First-ever Academy for Multilingualism to promote three indigenous languages at UFS

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Academy for multilingualism established at the UFS. Photo: Supplied/ DrPeetvanAardt
Academy for multilingualism established at the UFS. Photo: Supplied/ DrPeetvanAardt
  • The University of the Free State is promoting Sesotho, isiZulu and Afrikaans
  • The university plans to use multilingualism to improve academic excellence 
  • Management has made the promotion and development of languages a priority 

2021 opens a new chapter for the University of the Free State (UFS) as it establishes an Academy for Multilingualism, aimed at promoting Sesotho, isiZulu and Afrikaans on institutional and social levels through academic and community-based projects.

The university believes that multilingualism is a tool that leverages language richness to improve academic excellence and promote inclusion in institutional spaces.

The UFS language policy was approved by the Council in 2016, with English being the primary language of instruction in all three campuses for both undergraduate and postgraduate levels of study.

The policy stipulated that English will be used for formal writing, but the university also pledged to enable a language-rich environment by giving attention to Afrikaans, Sesotho and IsiZulu.

As the first-ever Academy of Multilingualism in the university, the aim is to implement what the university vowed to do in its language policy, which is to develop and use the above-mentioned languages.

This followed after a student survey, completed in June 2020, revealed that many students have difficulty understanding their lecturers due to language differences.

The Academy for Multilingualism will generate multilingual aids to support learning and create a more representative space within the university campuses.

Parent24 interviewed Dr Peet van Aardt, the custodian of the Academy for Multilingualism in UFS to talk more about this initiative and how this academy will be relevant should online education be maintained in the future.

What inspired this initiative

A few things seem to have inspired this initiative as Dr van Aardt explains that first, it was the passion they saw from the students who were participating in writing short stories in their African languages for the Initiative for Creative African Narratives (iCAN).

Secondly, he says that it was also inspired by the fact that representation and subsequent input is a necessity in their institution's Language Committee by the Independent Student Representative Council.

He says another inspiration was the fact that it was time for them to match their walk with their talk: as the institution that enables the use of different home language for academic purposes, it was time they provided their content in those languages as well.

Lastly, he says that the university management finally made the promotion and development of languages a priority and invested in it.

Read: EC matriculants share their thoughts on the final mother tongue exam paper 

Use of translanguaging and developing academic glossaries

Van Aardt tells us that they are currently piloting translanguaging in some of their tutorial sessions for first-year students.

He defines translanguaging as the opportunity to give students a chance to use their home languages to discuss the content of the course during tutorial sessions.

He tells us that the university is also doing voice-overs of the English language in Sesotho, Afrikaans and IsiZulu in a few modules.

Additionally, van Aardt reveals that there is research in progress on creating multilingual academic glossaries which will help students to use their indigenous languages to overcome the language barrier of English as a medium of instruction at the university.

Also read: How to tackle the issue of mother-tongue instruction in South African schools

Use of community-based projects

As custodian of the Academy he tells us that one of the community-based projects they use to motivate students is the Initiative for Creative African Narratives (iCAN), a platform where students write and publish short stories in different languages.

With 50 students publishing in seven different languages last year, he says that this help students not only consume the knowledge created for them but to create the curriculum as well.

"Another community project is our annual Kovsies Multilingual Mokete, a one-day cultural festival that showcases various talents on campus and promotes the use of mother tongue, whether in song, dance, poetry, writing and other performance arts. This year the Mokete will be hosted on our Qwaqwa campus." explains van Aardt.

Use of retired language practitioners 

Knowing very well how expensive translation services are when it comes to translating the entire syllabus, Dr van Aardt says that for this project they will use retired academics who are qualified language practitioners from their community to assist with the translation of this content.

Will such provisions be made for online learning?

There is still uncertainty with regards to online learning after the Covid-19 pandemic is over, but van Aardt says that extra efforts such as videos, voice-overs, translation and online tutorials should be made for students and if they make that effort as the university, they will be able to produce equipped students.

Besides English taking a primary role due to it being the most accessible language in the country, UFS took it forward to support students who have proficiency in the three above-mentioned languages to help students understand the content so that language doesn't become a barrier.

English will be used alongside these languages, as van Aardt believes that English is not the problem for students in Africa: the problem is what is expressed and conveyed in English.

"We are using local languages, local content, local sources to enrich and diversify our academic offering to our students so that their language and their identity form part of their academic successes," he adds.

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