Women’s Month: Change SA’s language learning policy to decolonise education curricula

10 August 2022 | Story Niémah Davids. Photo Supplied. Read time 8 min.
Naledi Maponopono is passionate about developing African languages in the education system and to use it as a vehicle for change to address the myriad of challenges in the sector.
Naledi Maponopono is passionate about developing African languages in the education system and to use it as a vehicle for change to address the myriad of challenges in the sector.

African-language-speaking students at South African universities must enjoy the same learning privileges afforded to English- and Afrikaans-speaking students. Changing South Africa’s language learning policy is crucial to this process and a fundamental step towards decolonising the education curricula in higher education institutions in the country.

This is according to Naledi Maponopono, a PhD candidate in the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) African Languages and Literatures section in the School of Languages and Literatures. Maponopono is a part-time lecturer at the South African College of Applied Psychology and recently concluded a lecturing stint at UCT where she lectured medical students in isiXhosa communication, as well as first and second language acquisition of isiXhosa to students in the Department of African Languages. Currently she is a curriculum development specialist at Curro Digital Education, and runs her own company, Inkwenkwezi Language Services – a business that offers clients a range of language services. She is passionate about developing African languages in the education system and to use it as a vehicle for change to address the myriad of challenges in the sector.

Maponopono has already been recognised for her work. She was recently named one of News24’s 30 Young Mandelas of the Future. The list comprises several young changemakers who embody the true spirt of Nelson Mandela, and who, in their own unique ways, are making a difference in South Africa. In celebration of Women’s Month, UCT News will highlight exceptional women in the campus community – Maponopono is one of them.


“It has motivated me to continue working hard and playing my part with creating a better South Africa.”

“Wow! To be likened to an icon like Madiba is massive. I am touched and honoured that I’ve made this list. It has motivated me to continue working hard and playing my part [in] creating a better South Africa,” she said.

Decolonising the curricula  

The topic of Maponopono’s PhD research is “Analysis of language policy implementation in higher education”. Through her research, she seeks to develop a monitoring and evaluation tool specifically targeted at government – to assess its progress and readiness to implement the use of African languages in higher education institutions – for teaching and learning purposes. This idea, Maponopono explained, is in line with the National Language Policy Framework, which aims to promote and strengthen the use of all official languages across functional domains of public higher education institutions in the country.

“Much of the current literature in this area of study points to the fact that while we have many language policy frameworks at government and institutional level, the implementation thereof by government is virtually non-existent,” she said.

The goal of her monitoring and evaluation tool is to assist with developing African languages into academic teaching and learning languages and to ensure that institutions of higher learning adopt them. What she’d like to see long-term is for all South African students to receive their education in a multilingual environment in a language that they understand. This, she believes, will help them thrive.

Research 101

Maponopono is no stranger to this research topic. Similarly, her master’s research study also focused on language policy implementation in the basic education sector.

“I wanted to use my master’s to transcend into finding solutions to language policy in the higher education space. African language speakers remain disadvantaged in this sector. They don’t have the benefit of learning in their mother tongue, and this stems right back to colonialism and apartheid when languages of the people were not recognised,” she said.

Currently, Maponopono is the only academic in African languages in the country who has embarked on a research project of this kind. This, she said, means that she will be the first South African researcher to make work of lifting government’s National Language Policy Framework from its “previously diminished status” to aid the language policy at institutions of higher learning.

Moving South Africa forward

Maponopono said she hopes that her research will play a significant role with moving South Africa forward by ensuring access to education for all, despite students’ language of choice.

“Changing the language policy plays a vital role in helping students familiarise themselves with the campus environment and the course work,” she said. “As things change and I reach my goal, I hope that it gives African-language-speaking students the confidence to apply at any institution of higher learning without any concerns about a language barrier.”


“South Africa will benefit greatly from a multilingual education environment.”

More than that, she hopes her research will motivate other would-be scholars to pursue their tertiary education in African languages to grow the pool of academics in this underserved field of study. Maponopono said she hopes her research will also provide government with the jump start they need to implement the Language Policy Framework for Higher Education Institutions.

“South Africa will benefit greatly from a multilingual education environment because we’ll be able to produce far more excellent professionals, who at this stage are reluctant to enrol at university because English and Afrikaans are not their languages of choice. Addressing this is necessary to move our country further forward,” Maponopono said.

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