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Can a multilingual higher education system be imagined?

Rethinking language in higher education. [1]

Gerrit Brand

1. Introduction

The theme of our conference is Rethinking and Re-imagining Higher Education. In our imagining and thinking about higher education, we should remember, firstly, that thinking and imagining — and especially rethinking and re-imagining — are, in fact, the core business of higher education itself. The main purpose of higher education institutions is to provide a platform for the cultivation and pursuit of critical thinking. In other words, in imagining and thinking about higher education we are, in a sense, imagining and thinking about the very activities of thinking and imagining themselves. The “ongoing debate about improving the quality of the higher education sector” referred to in the call for papers for this conference is ultimately a debate about the nature of thinking and imagining, and about how to create the most favourable conditions for their optimal realisation.

Secondly, a moment’s reflection on the activities of thinking and imagining will reveal that they are intrinsically bound up with the use of language. It is impossible to conceive of a form of thinking and imagining — at least in the sense in which these words concern us here — that does not require recourse to language: thought without language is as inconceivable as language without thought. Friedrich Schleiermacher called language “the organ of philosophy”, thus expressing his view that the link between a philosophy and the language through which it is expressed is essential rather than incidental.[2] We can extend this principle by stating that all the institutionalised practices that go on under the name of “higher education” — the practices we are concerned with at this conference — have language as their vital organ, without which they would cease to be viable or even conceivable.

It follows that a thorough rethinking and re-imagining of any aspect of higher education — whether it be learning, teaching, training or research — should involve a reconsideration of the role of language in higher education. Especially if we are concerned not merely with thinking and imagining as such, but rather with rethinking and re-imagining, it seems likely that a consideration of possible innovations in the area of language use in the academy might well steer our thoughts and imaginings in promising directions.

Therefore we should expect (and I shall be arguing) that the kinds of language used in the academy, and the linguistic range and repertoire of those involved in the academy, will have major implications for the “quality of the higher education sector”. Language policies and practices in institutions of higher learning do not constitute a separate — more or less important — concern in addition to all others, but rather affect every single aspect of higher education.

If this is true, it means that all the tensions and debates surrounding “the higher education sector” in this country would have to be thought through and discussed with reference to language; and conversely, that a responsible rethinking and re-imagining of higher education in all its facets could not avoid facing the complex and highly charged tensions and debates surrounding the contested issue of language in the wider South African society. It is this challenge that my paper seeks to address — to show how each of the “tensions” referred to in the call for papers (which I begin to enumerate and discuss from section 3. below) relates to the wider debate about language, and to explore the implications that seem to me to follow from these connections.

More specifically, I shall argue (1) that progress towards a truly multilingual academy is central to achieving the goal of “improving the quality of the higher education sector”. This line of argumentation will be augmented, in the course of my presentation, with (2) a brief and sketchy defence of a particular model for implementing multilingualism in our education system.[3]

2. A multilingual academy

What would a multilingual academy look like?

Later on in this paper I shall propose one specific model for giving concrete shape to multilingualism in the academy. At this stage, all that needs to be said is that a multilingual higher education system is one in which several languages are used for learning, teaching, training and research. For present purposes we can limit the range of “languages” to the 11 official languages of the Republic of South Africa.

In a multilingual academy several languages would be used as “media of instruction” in the classroom. Students would ask questions, and have them answered, in different languages. Textbooks and other learning materials would be in different languages, and students would have a choice between languages when writing exams or preparing assignments. Research publications by academics would be written in many languages, and the use of interpreting services would be the norm for large academic conferences such as the present one. Likewise, tertiary institutions would use different languages for internal and external communication, not only in academic pursuits, but also for purposes of administration and management. Consequently, students with different “home languages” would have the opportunity to opt for “mother-tongue education” at the tertiary level.

Naturally, all this would require academics, administrators and managers who are proficient in different languages. Thus a multilingual academy would be characterised not only by domain-related multilingualism, in the sense that several languages are used in the domain of higher education, but also by person-related multilingualism, i.e. by the presence of multilingual people.[4]

A further implication is that the different languages themselves would have developed adequate academic registers in the different disciplines, and that academic staff and students would have mastered those registers.

Multilingualism could be defined as “more people using more languages in more registers and in more domains”. A multilingual academy would then simply mean a higher education system in which multilingualism in this sense obtains.

Notice that the word “more” in this definition suggests that multilingualism is not an either-or matter, but rather something that can be present in varying degrees. What I want to argue for is that the progressive extension of multilingualism, rather than its immediate, full-scale realisation, is critical for “improving the quality of the higher education sector”. This is an important caveat, because the idea of a multilingual academy is often rejected by critics on the grounds that full multilingualism, though possibly desirable, is not feasible in the short term. This type of argument against extending multilingualism in higher education, though very common, is clearly absurd. If it were valid, it would follow that we should not fight poverty because “the poor will always be with us”, and that crime, AIDS and other social problems should be left as they are because we will probably not be able to eradicate them completely in the short term.

Multilingualism, like democracy, justice and peace, is a regulative ideal which can guide our collective actions and decisions, even while we are fully aware that there will always be room for improvement.[5]

But why should the ideal of a multilingual academy guide our collective actions and decisions? Why should we seek to extend multilingualism in the higher education sector?

In what follows, I shall try to answer this question with reference to the “tensions” referred to in the call for papers for this conference. I shall do this by arguing that the extension of multilingualism could help to further each of the diverse goals that give rise to these “tensions”, thereby enabling us to lessen the tensions by reconciling the achievement of seemingly antagonistic goals. I.e. by extending multilingualism in the academy we may be able to reduce the extent to which these different goals have to be traded off against one another.

If my argument succeeds it will be clear that the extension of multilingualism is critical to the overriding goal of “improving the quality of the higher education sector”. The question that would then remain is whether such an extension of multilingualism could, in fact, be achieved to any significant degree. It is for the sake of answering that question, and in the light of what will (I hope) have become clear in the course of my presentation, that I shall also proceed to defend a particular model for implementing multilingualism in higher education.

3. Educational quality, equity and justice

The first “tension” referred to in the call for papers is that between “educational quality” on the one hand, and “equity and justice” on the other. Behind this formulation of the problem lies the concern (often expressed less subtly in the popular press) that improving access to higher education for the previously disadvantaged section of the population may result in a so-called “lowering of standards”. Thus we need not go into a detailed analysis of the concepts of “equity” and “justice” to see what is ultimately at stake in the presumed tension between these principles on the one hand, and “educational quality” on the other.

The fear is quite simply that in order to make higher education accessible to all South Africans and to eradicate the inequalities inherited from our apartheid past, we shall have to “lower the threshold” in terms of entrance requirements and academic standards because those who have been educationally disadvantaged are often, for that very reason, not sufficiently equipped to deal with the difficult demands of studying at a tertiary level. This, it is supposed, creates a dilemma because the education thus made available to the previously disadvantaged will be of little value to them in a demanding and competitive work environment.

It is interesting to note how often the issue of language crops up when this apparent dilemma is discussed. For instance, an academic wrote to a prominent weekly, complaining about the “weak calibre” of the students with which he and his colleagues have to work on a daily basis. He expresses the opinion that the time has come to “tell our students the brutal truth”. However, all the examples of “student incompetence” that the writer mentions have to do with an inadequate mastery of the English language on their part. It is as Pathiswa Tshangana has said: In our society, the intellectual capacity of black people is measured by how well they speak English. Clearly, the “brutal truth” that would emerge if the average academic’s mastery of our indigenous African languages were to come under scrutiny has never occurred to those who like to argue in this fashion.

Surely it is more reasonable to expect (at least initially) that teachers should learn the languages of their students, and be willing to use them, rather than vice versa? Even the 19th-century Christian missionaries, with their extremely Eurocentric outlook, recognised, on the whole, that entrance to the heavenly kingdom could not be made contingent upon the acquisition of European languages.[6] To reproach an isiXhosa or Sesotho speaking student from an educationally disadvantaged background for not being fully proficient in English is a classic case of blaming the victim.

Much of the gross inequality and inaccessibility that characterise our tertiary institutions can be removed by making it possible for students to access higher education through their own languages. Class distinctions and discrimination based on linguistic abilities are themselves part of the inequities and injustices inherited from our past. As such, they need to be removed.

Tragically, however, current attempts at transforming higher education could end up entrenching and deepening these inequalities rather than overcoming them. The use of English as a medium of instruction is often seen as a means of increasing the number of black students entering institutions of higher learning, especially in historically Afrikaans universities and technikons. Yet according to the Council on Higher Education, by the end of April 2000 “not a single university was officially exploring the possibility of using African languages as language of tuition”. [7] This approach ignores the fact that, according to a recent survey by the Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB), only 22% of African language speakers — and a relatively privileged 22% at that — are “functionally proficient” in English. The wholesale dominance of English (and to a lesser extent Afrikaans) as medium of instruction in our education system constitutes, in the words of the Ministry of Education, a formidable “barrier to access and success” for the vast majority of previously disadvantaged South Africans.[8] A multilingual academy would therefore be more accessible, especially to those who are systematically excluded from higher education opportunities at present.

To the objection that students could hardly be expected to study at a tertiary level anywhere in the world without being able to read English, the reply is that there is a huge difference between an active and a passive mastery of English, and that while reading English is one thing, using it as a medium of instruction in the classroom is quite another. (Those who continue to have doubts on this score should be invited to attend a few university lectures in Denmark, Belgium, Portugal, or even one of our own Afrikaans medium institutions.)

In the light of the above, one could say that the extension of multilingualism is one way of significantly “lowering the threshold”, thereby achieving equity and justice without compromising educational quality. However, one should probably go further by pointing out that this particular “lowering of the threshold” would, in all likelihood, enhance educational quality rather than merely leaving it untouched. After all, research has repeatedly confirmed what common sense suggests, namely that the use of home languages as “languages of learning and teaching” (LOLTs) yields the best educational results by far, and that the benefits of “mother-tongue education” increase with the level to which it is extended. To this should be added the consideration that first-language instruction could well be made available in a context of bilingual education[9] — a form of education which, the research suggests, has the advantage not only of facilitating understanding, but of actually enhancing cognitive development, particularly in the area of lateral thinking.

Moreover, using a student’s first language as LOLT makes it easier for that student to learn new languages. In fact, the level at which the first language is mastered determines the level at which new languages can be acquired. Therefore, even if our sole objective was the questionable one of getting our students to speak English well, the best way to go about it would be to teach them not through the medium of English, but through their mother tongues.

At the very least, then, the use of all our official languages in the higher education sector would go a long way towards compensating for and rectifying the educational handicaps suffered by so many as a result of past discriminatory policies.

Another way in which the use of African languages in particular can enhance educational quality is by enriching academic discourse with new concepts, texts and traditions of thought. Here we touch on the whole question of “indigenous knowledge systems” and their potential contribution to the common store of human wisdom. Indigenous knowledge was and is transmitted almost exclusively through the indigenous African languages. The African languages are, therefore, the key with which to unlock the treasures of that tradition for the benefit of our higher education system. This relates not only to content, but also to the unique “style of thought” associated with African language traditions, as Heinz Kimmerle argues.[10]

Tinyiko Maluleke has, rightly, scoffed at the accepted practice of studying African religion through the medium of European languages. African philosophers make innovative contributions to the international discussion by analysing traditional African concepts and studying philosophical texts (oral and written) in the African languages.[11] New insights are gained in theology, literary studies and other disciplines when Western texts are translated into African languages.[12] Historiography by Western writers, particularly on Africa, can be critically interrogated from the perspective of historical narratives in the indigenous languages.[13] Research on indigenous medicines has just begun to hint at the promise that African healing practices hold for the extension of medical knowledge, and development experts are increasingly stressing the importance of developing and adapting traditional techniques and technologies for contemporary use rather than replacing them with foreign imports.[14] In a multilingual academy these areas of study could be carried over, by means of the bridgehead of African languages, from the marginal position that they presently occupy as the somewhat esoteric preserve of a few eccentric scholars to the centre of academic life.

There is much talk these days of “developing” African languages as “languages of science and scholarship”.[15] This way of speaking is misguided, not only because it underestimates the extent to which African languages have already been adapted over the past decades for use in “modern” educational settings, but also — and especially — because it overlooks completely those areas, such as the above, in which European languages are “underdeveloped” in comparison with African languages and stand to be enriched by interaction with those languages. African languages may lack some registers that are present in European languages, but the converse is at least equally the case.[16]

In the “Draft Diversity Plan” of the University of Stellenbosch, published earlier this year, the point is made that the goals of academic excellence and increasing diversity are not mutually antagonistic, since academic excellence can be achieved only by exposing the scholarly community to as wide a range of viewpoints and experiences as possible.[17] Nowhere is this borne out more clearly than in a consideration of the potential value of multilingualism in higher education. The multilingual academy is indeed the key to reconciling equity and justice with educational quality.

4. Student responsibility and educator accountability

The second “tension” referred to in our call for papers is that between “student responsibility” and “educator accountability”.

This issue was dealt with to some extent when I spoke of the phenomenon of “blaming the victim”. That a tension can arise in this area becomes clear when we ask: Where does “student responsibility” end and “educator accountability” begin? Or to put it more bluntly: Whose fault is it really when a student fails to cope with the challenges of studying at a tertiary level?

Clearly, there can be no single answer to this question; the burden of responsibility will have to be determined in every individual case. Nevertheless, I would maintain that the language policy and practices obtaining in a particular institution should be taken into account whenever this type of judgement is made.

A good starting point for seeing what is at stake here is a statement made by the historian Marijke du Toit with reference to her own discipline:

Whether or not to learn another tongue is a political choice made by linguistically challenged — but institutionally and otherwise privileged — scholars who work in a multi-lingual context and as authors and teachers of “history”.[18]

Du Toit calls her own statement “obvious and somewhat obnoxious”.[19] In the mouth of someone like myself it is downright self-condemning. Nevertheless, it is entirely valid.

While it may be reasonable to expect a high level of proficiency in English, Afrikaans or some other language (depending on the discipline in question) from senior students, it is certainly unreasonable to require this at the initial stages, especially in the case of students (like the majority of matriculants in South Africa) who have never had any real opportunity to acquire such proficiency. Yet this unreasonable requirement — or “unjust imposition”, as the Ministry of Education calls it in a recent policy document[20] — is at present standard practice in our higher education system.

By contrast, no language requirements are set for academic staff, except as far as English, and sometimes Afrikaans, are concerned. The Council on Higher Education even declares that “the need for academic excellence precludes prescription in respect of language proficiency as a criterion for the selection of academic staff”.[21] Surely, in the light of what I have argued above with respect to the role of multilingualism in improving educational quality, it should rather be stated that academic excellence requires “prescription in respect of language proficiency” as a criterion for academic appointments?

The problems arising from this abnormal state of affairs are legion. For instance, all lecturers, especially those in the human sciences, are familiar with the dilemma that confronts them when they are marking exam papers and assignments by students who struggle to express themselves in English. On the one hand, the student’s work is badly formulated and lacks clarity and conciseness. As such, it deserves a bad mark. On the other hand, it is clear from the student’s halting efforts that he or she is intelligent, takes the work seriously, and would probably be able to do very well if only he or she could write better English. Yet it would not be fair to reward students for the profound thoughts that they might have uttered under more favourable circumstances. Surely, in determining the extent of the educator’s accountability under such circumstances, one should consider the lengths to which he or she has or has not gone in attempting to learn the languages that are strongly represented as home languages of students in the institution in question?

The problem is complicated by the fact many African language speakers would probably find it at least equally hard to write exams or assignments in their home language. In a very real sense, many students are not really proficient at the required level in any language, including their mother tongue. Once again, this is not their fault, since the school system, with its use of English as medium of instruction from an early stage, has deprived them of the opportunity to become fully literate in their own languages. This, and the fact that they have been taught in English by non-English speakers who often struggle just as hard as they do with the language, results in their not being able to acquire English either. The absence of first-language instruction in our education system as a whole (except for the first two or three years in some instances) constitutes a grave injustice against our students, and creates impossible dilemmas that cannot but detract from the “quality of the higher education sector”.

As far as student responsibility is concerned, it is important that students be encouraged not only to develop their skills in English or Afrikaans (in so far as they are in a position to do so), but also — and especially — to improve their literacy level in their first language, and to extend the range of registers in which they are able to use that language. In this area, as in all others, it should be kept in mind that students are motivated, and become more willing to accept responsibility, as they experience success in their academic endeavours. Conversely, if they are faced with frustrations and failures at every turn, their motivation to learn will decline. Extending multilingualism in the academy — and in the education system as a whole — is essential if we are to create a learning environment in which students can flourish and accept greater responsibility. To the extent that we as academics and policy-makers fail to do what we can to make progress in this regard, we should hold ourselves accountable for many of our students’ failures and frustrations.

5. State planning and academic freedom

The third area of “tension” that we need to consider is that of “state planning” in relation to “academic freedom”.

In order to see how progress towards a multilingual academy can contribute to state planning we must return to the central idea behind my argument thus far, namely, that language is intimately bound up with every other aspect of higher education, and could, if approached correctly, help us to reconcile many seemingly opposing goals in “improving the quality of the higher education sector”. One implication of this is that proper language planning could help to bring focus and coherence to state planning in the educational sphere, i.e. it could be the case that the complexities involved in state planning in this area would be greatly reduced if the vigorous pursuit of multilingualism were placed at the centre. In other words, the Ministry of Education could find itself meeting several objectives at once merely by promoting multilingualism in education.

We have already seen that the extension of multilingualism in the academy would improve access, especially for those who are currently systematically excluded. At the same time, I have argued, academic standards (or educational quality) stand to benefit from greater language diversity in higher education institutions. We have also seen that language plays a crucial role in either motivating or discouraging both students and educators and in determining where student responsibility ends and educator accountability begins. In subsequent paragraphs I shall argue that multilingualism can make significant contributions to “international competitiveness”, “community development”, “research” and “social relevance”. All of these very different goals are characteristic and legitimate objects of state planning. My claim is that state planning can be simplified and made more efficient by investing more energy and resources in the promotion of multilingualism.

To this it might be objected that while sound language planning may well simplify other aspects of state planning in education and render them more effective, the complexities involved in language planning itself are such that, by placing it in the centre, the state would simply be substituting one set of difficulties for another. The complex and dynamic character of “language use and language interaction” in South Africa, and the many competing interests involved, make language planning so difficult that it is no wonder that the Ministry of Education seems determined to postpone it indefinitely by stating that it “will be necessary to work within the confines of the status quo until such time as other South African languages have been developed to a level where they may be used in all higher education functions”[22] — that is to say, until the cows come home.

But is this necessarily the case? The objection seems to presuppose a type of language planning that seeks to regulate every single aspect of language use in higher education institutions to the finest detail. And this is indeed what some models for the implementation of multilingualism seem to require[23]. If the state were to opt for such an approach — for instance by assigning specific languages to specific institutions — it would indeed result in endless wrangles among the different language communities and higher education institutions, and between them and government. Given the changing pattern of language preferences and abilities in our society it would seem impossible to come up with a satisfactory formula for determining how the educational cake is to be distributed among the different languages. Therefore it may seem better to opt for a laissez-faire approach, which inevitably results in a further consolidation of the dominance of English in the higher education sector at the expense of other languages.[24]

However, there are alternatives. Government could, for instance, provide incentives in the form of higher subsidies for institutions that introduce a second medium of instruction, but without specifying which languages are to be used.

Better still, all higher education institutions could be required by law to use two official languages of their choice as languages of instruction and official communication. It stands to reason that, in such a case, many institutions would initially simply opt for English and Afrikaans, given that these languages are perceived to be more “developed” as languages of science and scholarship, and because proficiency in this particular combination of languages is, generally speaking, more common among academic staff than any other language combination. However, at least some institutions would opt for an African language in addition to English, especially where such institutions are situated in areas where particular African languages are dominant.

Naturally, the state would have to set a reasonable time-frame so as to enable the institutions to prepare for the introduction of a second language. Ideally, such a model would be supported by a similar requirement being set for state-sponsored primary and secondary schools. If the second language of instruction is introduced gradually, on a year by year basis, starting with grade 1 in primary schools, this would give tertiary institutions sufficient time (12 years) to do the necessary language development, prepare their staff with language courses, and so on.

In other words, with a very simple policy, and without assigning specific languages to specific institutions, the state could make significant progress in implementing multilingualism in higher education, which would, in turn, further many other educational goals, such as improving access and enhancing educational quality.

Finally, it should be stressed that the most important aim of state planning is to ensure that the constitutional rights of all South Africans are respected by higher education institutions. These include rights of access and affirmative action for previously disadvantaged communities — which would be furthered by the extension of multilingualism — but they also include specific language rights, such as the right to be educated in the language of one’s choice, and to be protected against unfair discrimination on the basis of language. In other words, language rights are simply part of the wide range of human rights which it is the government’s duty to protect and render effective through suitable laws and policies or state planning.

The question that remains, then, is whether state planning with regard to language would not infringe on academic freedom or the autonomy of higher education institutions, the other pole of the “tension” we are considering.

Again, it depends on the type of policy adopted. Certainly, the model that I have proposed sets only broad requirements, and leaves many options open to higher education institutions. It is no more intrusive than the pressure hitherto brought to bear on historically Afrikaans institutions to adopt English as a second medium of instruction. In fact, it is much more lenient, since it does not prescribe any specific language for any institution. Nor does it prevent any institution from using a particular language. All it requires is that every institution use two languages as languages of instruction and official communication.

Arguably, such a measure could be seen to safeguard the right or freedom of particular institutions to continue to use, or to introduce the use of, a non-dominant language, something which might be difficult under a laissez-faire approach, which tends to lead to the progressive substitution of the dominant language (in our case English) for non-dominant ones. A consistent two-language policy would prevent one language from being replaced by another after an initial phase of bilingualism. This certainly seems justifiable in the light of the state’s duty to ensure, through state planning, that all South Africans can effectively exercise their constitutional rights, including rights of access to higher education and language rights.

Thus the extension of multilingualism could contribute to state planning by being placed at the centre of such planning in the educational sphere, thereby furthering several other — seemingly unrelated — goals at the same time, and this could be done without unduly restricting academic freedom or the institutional autonomy of technikons and universities. Because of the latter consideration, and because multilingualism would decrease the need for extensive state planning in so many other areas, the tension between “state planning” and “academic freedom”, as it may arise in those other areas of education policy from time to time, could be significantly reduced as well.

6. International competitiveness and community development

Institutions of higher learning should strive to participate as equal partners in international discussions among scholars, and to make valuable contributions to the common store of human knowledge. Our call for papers uses the term “international competitiveness” in this regard. On the other hand, higher education institutions have responsibilities towards the local communities that support them and for whose benefit they ultimately exist. Although the popular slogan “Think globally, act locally” attempts to reconcile these two objectives, it is not always easy in practice to find the right balance. Academic institutions can become so caught up in “international trends” that they lose sight of their own context and the pressing concerns of local communities. As L Pyle puts it with reference to universities in Third World Countries:

Technologies for the satisfaction of basic needs and for rural development have received little attention ... Curricula, textbooks, and teaching methods are too closely imitative of practice in industrialized countries. This has spilled over from teaching to research expectations. Universities have aimed to achieve international standards in defining the criteria for staff recognition and promotion: in practice this means using the international scientific and engineering literature as the touchstone.[25]

Alamin Mazrui relates this problem to the dominance of English in African universities:

An important source of this intellectual dependency is the language in which African graduates and scholars are taught.[26]

It is easy to see how the exclusive use of an international language that is poorly understood by the majority of locals can cut educational institutions off from meaningful contact with local communities. In such a case, community development can come to be divorced from academic pursuits, as a kind of penance for time and money spent on high-flown “international discussions”. Community development can even come to compete with international competitiveness, so that the need for it becomes a mere nuisance, quite unrelated to the “real business” of higher education institutions.

A multilingual academy would be less prone to this mistake, because the use of the languages of the people for teaching and research would be more likely to bring local challenges and concerns to the attention of scholars, inter alia by allowing a more diverse cross-section of the local population to enter the academy in the first place. Local languages would put higher education institutions more in touch with the local population, and would help to bridge the gap between the latter’s needs on the one hand and insights gained from the international discussion on the other.

Scholars in such a community would be in a better position to function as “organic intellectuals”. Moreover, as mentioned earlier, some approaches to development theory stress the importance of developing indigenous knowledge and technologies to meet people’s needs, rather than relying exclusively on so-called “technology transfer” from First World Countries. Extensive use of the languages in which indigenous knowledge is stored and transmitted would greatly facilitate such an approach to development.

Even if this were granted, however, it could still be maintained, as a counter-argument, that the use of local languages might steer higher education institutions towards the opposite mistake: that of becoming so engrossed with purely local concerns that scholars fail to keep abreast of international developments and consequently lose their international standing.

At stake here is the fear that the use of local languages could contribute to the “ghettoisation” of our higher education institutions. For instance, it could be pointed out, in practical terms, that publications in local languages would be inaccessible to the international community of scholars. Higher education institutions could become so deeply rooted in local communities that they are no longer able to roam freely the wide open fields of international discussion.

The first point to make here is that a multilingual academy would not exclude, but would rather include, the use of English and other languages with international reach in addition to more local languages. Scholars would still publish in English, either directly or by means of translations of publications in local languages.[27] After all, this is standard practice in the higher education institutions of many non-English-speaking countries like Germany, France and Japan, whose international competitiveness in the academic field is beyond question. In those countries it is even felt that the existence, side by side, of two different discussions and traditions of thought, one more local and the other more international, is deeply enriching in that it makes for a valuable dialectic between local and international ideas, issues and concerns.

Secondly, the argument that local languages might limit international communication seems to assume that English is the only language of international scholarly discussion, and that discussions with Western academics are the only kind worth having. It disregards the fact that several of our local languages, like Afrikaans and the Nguni and Sotho languages (not to mention the Indian languages spoken in South Africa) enable us to communicate better with academics in other countries, both within and beyond the borders of our continent. Much of the literature available in languages cognate to some of our indigenous languages is simply not available in English. In this sense, the use of local languages in addition to English would expand and deepen, rather than limit, the range of our contacts with the international scholarly community.

Finally, I argued earlier that the use of indigenous languages in the academy could, for several reasons, enhance educational quality in our higher education institutions. Surely, academic excellence is what finally matters when it comes to international competitiveness? Add to this the fact that part of the value of indigenous languages for the academy is that they could bring the concepts, texts and traditions of indigenous knowledge systems into the academy, thereby exposing our scholars — and through them the international community of scholars — to a more diverse range of insights, ideas and opinions. In addition to academic excellence as measured against the touchstone of “international literature” (see above), it is often the originality and uniqueness of a particular country’s or language community’s contribution to the common store of human knowledge that gives its scholars international standing. The Americans gave us pragmatism, the French deconstruction, the Germans transcendental idealism, the Latin Americans liberation theology, and the Chinese Buddhism with its wealth of philosophical wisdom. What would South African scholars have to offer to the world if we refused to “drink from our own wells”, as Tinyiko Maluleke once put it?

Multilingualism in the academy could root our institutions of higher learning in local communities while, at the same time, letting their branches soar to the wide open air of international scholarly discussion, where the contributions would be all the more appreciated for their excellence and originality.

7. Research and social relevance

Since the issues involved in the tension between “research” and “social relevance” are largely similar to those discussed in the previous section, I shall be brief in indicating the potential contribution of multilingualism in this area.

The tension that the convenors had in mind here is, presumably, that between purely theoretical work on the one hand and academic engagement with burning social issues on the other. Clearly, these two types of academic pursuit are not, in principle, opposed to one another. A good theoretical grounding will ideally provide a solid critical and intellectual base from which to address various social concerns, and awareness of social issues will prevent theoretical speculation from losing all touch with lived reality. In philosophical language: theoretical reflection should be rooted in a lived “praxis”, where practice and critical reflection constantly inform and correct each other in a mutually beneficial dialectic.

In our context, the achievement of such an integrated praxis, and the maintenance of the “creative tension”[28] between theory and practice that it involves, is made unnecessarily difficult by the fact that the transition from one domain to the other is often accompanied by switching not only between registers but also between different languages. This difficulty is further compounded by the fact that the language associated with practice often lacks some of the secondary or specialised registers possessed by the language used for theorising, and vice versa. This makes translation of the insights gained in one language into the other language virtually impossible, so that the connection between the two domains can be forged only with great difficulty.

The use of “more languages in more registers by more people in more domains” would go a long way towards overcoming these difficulties, for it would free us from the illusion that there must, in principle, be clear boundaries between “scientific” and “pre-scientific” language,[29] or that “practice” is separated from “theory” by an impregnable dividing line.

The extension of multilingualism in the academy would also help in this area by enabling non-academics to follow the discussions going on among scholars, and to hold the latter accountable by subjecting their findings and their ideas to critical, down-to-earth scrutiny. In other words, scholars would be more likely to remain within earshot of the general public.

Even for those who understand English or other international languages, the true relevance and significance of a particular viewpoint often emerge more clearly, or new meanings arise, when that viewpoint is expressed in one’s first language. The words used in one language to express or translate an idea evoke resonances and associations that would escape one if the same idea were to be formulated in another language. Texts often become relevant to a community through translation by being caught, through their language, in the “webs of significance”[30] that we call their culture.

In these ways, a multilingual academy could help, if not to reconcile “research” and “social relevance”, then at least to keep them sufficiently close together to make for an interesting and fruitful dialogue and interchange between these two modes of knowing, and the scholars and “common” people that move between them.

I hope now to have planted at least a seed of suspicion to the effect that the kind of rethinking and re-imagining that is so characteristic of the scholarly vocation will depend to a large extent on the willingness of educators and students to have recourse to new ways of speaking and writing, and that our rethinking and re-imagining of higher education may lead us to the conclusion that if language is the “organ of thought”, then what our academy most desperately needs right now is an emergency organ transplant.

[1] Text of a paper read at the Conference of the South African Association for Research and Development in Higher Education, 25-27 June 2003, Stellenbosch. Please note that while the references are not (yet) complete, the paper is being published on LitNet in its present form with a view to discussion in the meantime.
[2] Friedrich Schleiermacher, quoted in Heinz Kimmerle, “Afrikanische Philosophie in westlichen Sprachen: eine postkoloniale Problemkonstellation” (unpublished manuscript).
[3] In “Verskillende modelle vir die implementering van veeltaligheid in die (hoŽr) onderwys” (forthcoming), I provide an overview and critical evaluation of various different models, and a more detailed defence of the “1-2-3 language model”.
[4] On the distinction between domain-related and person-related multilingualism, see my “African philosophy and the language debate” (forthcoming).
[5] Jaap van Brakel argues that the principle of language equality, though never fully implementable, is nevertheless important because it makes us aware of the full implications of deciding to limit multilingualism in particular cases on pragmatic grounds.
[6] See on this, Lamin Sanneh, Translating the Message.
[7] Council on Higher Education, “Language Policy Framework for South African Higher education”, Pretoria 2000, 4.
[8] Ministry of Education, “Language Policy for Higher Education”, Pretoria 2002, 4-5.
[9] See ß5 of this paper.
[10] See Kimmerle, “Afrikanische Philosophie in westlichen Sprachen: Eine postkoloniale Problemkonstellation” (unpublished article).
[11] On this aspect of African philosophy, see ibid.
[12] See Kwame Bediako, Christianity in Africa: The Renewal of a non-Western Tradition (on theology); Ali Mazrui (on literature).
[13] See Du Toit, “Telling Tales”.
[14] For references, see Kwesi Prah, Mother Tongue for Scientific and Technological Development in Africa, Cape Town: CASAS 2000.
[15] See e.g. Ministry of Education, “Language Policy for Higher Education” Pretoria 2002.
[16] See on this, David Gough, “African Languages: Discourse, Education and other Challenges”, in: Kwesi Prah (ed.), Knowledge in Black and White: The Impact of Apartheid on the Production and Reproduction of Knowledge, Cape Town: CASAS 1999.
[17] The “Konsep Diversiteitsplan” is available on the university’s website.
[18] Marijke du Toit, “Telling Tales: The Politics of Language in Oral Historiography” (unpublished paper), 21.
[19] Ibid.
[20] See Ministry of Education, “Language Policy”. The policy makes this statement only in connection with Afrikaans, which reveals an inconsistency in the light of other statements in the policy to the effect that both English and Afrikaans function as “barriers to access and success” in the higher education system.
[21] Council on Higher Education, “Language Policy Framework”, 14.
[22] Ministry of Education, “Language Policy”, 10.
[23] See on this, my “Verskillende modelle vir die implementering van veeltaligheid in die hoŽr onderwys” (forthcoming).
[24] On the laissez-faire approach, see ibid.
[25] L. Pyle, quoted in Alamin Mazrui, “The English Language in African Education: Dependency and Decolonization”, in: James W. Tollefson (ed.), Language Policies in Education: Critical Issues, New Jersey/London: Lawrence Erlbaum 2002, 274.
[26] Mazrui, “English Language”, 275.
[27] Kimmerle, “Afrikanische Philosophie”, makes the same point with reference to the use of African languages in African philosophy.
[28] On “creative tension”, see David Bosch, Transforming Mission.
[29] On the gradual difference between “scientific” and “pre-scientific” language, see Mary Hesse, Revolutions and Reconstructions in the Philosophy of Science.
[30] The phrase “webs of significance” is from Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures.


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