Rhodes University: Rhodes University promotes indigenous languages through language colloquium

A vibrant and diverse group of professors, linguistic experts, students, and other members of the Rhodes University community converged on Friday at the Amazwi South African Museum of Literature. The University hosted the second day of the Colloquium on Language Policy Framework for Public Institutions of Higher Education. Distinguished guests from other institutions attended the Colloquium.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs, Professor ‘Mabokang Monnapula-Mapesela, gave a hearty welcome to the audience, which included representatives from the University of Western Cape. She acknowledged the difficulties of language policy development in educational institutions. However, she said she viewed the colloquium as a space in which clear and implementable solutions would be provided to facilitate the development of a language policy that acknowledges the diversity of the Rhodes University student body.

Botany department’s Dr Tiffany Pillay delivered a presentation on “Using translanguaging as a support tool for undergraduate science: the Cell Biology case study”. Dr Pillay brought the audience’s attention to the large disparity between the requirements for student success at the undergraduate level and the actual capabilities of students when they enter their first year of study. She reflected, through the presentation of statistics, on the impact, the Covid-19 pandemic has had on student literacy. She expounded on how science writing has been vastly affected as it is a field that requires students to communicate precisely and rigidly. She thus exclaimed that “the narrative that science cannot be taught in any other language other than English is failing us”.

She then presented a case study on how members of the Botany department, particularly tutors and lab technicians, have started informally using translanguaging to help teach students cell biology. She emphasised how this has helped improve students’ understanding of scientific concepts and has elevated their confidence when it comes to the subject. Dr Pillay proposed a formalisation of the implementation of translanguaging as a teaching technique through a proposed model of hybrid structured practical work. In her proposed model, practicals and practical reports in the cell biology module will be conducted and written in a strategic combination of English and IsiXhosa. She said: “The goal is to go beyond translation, as translation should be a form of support, not a solution. Home language should be used to facilitate cognitive understanding of the content in order to bridge the initial disparity between course requirements for success and student capabilities.”

the Institute for the Study of English in Africa’s (ISEA) Dr Rethabile Mawela and Ntombekhaya Fulani talked about “Efforts made to redress the displacement of African indigenous languages from a position of power”. Dr Rethabile expressed how the very nature of the name ISEA reflected how the “use of the English language differs in the various contexts in which it is used across the continent and across the globe”. She said the contextual use of the language in Africa is largely influenced by indigenous languages. Fulani said: “students’ inability to express knowledge in English does not mean they have no understanding of the imparted knowledge”.

She further elaborated on how students often demonstrate a deeper understanding of concepts in their own language, and it was this acknowledgement that inspired some of the ways they redressed the issues pertaining to language in their teaching. She illustrated that in her Bachelor of Education Elt (in service) classes, they use translanguaging tasks where students have to draw from their mother tongue words that they could use to display a better understanding of the theories they have learned in the course. She then presented examples of students using various idioms and expressions from indigenous languages such as Setswana, isiXhosa, isiNdebele and Venda to explain theories by Vygotsky, Piaget etc. She acknowledged that though the program is still in its infancy stage, it has had a great impact on students’ abilities to communicate their ideas.

The next talk was delivered by the psychology department’s Nqobile Msomi, and her topic was “Towards an Africa(n) centred psychology: a case for multilingual practice at a professional training institution.” She said as the coordinator of the Psychology Clinic, she has noticed that trainee psychologists have a challenge translating to the community at large terminology in their field. She then proposed support should be provided to trainees in transferring psychotherapeutic practices into their practice with non-English groups.

Drama department’s Selloane Mokuku spoke on “Epistemological whispers: Learning to listen through tongues, the case of Playback Theatre Nala”. In her presentation, she brought students from her applied theatre class, which is a mode of theatre used in education, therapy and community development. Using the applied theatre techniques, which are delivered without a predetermined storyline, she then engaged the audience as ‘the tellers’ and asked them to reflect and share their experiences at the colloquium and what it meant to them.

A key component to the exercise was that they could express themselves in whatever language they chose, and her students (who were allocated the role of ‘the players’) would then physically re-enact and translate the reflection on stage. The exercise was met with great enthusiasm from the audience and several insightful and engaging reflections were shared.