Making an African language compulsory at university may do more harm than good


The status of languages is a political hot potato on South Africa’s university campuses. The country’s minister of higher education and training believes that all university graduates in South Africa should have learned at least one African language during their studies.

The University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), located in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, became the first to heed the minister’s call when it introduced Zulu as a compulsory subject for all new students from 2014. This is part of its broader language policy, which emphasises “the need to achieve for Zulu the institutional and academic status of English”.

UKZN has been hailed for this move, but some have also warned that making only Zulu compulsory is a political decision that may contribute to linguistic and cultural nationalism.

My current research, which I recently presented at a conference of the British Academy, explores the interplay between language dynamics and ideological constructions in South African higher education. It examines UKZN specifically in light of the introduction of the compulsory Zulu module.

Some of the findings suggest that the university’s top-down approach in this instance has alienated even some Zulu language lecturers. They feel this policy is actually doing their language a disservice.

Problems and paradoxes

Nearly 78% of KwaZulu-Natal’s residents speak Zulu as a first language. The university argues that, given this demography, choosing Zulu as a compulsory African language can contribute to social cohesion and nation building in the province and beyond.

There is no doubt that all South Africans, no matter their background, should ideally be fluent in at least one African language. UKZN’s non-Zulu staff and students can benefit enormously from learning the language.

But there are two major problems with the policy. The first is ideological. Quite simply, Zulu is not a pan-African language. It’s not even a transnational one like Kiswahili, which is the lingua franca in Tanzania and Kenya. Zulu is inextricably linked to Zulu ethnicity – and the policy is therefore seen by some as prioritising one nation or group above any others.

The second problem is more practical and relates to the content of the course. The 2014 policy sees Zulu taught for just one semester – that’s about five months. Zulu language lecturers say this system has created so many problems that any real value is being lost.

During November and December 2014 I interviewed seven people who are involved in developing and championing UKZN’s language policy and six Zulu lecturers at two of the institution’s campuses.

The lecturers said that morale among students in the compulsory module is so low that they are little more than “resistance learners”. One lecturer called the module a “Mickey Mouse” course that gives students only the most basic knowledge of the language.

There is also a paradox between the university’s stated policy and its practice. In interviews with UKZN language policy stakeholders I was informed that the objective of the module is for students to acquire “communicative competence” in Zulu. But there are so many students in each class that there is simply no space for the sort of “conversational” component that would teach them how to “chat” in Zulu.

The UKZN Basic isiZulu module had 325 students in 2013, 1381 in 2014 when the policy was implemented and has 2254 in 2015. Oral practice lessons are absolutely impossible with such huge classes.

The danger of stigma

Any language can acquire a stigma because of sociopolitical circumstances. During the apartheid era, Afrikaans was viewed as the language of the oppressor – a tag it has still not shaken off. And this is despite the majority of Afrikaans speakers today being “coloured”, and not Afrikaners.

Some of the Zulu lecturers I interviewed actually drew explicit links between the compulsory teaching of Afrikaans during apartheid and UKZN’s mandatory Zulu lessons. This emphasises that it is the compulsory aspect of the course which is seen as particularly problematic.

It is absolutely necessary for South African education to move away from the English hegemony, and African language learning will play a crucial role in this shift. African language learning – both for mother tongue and second language learners – must be fostered at primary and secondary school level.

The early practice of academic reading and writing in African languages should be taken for granted for all South Africans. My previous research shows that fostering Zulu as an academic language at tertiary level is far too late in academic development.

Linguistic diversity should be approached as a resource and a tool for creativity and nation building. Ideally, every child in KwaZulu-Natal should learn Zulu from a very young age. But this type of change needs to emerge from the bottom up rather than being imposed from the top down. The UKZN language policy seems to be an example of a top-down approach that is deeply shaped by ideological and political interests rather than with sound educational practice in mind.

Ultimately, shouldn’t South African universities aim to make non-African language speakers aware of the beauty and benefits of knowing an African language – rather than forcing students to study them?

The Conversation

Stephanie Rudwick, DFG-funded researcher in Afrikanistik (African Studies), University of Leipzig. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.