University demands that students and staff learn Zulu

The University of KwaZulu-Natal's decision that all new students register for a compulsory Zulu course from next year has thrown the proverbial cat among the pigeons. While details of the initiative – a first for South African higher education – are unclear, the university believes that students must demonstrate bilingualism to earn their degrees.

The university is calling it “a watershed moment promoting social cohesion”. The move requires every undergraduate, regardless of faculty, to complete the one-semester language course. Currently, only health sciences students must complete a Zulu module.

Between 2014 and 2018, staff and students will learn sufficient Zulu for verbal academic interaction and write an examination, while from 2019 to 2029 writing skills will be developed in keeping with the university's transformation charter.

Professor Renuka Vithal, deputy vice-chancellor of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, or UKZN, said that at a university with more than 60% of students Zulu-speaking, the institution was obliged to ensure linguistic choices resulted in effective learning solutions.

“In a country that continues to be divided on linguistic identities, language should bring diverse learning communities together and promote social cohesion," she told The Mercury, a local newspaper.

South Africa’s 2011 census reflected Zulu as the mother tongue for 23% of the population, making it the most widely spoken language, and it is the dominant language of the east coast province of KwaZulu-Natal.

Language and the constitution

University of Cape Town constitutional law lecturer Pierre de Vos pointed out recently that the South African Constitution recognised 11 official languages and required that they enjoy parity of esteem and equitable treatment.

This did not mean languages had to be treated in the same manner; only that they be treated fairly depending on their widespread use in a province and considering practicality and expense.

However, De Vos wrote in The Daily Maverick, English was "more equal than other official languages" and monolingual English speakers often went through life "labouring under the bizarre misconception that all clever and educated people speak English".

He argued that by officially requiring first-year students to study a neglected indigenous language, universities signalled willingness to engage practically with cultural diversity.

"The move promotes an awareness of multilingualism among South Africans who go through life only speaking English. It also promotes understanding and respect for diverse cultures, because language and culture are so closely connected," he said.

Constitutionally, universities can demand that students undertake specific courses, while students against the policy could register elsewhere.

Language at other universities

De Vos said that the UKZN decision echoed the University of the Free State's “brilliant idea sadly not being followed by other universities” that requires first-year students to pass a course that engages critically with local and global issues and “promotes diversity literacy and social cohesion”.

Professor Ian Scott, of the Centre for Higher Education Development at the University of Cape Town, deemed UKZN's decision "very ambitious", saying that the challenge facing any university attempting this path was curriculum space. Mastering Zulu could be difficult for those who had not taken it at school.

Cape Town’s health sciences students must learn to communicate in Xhosa and be aware of how culture contributes to patients' concepts of health and illness. However, the focus is on oral not written competence.

Stellenbosch University seeks to promote both Afrikaans and Xhosa by presenting short courses and terminology development. The institution has already published law, psychology, economic and business sciences glossaries in both languages.

In a similar vein, Stellenbosch undergraduate engineering students will from next year be able to listen to lecturers in English and Afrikaans via parallel sessions or simultaneous interpretations. The faculty took the lead in making its studies more accessible to students from different home language backgrounds.

The institution most advanced along the multiple languages road is North West University, which has for the past decade pioneered multilingualism in the classroom and on its three campuses.

It has English, Setswana and Afrikaans as official languages of communication for staff, a language ombudsman to tackle concerns and complaints, and a commercial interpreting services that is used by a local college, local primary schools and two other universities.

Significantly, North West also provides classroom interpreting services. At its Potchefstroom campus, where Afrikaans in the language of tuition, English interpreting is used in a wide range of programmes and there is interpreting in Setswana for some modules.

Addressing educational challenges

Mbulungeni Madiba, an associate professor and coordinator of the Multilingualism Education Project at the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Higher Education Development, welcomed the UKZN decision as it sought to address challenges facing many students.

Research showed that 46% of students departed institutions without graduating, with language being a main factor contributing to high drop-out and failure rates.

"Expanding staff and students' linguistic repertoire via Zulu courses and introducing English-Zulu bilingual education programmes is welcomed, as it potentially improves students' academic success and promotes social interaction and transformation," he wrote in The Mercury.

However, the devil would be in the implementation, with language-planning studies reflecting that policy statements were a necessary, but insufficient, condition.

Theoretically, while people could learn additional languages at any age, functional language learning could not be achieved through force. The target audience had to see the value in the learning, and UKZN faced a major task in getting students and staff to embrace the concept.

"The power of lecturers and students in implementing a language policy cannot be underestimated – lecturers are effective in opening ideological and implementation spaces in the curriculum and teaching and learning programmes," he argued.

Madiba believed another challenge would be achieving the required proficiency via formal instruction, as short courses merely provide students with basic interpersonal communication. Insufficient language exposure lengthened the time taken to achieve basic proficiency and courses promoting academic proficiency required five to seven years.

Most degrees other than medicine did not allow students to develop this level of proficiency. Hence, Madiba contended in The Mercury, the effect would be limited to promoting language awareness, social interaction and intercultural communication.

However, he cited the biggest challenge as practicality. It was "too ambitious" for UKZN to believe it could offer Zulu courses to every student enrolled over the next few years, as there was a shortage of lecturers trained to teach African languages as additional languages.

Second language teaching was highly specialised, and language courses required small classes of around 20 students. This meant the university had to invest in training resources and classrooms to cater for numerous smaller classes.

That all said, Madiba concluded that using Zulu as an instruction medium complementing English was a feasible proposition – indeed, pupils in most South African schools are taught in indigenous languages.