By Sylvia Mugagwa, first year LLB student
A vibrant and diverse group of faculty, language experts, students and other members of the Rhodes University community gathered at the South African Museum of Literature Amazwi on Friday. The University hosted the second day of the Colloquium on the language policy framework for public higher education institutions. Distinguished guests from other institutions attended the Colloquium.
The Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs, Professor ‘Mabokang Monnapula-Mapesela warmly welcomed the audience, which included representatives from the University of the Western Cape. She acknowledged the difficulties of developing language policies in educational institutions. However, she said she viewed the colloquium as a space in which clear and workable solutions would be provided to facilitate the development of a language policy that recognizes the diversity of the student body at Rhodes University.
Dr. Tiffany Pillay from the Department of Botany gave a presentation on “Using Translanguage as a Support Tool for Undergraduate Science: The Case Study in Cell Biology”. Dr. Pillay drew the audience’s attention to the wide disparity between the requirements for undergraduate student success and the actual abilities of students when they enter their first year of study. She reflected, through the presentation of statistics, on the impact that the Covid-19 pandemic has had on student literacy. She explained how scientific writing has been greatly affected as it is an area that requires students to communicate with precision and rigidity. She thus exclaimed that “we miss the narrative that science cannot be taught in any other language but English”.
She then presented a case study of how members of the botany department, particularly tutors and lab technicians, began to informally use translanguaging to help teach cell biology to students. She highlighted how this helped improve students’ understanding of science concepts and increased their confidence in the subject matter. Dr. Pillay proposed a formalization of the implementation of translanguaging as a teaching technique through a proposed model of hybrid structured practical work. In its proposed model, practical work and practical reports of 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, because translation should be a form of support, not a solution. Home language should be used to facilitate cognitive understanding of content to bridge the initial mismatch between course requirements for success and student abilities.
Dr. Rethabile Mawela and Ntombekhaya Fulani of the Institute for the Study of English in Africa (ISEA) spoke of “efforts to address the displacement of indigenous African languages from a position of power”. Dr Rethabile explained how the very nature of the ISEA name reflected how “the use of the English language differs in the various contexts in which it is used across the continent and around the world”. She said the contextual use of language in Africa is largely influenced by indigenous languages. Fulani said, “Students’ inability to express their knowledge in English does not mean that they have no understanding of the knowledge imparted.”
She went on to explain how students often demonstrate a deeper understanding of concepts in their own language, and it is this recognition that has inspired some of the ways they have corrected language issues in their teaching. She illustrated that in her Bachelor of Education Elt (in-service) courses, they use cross-linguistic tasks where students have to draw words from their native language 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 the theories of Vygotsky, Piaget, etc. impact on students’ ability to communicate their ideas.
The next lecture was delivered by Nqobile Msomi from the Department of Psychology, and its topic was “Towards an Africa-Centered Psychology(n): A Case for Multilingual Practice in a Vocational Training Institution”. She said that as the psychology clinic coordinator, she has noticed that trainee psychologists struggle to translate terminology in their field to the community at large. She then offered to support trainees in transferring psychotherapeutic practices into their practice with non-English speaking groups.
Selloane Mokuku, from the Drama Department, spoke about “epistemological whispers: learning to listen across languages, the case of Playback Theater Nala”. In her presentation, she brought in students from her Applied Drama class, which is a mode of theater used in education, therapy, and community development. Using applied theater techniques, which are delivered without a predetermined script, she then engaged the audience as “tellers” and asked them to reflect and share their experiences at the symposium and what it meant to them.
A key element of the exercise was that they could express themselves in the language of their choice, and his students (who were assigned the role of “the actors”) then physically re-enacted and translated the thinking on stage. The exercise was received with great enthusiasm by the audience and many insightful and engaging thoughts were shared.