Rhodes University: CPGS hosts a panel on multilingualism as a part of Rhodes University’s Postgraduate Conference


Postgraduates from around the country and the world gathered on 02 September 2022 to take part in a panel hosted by the Centre for Postgraduate Studies (CPGS) of Rhodes University. The panel discussed the promotion of the use of multilingualism in academic research outputs. The panel began with a visual illustration of the varied languages used by Rhodes University Master’s and PhD graduates in their thesis abstracts as just one way of bringing language diversity into the research dissemination space. From isiXhosa, Sepedi, Swahili, isiZulu, Shona, German, French and more, this has proven to be a rich space of multilingualism in the University.

The panel, entitled “The Power of Multiple Languages”, featured the head of the Linguistics and Applied Languages Department, Professor Silvester Ron Simango, and NRF SARChI Chair of African Languages, Multilingualism and Education, Professor Dion Nkomo. Joining them was professional translator, Ms Zikho Dana, and poet, Ms Mthunzikazi Mbungwana. The conversation was seamlessly guided and chaired by Sifanelwe Mini, who is completing her MA in Sociology at Rhodes University.

Mini introduced Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Innovation Dr Peter Clayton who formally welcomed the audience and guests from universities all across the globe. He spoke to the celebratory feel of the talks, having been the first one possible since the mandated restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic. Speaking about the overall theme of the conference, ‘Crossing the Borders of Knowledge’, he said: “It’s wonderful to have this mix of people talking about knowledge creation.”

He encouraged the attendees to pursue disseminating their research, for both the reasons of personal and professional gratification and as an obligation towards the people in society who make this research possible, through the subsidies paid to our universities. “This is not just about us, getting our degrees; research should be for the public good, the good of the people.”

Mini directed the conversation with questions about how we can make the knowledge of the academy more accessible to larger portions of society. The panellists then started grappling with these questions.

“The issue for me is that when we are dealing with this, we are dealing with linguistic hegemony,” Professor Nkomo stated. He problematised the issue of English being seen and treated as the only way to produce knowledge. This mentality, he shared, “delegitimises other ways of knowing and learning”.

Professor Simango described knowledge as being hidden away from those who need it. He highlighted how the issue of language makes valuable information for affected communities inaccessible because it is in English. And on the flip side of the same problem, there is valuable knowledge in other languages which might never see the academic space because an Anglophone translation does not exist.

Dana, who has worked on translating the course outlines of the Politics and International Studies Departments for several years, notes that “multilingualism allows us to have a multiplicity”. She shared how many amazing ideas were realised by both students and markers by allowing students to write in their African languages.

Coming from a different vantage point, Mbungwana felt that translating, done correctly, isn’t translating, but rewriting. She urged researchers to go into communities and bring back some of the language specific to that community, and how things are expressed in those spaces. Coming from the perspective of someone in the creative industry, expression and the politics of punctuation are at the forefront of her mind.

The panel included ample audience participation to raise language problems within their work. An attendee from Kenya noted the difficulty of trying to standardise the 43 languages recognised across the country. Another researcher noted the difficulty of relaying back information in a language other than English, which is her mother tongue.

Challenges and all, a general tone of respectful curiosity and determination to overcome the hurdle of academic exclusivity was felt in the discussion. Attendees were fully engaged with the panellists. Leaving the auditorium before another full day of young researchers presenting their research, everyone felt a greater cognisance of the resource which is language. As we all know, with the right resources, the potential for inclusion and expansion has no limit.

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