South African speakers on what went wrong
South African indigenous languages are among those at risk of being serious decline due to the increasing use of digital technologies. According to some estimates only 5% of the world’s languages are likely to survive online.
As centers of knowledge generation, South African universities have a vital role to play in preventing this from happening. When democracy came to South Africa in 1994, multilingualism was seen as imperative to ensure that the country’s 11 official languages were respected and promoted. Universities could play their part by using indigenous languages in high-level functions: teaching, learning and research.
Despite numerous legislative policy documents and framesin practice the use of indigenous African languages in South African universities is far from what it should be. The adoption of distance (online) education at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021 may have deepened the chasm even further. This is because English dominates in online engagements in this the context.
Online instruction employed by universities during the pandemic has been delivered almost exclusively in English. If this continues, it could derail the work done thus far to “intellectualize” Indigenous languages – that is, to develop them for use in high-status contexts like education.
In a recent article I was inspired by the reflections of seven speakers from seven South African universities on the challenges of trying to teach online in more than one language. I have considered the implications for the development of historically marginalized languages, as required by the Language policy framework for public higher education institutions.
What professors told me suggests that if many indigenous languages are not used in higher education, their speakers could face even greater exclusion in universities. It will also delay the progress made in promoting these languages.
Lecturers taught in areas such as politics, history and education. Some were in traditional universities and some were in universities of technology.
Their experience was that it was difficult to teach in multiple languages during emergency distance learning. The challenges were in three categories:
switches from in-person interactions to on-screen interactions
changes in the types of resources used to teach in multiple languages
moves from approaches that intellectualize indigenous languages to approaches that focus on dissemination.
Their view was that their experiences during COVID did not bode well for the intellectualisation of indigenous South African languages.
One participant feared that multilingualism would become nothing more than a mechanical translation from one language into another. Although translating resources is an important part of multilingual education, it is just the beginning. Students then need to be taught to use the indigenous language to find new ways of thinking about their disciplines, building on the indigenous knowledge systems in which the languages are rooted.
The participant went on to say:
Our students need a dynamic and lively multilingualism that demonstrates that intellectual work is not only about English. And that your teachers are not English speaking. They’re also Xhosa, and they’ve got Afrikaans, and they’ve got slang, and they’ve got Zulu, and they’ve got common language, and they’ve got street language… there’s a cross set of all our multilingual capacities to transmit the intellectual project.
Under the conditions of emergency remote learning, teachers were under pressure to simply deliver course content. This was true even for teachers who wanted to use multilingual pedagogies. They were aware of the need for multilingualism in higher education in South Africa. But the conditions in which they were teaching were such an obstacle that they did not translate resources such as notes and slides by default.
…it hasn’t been a huge success as we think students just don’t read.
Academics Rosalie Finlayson and Mbulungeni Madiba have argued that effective intellectualization is what will see indigenous languages
developed, in the shortest possible time, to a point where they can express concepts that already exist in languages such as English and Afrikaans.
For this to happen, the focus must be on capturing African languages in written form to develop lexicon and grammar. This was a challenge during COVID as some web-based learner management systems do not support texts written in African languages. They don’t have the special characters a student should use in an exam to show what they know. It is therefore difficult to assess the candidate.
Indigenous language teaching resources, such as journal articles and textbooks, are also scarce. Instructors therefore had few resources to draw on when trying to put their courses online. And technology did not allow teachers to easily write online as they would on a board:
As a language teacher, you are required to write because when students do not understand what you are trying to teach, you must put what you say orally in writing so that they fully understand it.
Adapt systems for local use
In 2014, South Africa scholars have asked the localization of learner management systems to promote teaching.
Localizing a learner management system involves adopting and modifying digital information and computer user interfaces into local languages, cultures, values and beliefs.
It is costly and requires the collaboration of institutions. But researchers have stressed how important it is to elevate the status of indigenous languages. The fact that this has not yet happened suggests that it may not be a priority for universities, which are best placed to do so, or for the government, which has the power to hold them accountable if they do not. don’t.
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