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SA :Nzimande: Address by the Minister of Higher Education and Training, at the Roundtable on African Languages in Higher Education, Pretoria (22/10/2010)

22nd October 2010


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Date: 22/10/2010
Source: The Department of Higher Education
Title: SA :Nzimande: Address by the Minister of Higher Education and Training, at the Roundtable on African Languages in Higher Education, Pretoria

The development of African languages is not just a "nice to have", but is a necessity, for human rights and dignity, for access to and success at university, and for the preservation of our national languages of communication and culture. As Neville Alexander has noted, "it is not true that languages simply develop ‘naturally' as it were. They are formed and manipulated within definite limits to suit the interests of different groups of people. This is very clear in the case of so-called standard languages as opposed to non-standard regional or social varieties (dialects, sociolects). The former are invariably the preferred varieties of the ruling class or ruling strata in any given society. They prevail as the norm because of the economic, political-military, or cultural-symbolic power of the rulers, not because they are ‘natural' in any meaning of the term." (Alexander, 2007: After Apartheid: the Language Question)
Trends on the African continent are that many African countries have struggled to maintain and develop indigenous languages, particularly in higher education. There are few examples of the strong preservation and development of African languages in the academy. Colonial languages have continued to dominate and hold value in education, commerce, the media, and in international and continental relations. While we cannot ignore global requirements for communication and academic transfer, engagement and knowledge building, we do not have to neglect indigenous languages. The South African Constitution is clear about the importance of all national languages, and the rights of their speakers. However, there is need to translate Constitutional aspirations into real gains.
How do we value languages in schooling and how do we take forward the Department's responsibility for training teachers with knowledge and ability to teach indigenous African languages well. This is particularly important in the Foundation phase, as the importance of foundational learning in the mother tongue has long been established. There are indications in South Africa of the stigma of learning in African languages, and the trends point towards a greater interest by parents in learning in English and neglecting mother-tongue learning, despite what the policy says. If we are to ensure better mother-tongue education and persuade South Africans of its importance, the training of teachers in this area is key.
I am deeply interested in the historical development of Afrikaans as a language of the academy. There are valuable lessons to be learned from this. One of the papers to be presented at the conference focuses on this history. It may be that there is something to be learnt from the history of Afrikaans, not least that political will and enormous energy is required to ensure language development. A reflection on this process may well useful and practical for understanding the possibilities for African languages in South Africa.
Language development covers an enormous sphere of work, from improving teaching and learning, conducting and writing research, language as an issue relating to access and success at university, language training for academic staff, the production of academic journals, student newspapers, literary works, teaching training methodologies and strategies, building communities of practice in language development. Language development discussions in higher education must also include strategies for maintaining and developing language such as lexicography and related work, terminology development and others. This Roundtable will reflect on many of these and identify clearly the options that must be considered and how we can translate this into an action plan. While the possibilities for developing African languages may be limited by available funding and expertise, it is clear that universities do have an important role to play in this work. It is also clear that we need to find the funding for this as it is central to our development as a country. I am of the view that the time has come for us to creatively find resources for the development and sustainability of our African languages.
In our reflections I must stress the important internal role of African language Departments. It has often been suggested that the way to ensure the development of African languages in higher education, beyond having clear policy, is to build strong African language departments, encourage greater student interest in studying African languages, and build research. This is something that the Roundtable must grapple with, given the perception of the demise of African language departments, and the falling numbers of students in these fields.
There are lessons to be learned from areas where African languages are showing growth and development in higher education. This includes examples from the SANTED (South African Norwegian Tertiary Education Development) programme, which funded multilingualism programmes at four South African universities. I am struck often by the work of Mr Sihle Shembe, formerly a chemistry lecturer at UKZN, who decided to present an organic chemistry practical classes in isiZulu for first year students, out of a concern for the marks of African students in his class, and the length of time it took them to complete exam papers. His assumption was that they had to translate from English to IsiZulu before writing the answer in English. So, he translated laboratory material into isiZulu for the 36 students who volunteered to be in the isiZulu practical session. He noticed a significant improvement in the marks of those in the isiZulu-medium sessions. Sihle Shembe is no longer based at UKZN but is here today at this Roundtable. His experiment needs to be lauded and we need to find ways of deriving the lessons from the results.
There is a need to counter the myth that African languages cannot be used for high level thinking and research. Ngugi wa Th'iongo writes about this in an essay on "the challenge of the pan-Africanist intellectual in the era of globalization". He indicates that the argument that African languages are incapable of handling complexities of social thought was long answered by Cheikh anta Diop, who argued that "no language has a monopoly on cognitive vocabulary, that every language could develop its terms for science and technology..." He argues that "even languages like English and French had to overcome similar claims of inadequate vehicles for philosophy and scientific thought as against the once dominant Latin". And we have our own example of this in Afrikaans, once believed to be inadequate for higher-level thinking but elevated to a strong language of academic use. Ngugi argues that kiSwahili in Tanzania is an example of this effort. He also cites a case of a graduate student at Cornell University called Gatua wa Mbugua who submitted his entire masters thesis in Gikuyu. He had to provide an English translation, but all his fieldwork was done in Gikuyu and he wrote the thesis in Gikuyu, translating it for his teachers. Ngugi goes on to say "the Yoruba people number more than 10 million; the Swedes about 8 million. But intellectual production in the two languages is very different. Why do some people believe these 10 million Africans cannot sustain such a production is 8 million Swedes can? Icelanders number about 250 000. They have one of the most flourishing intellectual cultures in Europe. What a quarter of a million can do, surely 10 million people can."
I would like to thank the Advisory panel for its preparatory work and valuable contributions to the Roundtable. I hope that this is the beginning of action in the field of language development and that we move beyond policy rhetoric to action.



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