How South Africa’s universities are making more students multilingual


South Africa is a multilingual, multicultural space. As is the case for many other countries in Africa, it has a number of official languages – 11.

Although the South African Constitution, other legislation and some policies promote the use and development of all 11 languages, this does not happen in practice. For instance, the country’s courts operate with English as the sole and official language of record.

In higher education, too, English tends to be the dominant language. This is despite the fact that English is only the country’s sixth most commonly spoken home language.

But the good news is that universities are becoming increasingly aware that they have an important role to play in ensuring that students do more than just graduate – they also need to be linguistically competent to work in sectors of society where the majority of people who access services can’t speak English.

That’s where vocation specific language courses come in. These focus on teaching students the words and phrases they need to interact with different people in the course of particular professional work. Cuba, for instance, provides this sort of vocation-specific language support for South African medical students training in that country.

These courses can encourage both linguistic and cultural awareness. They can equip students with the basics they need to communicate. For example, journalists, pharmacists or lawyers deal with clients from different linguistic backgrounds.

These courses have been introduced at a number of universities in South Africa. This hasn’t been a universally accepted move. Some academics have argued that this approach “takes students off course” and distracts them from the key purpose of their degrees.

But there’s a growing body of evidence that suggests these courses are working – and producing graduates who can function well in professional multilingual environments. These courses are valuable because they create citizens who are more aware of the backgrounds of the people they are dealing and living with.

The landscape today

Universities started developing vocation specific language courses in the decade after apartheid ended. The University of Cape Town was among the pioneers, introducing isiXhosa for medical students in 2004. In doing so, it recognised the need to equip students linguistically to work with patients who spoke this language, which is the country’s second most common home language.

Today, the structure of vocation-specific language courses differs from university to university. They can be offered at both mother tongue and second language levels. They can be compulsory and credit bearing or offered as additional courses. They can be integrated into the mainstream curricula or they can be studied separately. All universities have language policies, which allow for these permutations.

For instance, at Rhodes University IsiXhosa for Journalism is compulsory. It is part of the journalism course and must be passed at the relevant level: mother tongue, if a student’s home language is isiXhosa, and second language level if not. At the same institution, isiXhosa for Pharmacy is an elective and is integrated into the fourth year Pharmacy course. On average about 300 students a year complete these vocation specific language courses.

At the University of Cape Town, an IsiXhosa and Afrikaans course is integrated into the medical degree and must be passed. At the University of the Western Cape, there are isiXhosa courses for dentistry students.

The University of Limpopo has a bilingual Humanities degree. Half of the subjects are studied in Sesotho sa Leboa and the other half in English. Other institutions, among them North West University and the University of South Africa, are experimenting with Human Language Technology to create innovative language learning models. Human Language Technology is the interface of computer programming and language learning.

And the University of KwaZulu-Natal has taken a bold approach: students must learn isiZulu to graduate, no matter their degree.

All of these initiatives provide a valuable way to introduce more multilingualism to professional environments.

Criticism and challenges

The criticism that has been levelled at this approach suggests that it takes away time from mainstream, discipline-related teaching. It’s also been suggested that, since the courses tend to be fairly short, they are ineffective.

But if such courses are properly integrated into curricula and are carefully planned and taught with care by qualified facilitators who understand bi- and multilingual models of language teaching then this need not be the case.

And the alternative is to continue producing students who are detached from their own heritage, or detached from society generally because they remain in a an unrealistic monolingual vacuum.

The work that South African universities are doing through their vocation-specific language courses is not perfect. But it represents the beginnings of transforming higher education at a fundamental level – a commitment to moving away from English as the only and “ideal” language for learning and engagement. There may be challenges, but these can be addressed as the courses develop.

Author Bios: Zakeera Docrat is a Doctoral Student in African Languages (Law and Language/ Forensic Linguistics) at Rhodes University, Monwabisi K Ralarala is an Assoc Prof in Language Practice and Director: Fundani Centre for Higher Education Development at Cape Peninsula University of Technology and Russell H. Kaschula is Professor of African Language Studies at Rhodes University