Breaking language barriers

Zinhle Nkosi has published a host of academic work, including her PhD, in isiZulu.? Picture: TEBOGO LETSIE
Zinhle Nkosi has published a host of academic work, including her PhD, in isiZulu.? Picture: TEBOGO LETSIE

The University of KwaZulu-Natal will one day give its students the option of studying courses in isiZulu, thanks to people like Zinhle Nkosi, who is pioneering the use of the language in academia. Nkosi has added her name to the university’s academic annals by being one of the first people to submit her PhD in isiZulu and publish two peer reviewed papers in isiZulu. She is now contributing a chapter in an academic book, which is also written in isiZulu.

Nkosi is reluctant to brand herself as the institution’s “first PhD graduate conducted in isiZulu”. So is one of her supervisors, Thabisile Buthelezi, an associate professor at the language and arts cluster at the university’s School of Education. This, they said, was because the school of languages probably had one or two PhDs written in the language.

“But I know for sure I am definitely the first in the School of Education,” said an elated Nkosi, who presented a paper written in isiZulu at the country’s first language colloquium hosted by her university in Durban this week.

Nkosi, who was awarded her PhD four years ago, said she never thought she would conduct her PhD in isiZulu. Her dissertation was about how foundation-phase teachers teach the reading of isiZulu to Grade 2 and Grade 3 pupils.

“My supervisors asked me why I wanted to write in English if I was writing about isiZulu teachers. Buthelezi convinced me to write in isiZulu and I am really grateful to her,” she said.

While the exercise was “worth every minute”, Nkosi faced overwhelming obstacles. A doctorate is about research, but there was no research methodology textbook written in isiZulu, no academic papers or literature to review and the language is not yet fully developed for academic purposes.

“I had to coin phrases, words and concepts. I couldn’t find even one paper in isiZulu on the subject,” said Nkosi.

Conducting a PhD or writing a paper in isiZulu has its challenges, but even more problematic is finding a journal willing to publish such work. “The first paper I wrote early this year was published in the SA Journal of African Languages. The other was published in the Alternation Journal, which is based here at the university.”

Many academics, she said, might be willing to try African languages, but the lack of journals in which to publish was a disincentive. “We don’t have platforms to express ourselves in isiZulu. How many journals accept papers written in African languages? That is the biggest problem. If government incentivised academic writing in African languages, you would see a proliferation of work in such languages. That is what happened to the Afrikaans language.”

Meanwhile, Buthelezi said the university was edging closer to offering entire courses in isiZulu. “In the department of education, honours and master’s students have the option of doing their courses in isiZulu. That is where we are headed here at the university, but it will not happen overnight.”

Research, she said, had shown that students who studied in their mother tongue were far more likely to excel.

“It sounds like heresy, but Germans study in German, so do Italians, Brazilians, Chinese and Russians. We need to think hard about this. It seems impossible until it is done. There is no reason we can’t teach maths, engineering and psychology in isiZulu,” said Buthelezi.

About 15 students in the education faculty are now conducting their master’s in isiZulu, she said, adding that these students would become the academic moderators and supervisors of the future

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