How universities can use language as a force for fundamental change

South Africa has 11 official languages. Why do universities only favour two? André-Pierre du Plessis/Flickr, CC BY-NC

South Africa’s universities are absorbed in debates about fee structures, free education and decolonising the curriculum.

But amid these debates – particularly on the issue of decolonisation – academia is ignoring what could be a fundamental force for change: language.

Language policies can and should play a vital role in developing intercultural awareness. They can also make universities far more multilingual spaces, boosting relationships and dialogue. All of this would develop deeper, more meaningful engagement with what it means to be African, arising from understandings about people’s diversity and different experiences.

Universities’ policies still tend to privilege English and Afrikaans over African languages like seSotho and isiZulu. Assimilation is the order of the day. Students are considered successful if they speak relatively fluent Afrikaans or English.

Little attention is paid to the knowledge and experiences students bring to their institutions from different cultures and backgrounds. Indigenous languages are sidelined; indigenous knowledge is ignored. This ignorance arises from a colonial past in which western knowledge was rarefied and its own cross-cultural origins ignored.

Addressing these issues can open up new spaces for decolonisation and interculturalism where diversity is not simply the context in which differences coexist. Instead, these differences become key to developing an authentic national identity in which diversity can also lead to transformative insight.

Language rendered invisible

Most South African universities teach primarily in either Afrikaans or English. Their motivation, explained in language policies, is that offering classes in English opens the doors to more people. This is rooted in the idea of English as a globally spoken and understood language.

Yet English is only South Africa’s fifth most commonly spoken home language. It certainly is useful as a lingua franca in the working world. But an overemphasis privileges a few while disadvantaging many. Holding lessons in English mostly empowers young middle class people coming to university via the country’s better schools.

Language is somehow regarded as an invisible component of the academic world. There’s an unspoken assumption: the languages students bring to universities are only useful to the extent that they enable students to acquire English, particularly for academic literacy.

This language dominance is part of the reason that poorer students – who tend not to speak English or Afrikaans at home – take longer to finish their degrees. They are also more likely than their middle class, English-speaking peers to drop out before graduation.

South Africa’s academics must take a hard look at themselves and universities need to reexamine their policies. Has enough been done to access students’ experiences and worlds? Not with a pragmatic view to enabling access and participation in English or Afrikaans, but with a genuine recognition of worlds that ought to be part of any higher education curriculum.

Marginalised disciplines and voices

Andre Goodrich, an anthropologist at South Africa’s North-West University, has made a similar point. He deals with the othering that occurs even within universities’ curricula.

Goodrich argued that a discipline’s colonial character can be discerned by examining the zones of exclusion it has produced. New disciplines that disrupt and contest what constitutes an academic subject are sidelined. Gender Studies, for instance, contested the foundations of both Anthropology and Sociology when it emerged.

Other disciplines – African Studies; Popular Culture; Queer Studies; and Indigenous Knowledge Systems – are routinely marginalised at universities as they are not considered central to what “really” counts as the knowledge needed for success in later life.

To some, these disciplines might seem abstract or remote. But their marginalisation within the academy has a very real effect: no recognition is given to people’s experience and their knowledge, which are central to these areas of work.

There are pockets of success when it comes to Indigenous Knowledge Systems. One of my colleagues, Josef de Beer, is studying the microbial qualities of indigenous plants. These plants have long been used by communities for medicinal and other purposes. Several universities are doing work that celebrates South African literature written in indigenous languages.

But there isn’t yet a groundswell when it comes to embracing indigenous knowledge to create curricula across disciplines and institutions. Decolonisation is nowhere near happening – and one of the main reasons for this, I’d argue, relates to the use and place of indigenous languages in academia.

Language and identity

Scholars in the decolonisation debate have spoken a great deal about what it means to access students’ epistemological worlds – their lived experience and understandings of truth and knowledge. But this discussion must be grounded in the context of who people are.

Language is central to identity. It also informs what knowledges students bring to a space.

Many young South Africans still experience higher education as exclusionary. This makes calls by some (particularly historically Afrikaans) institutions to embrace English as the primary language of learning profoundly ironic. These universities seem to think such a move will greatly improve access for many potential students.

But what use is access if it isn’t accompanied by a genuine recognition of diversity? Physical access doesn’t mean that students’ worlds, experiences and knowledges are suddenly prioritised or even just recognised.

The likelihood of real recognition – indeed self-reckoning – occurring in universities remains small as long as previously colonial languages remain the primary mediums of teaching and learning.

South African academia still directs an unyielding face Westwards. It continues to speak in only two of the country’s 11 tongues. When the audience to which you speak is multilingual; and you seek to develop and reach people with words, using more than one language is important. Without that acknowledgement, teachers and academics will only ever be aware of who is speaking. They will remain ignorant about who is listening.

The Conversation

Robert John Balfour does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.