a celebration of the continent’s independence.

Multilingualism is the norm

“We cannot celebrate things that are African without celebrating the languages.

 

“Our continent is the richest in terms of language. In the world right now, there are over 6 000 languages spoken, and a third of those languages are spoken on this continent.”

“Our continent is the richest in terms of language. In the world right now, there are over 6 000 languages spoken, and a third of those languages are spoken on this continent.”

In an evolving world, the ability to speak more than one language has become second nature, Madiba said, adding that very few people around the world today speak only one language.

“The world has changed a lot. There is no way you will find a [place] where they speak only one language. Go to Europe today and you will find that people speak many languages.”

He described monolingualism – the ability to speak only one language – as an “exception”, and jokingly referred to it as a disease “that needs to be cured” – and with a short course no less.

Madiba congratulated the group of students, saying they are now part of the multilingualism norm. And those who completed the isiXhosa short course are now equipped with basic isiXhosa communication skills, even though “you may not be able to click all the way just yet”.

“I am so happy that you have made the decision to take part in this course. Our language policy at UCT is clear, we want students to be well-rounded in order to fit into the societies they will be part of after university.”

Preserving languages

According to Madiba, research indicates that many of the world’s languages are in danger of extinction. At least one language dies every week, he said.

And when a language dies, cultures, traditions and philosophies go with it. It’s for this reason that the need to preserve all languages has increased dramatically.

 

“Many things go with a dying language, including morals. But language is a resource, not a problem.”

“Many things go with a dying language, including morals. But language is a resource, not a problem,” he said.

He told students that the short courses provide them with a stepping stone to further explore and learn both languages in greater detail, and encouraged them to use every day to practise and learn a new word or phrase.

“This is a start, continue as you go along. When you meet people, practise with them, talk to them. Remember, multilingualism is a resource for development, it’s a form of empowerment,” Madiba said.


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