By Stuart Thembisile Lewis
Rhodes University hosted its first Multilingualism Awareness Colloquium on Tuesday, 16 May.
The event, organised by Rhodes’s Language Committee, attracted an audience of around 250 people.
Titled “Celebrating Multilingualism in Higher Education”, the colloquium featured prominent analyst and social commentator, Professor Somadoda Fikeni, as guest speaker. Fikeni’s speech, “Multilingualism in Higher Education: Prospects and Challenges”, was followed up by a panel discussion and an open forum discussion, both of which Fikeni chaired.
Fikeni and all the panel members applauded Rhodes for its commitment to multilingualism and stressed how important multilingualism would be going forward in South Africa. Simthembile Matyobele, a student at Rhodes, won the Multilingual Poetry competition run in conjunction with the Colloquium, and R500, with his poem “On the path of Izimvi”.
Fikeni lamented the lack of any real “meat and substance” in South Africa’s Language in Higher Education policies but commended Rhodes University in being in the forefront of promoting multilingualism in South Africa: “A lot of our history in this country was decided here on this frontier. The frontier for multilingualism in South Africa may also very well be at Rhodes.”
Fikeni then invoked the famous opening paragraph of Charles Dickens’s novel A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” He said that South Africa was in a similar position in that all the institutions of democracy are available but the social justice that should follow was not there.
Fikeni blamed this on four major problems with South Africa. He said that the country suffered from an “honesty deficit” as we simply did not talk about sensitive issues such as race in case somebody got hurt. The second problem, according to Fikeni, is the culture of South African exceptionalism. “We think we are better than the rest of Africa so we have failed to learn from them,” he said.
Fikeni also blamed a culture of political intolerance for limiting this discussion as “if you disagree with the elite, you disappear from the public sphere very quickly”. Finally Fikeni laid the blame at the door of a post-1994 prioritisation of infrastructure and development to the deficit of arts, culture and heritage.
Fikeni concluded his address saying that language is so much more than a means of communication. “Can you define ‘ubuntu’? Is it humanity? I am because we are? It is all of the above and so much more. Language has its idioms, its proverbs and its poetics. It is the repository of the history of a culture,” he said.
After Fikeni’s address Professor Hendricks introduced the panel. The panel consisted of Professor Fred Hendricks, the Dean of Humanities; Professor Chrissie Boughey, the Dean of Teaching and Learning; Bulelwa Nosilela, Head of African Languages Studies; Jeanne du Toit, a lecturer in Journalism and Media Studies; Professor Rod Walker, the Dean of Pharmacy; Dr Mark de Vos, a senior lecturer in English Language and Linguistics and representing the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU); Professor Alfredo Terzoli, a lecturer in Computer Science, and Professor George Euvrard, a lecturer in Education.
Professor Boughey was the first panel member to respond to Fikeni. Her focus was on the way in which education in South Africa dealt with children who spoke languages other than English. “In SA we have huge tragedy. We deny learners use of their home language as a resource for meaning making… We ignore the meanings students are trying to communicate to us and focus on the correctness of their use of language,” she said.
Boughey was followed by Bulelwa Nosilela who spoke about how complicated it was to implement multilingualism in teaching and learning. She also listed the various vocational isiXhosa courses offered by Rhodes in Journalism and Media Studies, Law, Pharmacy and Education. Professor Walker then spoke about the benefits of the elective isiXhosa for Pharmacy course and how it had allowed students to bypass the services of a translator when dealing with patients.
Professor Terzoli’s focused on isiXhosa and how it relates to Computer Science. He said that his department wanted to ensure that second language weren’t being handicapped by their lack of English knowledge. Terzoli had also experienced similar problems with his native tongue, Italian, when he had come to South Africa. He also stressed the benefits that software could provide to any attempts at promoting multilingualism.
Dr de Vos spoke about the sheer abundance of various mother tongues found at Rhodes. He had sent his first year Linguistics students out to do a survey on campus and they had come back with 24 different languages including ‘tsotsitaal’. As a representative of NTEU, de Vos also stressed the union’s commitment to multilingualism.
The last speaker from the panel, Professor Euvrard, spoke about how, after leaving the army, he made the “most rewarding and valuable decision” of his life. He enrolled for Xhosa 1B. “As my understanding of isiXhosa grew, so did my understanding of amaXhosa [the Xhosa people] and ubuXhosa [what it means to be amaXhosa],” he said.
The Colloquium was brought to an end by Rhodes University’s Vice-Chancellor, Dr Saleem Badat. In his closing remarks, Badat stressed how committed Rhodes was to promoting multilingualism especially as it had been recently awarded the prestigious South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI) chair in “Intellectualisation of African Languages, Multilingualism and Education”. He quoted journalist and struggle activist, Anthony Holiday, in saying: “The death of a language is the death of a people.”
The Rhodes Language Committee ran a multilingual poetry competition in the run up to the Colloquium. To read the winning poem, click here.