The Unique Challenges of Language Education in South Africa

This month we published Assessing Academic Literacy in a Multilingual Society edited by Albert Weideman, John Read and Theo du Plessis. In this post the editors describe the unique challenges of language education in South Africa and the value the book will hold for a wider audience.

How do language testers respond to the challenges of education in an environment that is in transition, and in many respects unprepared for change? The short answer is that they do so as language testers in most environments would: as responsibly as they can, using the professional tools at their disposal.

South Africa is not alone in respect of the challenges thrown up by rapid massification of higher education since the last decade of the previous century. South Africa’s transition, however, was different from the challenges of massification elsewhere: it was complicated by the difficulties to move from an unjust system to a constitutional democracy. Its past considerably inhibited what needed to be remedied. That was not the only complication: there was also the constitutionally enshrined multilingual character of the country. A third difficulty lay in the degree of preparedness of new students arriving at university to handle the demands of academic language. How, in such a case, does one first identify, and then provide opportunities for language development to those who need it most? Once again, South Africa is not alone in noting that too low a level of academic literacy may be detrimental for the successful completion of a degree. Enough challenges, one would say, for a whole lifetime of work if you’re an applied linguist.

A quarter of a century on, we have now taken stock of the professional response of applied linguists to its transition, and this book is the outcome. The responses of our applied linguists may in certain respects be different from those in other environments, so it is a pity that the international language testing community still knows too little about how these challenges have been tackled. Indeed, the format and content of the innovative solutions of South African applied linguists to these large-scale language problems are noteworthy. Described in Assessing Academic Literacy in a Multilingual Society, their solutions offer several new insights into how they set about designing them, and are well worth a look.

Unsurprisingly, in an effort to identify and tackle the challenges early, the professional attention of language testers soon turned to the education sector that feeds into higher education: the school system. Here, too, there are language solutions that will interest a wider audience. Fortunately, the professional efforts of applied linguists in South Africa have been well recorded, though thus far mostly locally. This book offers a selection of the most significant innovations in conceptualization and design for the attention of a global readership.

In compiling a volume about language assessment at university level, co-editor John Read was the first international scholar to notice the lack of attention to the designs described in this book, and he was also the first to propose putting all of this together. His diligence and professional approach are evident in the content of the book.

We would welcome enquiries and discussion with colleagues. If you have an observation or an idea to share, please contact the corresponding editor, Albert Weideman: albert.weideman@ufs.ac.za.

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like The Linguistic Landscape of Post-Apartheid South Africa by Liesel Hibbert.

Multilingual Universities in South Africa

This month we are publishing Multilingual Universities in South Africa edited by Liesel Hibbert and Christa van der Walt. Here, one of Liesel’s colleagues, Carol Christie from the Department of Applied Language Studies, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, Port Elizabeth, South Africa, gives us her view on the book as well as a bit of background on the complications of language and identity in South Africa.

Hibbert and Van der Walt have dedicated their book, to be released in April 2014, to Neville Alexander who believed that languages other than those of the original colonisers should be given power and status in South Africa and Africa more broadly. The reality that most of us who teach in South Africa experience, however, is one in which the Constitution provides for the equal status of eleven official languages but business and teaching is done in English (or, to a limited extent, Afrikaans). The parents of our students choose, when they can afford to do so, to send their children to English-medium schools, and most of our students tell us that they prefer to study in English because ‘it is the universal language’, ‘it will give me access to the job market’, ‘I have always studied in English’ or ‘Xhosa is just too difficult’.

Much has been written about the potential detriment to students of not being given the opportunity to develop literacies in their home language before being expected to study in a second or third language. However, those of us who teach in contemporary South Africa also know that terms such as ‘mother tongue’, ‘first language’ and ‘home language’ no longer mean the same thing (if they ever did) and cannot be used to allocate students to uncomplicated categories. A young person in South Africa may very easily have had a Xhosa-speaking mother but consider English to be her home language because it was the main language spoken in the home and Afrikaans to be a first language because she studied it at ‘first language’ level at school. And we all have students who consider themselves to be ethnically Xhosa (or Afrikaans or Venda or Zulu or Pedi etc.) while the primary language they use is English. We cannot return to apartheid-era ethnic and race categories which define us as having a particular ethnicity and therefore having to be taught a particular curriculum in a particular language.

The strength of the book is that it provides examples of how languages other than English can be used in university teaching in South Africa and can help students to learn even when the only language that all have in common is English. The book showcases current multilingual teaching and learning innovations in higher education in South Africa. Although language-in-education policies for multilingual contexts have been in place for some years, and have been discussed and critiqued, there is no overview which highlights the processes and success stories and the case studies conducted. This book fills this gap, by showcasing work done ‘on the ground’ by higher education practitioners and by examining how they develop ways of drawing on all available discourses and languages for strategic and systemically supported multilingual and biliteracy development in the formal tertiary education sector. The case studies presented by the next generation of up-and-coming mainstream academics are extremely valuable in terms of the blueprints they offer and in terms of the range of exemplary practices modelled. A very wide international audience is envisioned for this book, as similar contexts currently occur everywhere, due to global migration. In terms of the African continent, the book clearly testifies that the continent is inventing its own practices on an ongoing basis and that these are highly informative for language practitioners located anywhere.

The reality is that almost all of us are multilingual (or at least bilingual) and it is in this context that the editors’ use of the term ‘multilingual’ in the title must be considered. What is a multilingual university and are any universities in South Africa (as distinct from their teachers and students) truly multilingual? Hibbert is based at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth, where the management acknowledges Xhosa and Afrikaans, in addition to English, as the predominant languages in the area while almost all business and teaching is done in English and students will only submit work in Xhosa or Afrikaans in courses to do with these languages and their literatures. Van der Walt is based at the University of Stellenbosch, long considered the intellectual home of Afrikanerdom, where the taaldebat (language policy debate) continues and many staff, students and alumni continue to be anxious about it moving away from being an Afrikaans-medium university.

Bilingual education, at least in Afrikaans and English, has a long history in South Africa but the point is that it has only been done extensively in English and Afrikaans and not in the other South African languages. The status of Afrikaans was also an important aspect of Afrikaaner nationalism and it is arguably in this context that those in the taaldebat who bemoan a perceived move away from Afrikaans are campaigning for the rights of Afrikaans as a minority language. In contrast, however, most black South Africans, in spite of an often-asserted ethnic identity, do not appear to be asserting their right to be taught in ‘their own’ language. It is in this complicated context that Hibbert and Van der Walt present a number of case studies which describe and discuss attempts at and strategies for the use of multilingualism in university courses and classrooms in South Africa and this is a particular strength of the book: it provides examples of strategies that we can all consider using in our teaching.

Although, of course, being able to read and write in one or more languages does not necessarily make one critically literate. For instance, in the chapter titled “An exemplary astronomical lesson that could potentially show the benefits of multilingual content and language in higher education,” what is meant by an “astronomical lesson” (as opposed to an astronomy one) when it’s at home and surely if something “could” do something then it already has the potential to do so? This type of criticism from someone whose mother tongue, home language, first language and primary language of study have always been the same is, however, perhaps exactly what the authors and editors of this book are addressing: we gain much more from the use of a variety of languages and literacies (even if that use is nonstandard in semantics, syntax, register and idiom) than we stand to lose from the universal use of English. Multilingual Higher Education

For more information about this book please see our website. If you found this interesting you might also like Christa van der Walt’s previous book Multilingual Higher Education.