Language changes planned for South Africa’s universities

Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande has published a new language policy framework for public higher education institutions in South Africa.

In an explanatory summary, Nzimande said that the purpose of the policy is to provide a framework for the development and strengthening of indigenous languages as languages of ‘scholarship, teaching and learning and communication’ at South African public higher education institutions – in particular universities.

“The policy provides guidelines for the development, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of institutional language policies and contributes to transformation in higher education with specific reference to universities through enhancing the status and roles of previously marginalised South African languages to foster institutional inclusivity as well as social cohesion,” he said.

The framework states that language continues to be a barrier to access and success for many students at South African higher education institutions.

Despite their status as official languages, indigenous languages have in the past and at present, structurally not been afforded the official space to function as academic and scientific languages.

The persistent underdevelopment and undervaluing of indigenous languages should not be allowed if universities are to meet the diverse linguistic needs of their student population, the Department of Higher Education said.

The document requires universities to demonstrate in their language plans, the investment they have made or will make in the development of official languages into languages of teaching and learning, scholarship and research.

This is in addition to the Language of Learning and Teaching (LOTL) which is typically English at the country’s top universities.

The plans must also reflect on ways and mechanisms to strengthen African Language Departments. “Continuous research must be undertaken by the institutions, to explore and document strategies for intellectualising indigenous languages for use in higher education,” the department said.

Other proposed changes include:

  • Institutions must develop or revise their language policies and plans to accord greater importance to indigenous African languages for purposes of teaching and learning, scholarship, communication and administrative use;
  • Necessary support must be provided to students for whom English is not their first language or mother tongue, in order to ensure academic success;
  • Where demonstrable competencies have been established in one or more languages other than English, such competencies and initiatives should not be impeded, but rather, nurtured and encouraged as long as they do not serve as barriers of access to speakers of other languages;
  • All official internal institutional communication must be conveyed in at least two official languages other than English, as a way of cultivating a culture of multilingualism;
  • Institutions must consider all possible options to accentuate the use of indigenous African languages in official communication and ceremonies.


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Language changes planned for South Africa’s universities