South Africa’s university system notoriously lacks instructional programs offered in the nation’s Indigenous languages, like isiXhosa and Sesotho. Currently, English and Afrikaans are the only languages widely used in university-level coursework, however even Afrikaans’ future is not entirely certain (see Language Magazine’s coverage of UNISA’s ban on the language in instruction from earlier this summer).
A new, transcontinental initiative at seven universities is attempting to boost the status of South African indigenous languages. The universities (four in South Africa and three in Europe) joined together to form a consortium, officially called “Boosting the use of African languages in education: A Qualified Organized National Development strategy for South Africa” (BAQONDE, which serves as both an acronym and a nod to the Nguni-language word “baqonde,” meaning “let them understand”).
“The BAQONDE project is leading us towards the restoration of dignity and parity of esteem for our indigenous languages, and that is commendable indeed. This is very encouraging and is the kind of enthusiastic response we hope can be emulated by other institutions,” said Mahlubi Mabizela, the chief director of university policy and development support at Rhodes University, one of the schools in the consortium.
The universities that have spearheaded BAQONDE’s development will offer training sessions for lecturers and students to gain a better understanding of the challenges and strategies involved in multilingual pedagogy. The ultimate goal of the project is to ensure that participating universities have the resources, training and outreach necessary to offer a robust curriculum in the country’s indigenous languages in coming years. The three European universities involved in the project have guided the South African universities in developing a plan to ensure that they are able to develop a strategy for implementing indigenous South African languages as an instructional medium.
The majority of South Africans do not speak English as their primary language, in spite of the fact that most of the country’s higher education is conducted in the language. The country is home to nearly forty indigenous languages, nine of which hold official status alongside English and Afrikaans. In recent years, the South African government has made an effort to improve the status of the nation’s indigenous languages, with the passage of the “Language Policy Framework for Public Higher Education Institutions in South Africa” in 2020 requiring that universities develop instructional frameworks for the nation’s indigenous languages by January 2022.
“The BAQONDE project with its aim to facilitate and promote the use of indigenous African languages as mediums of instruction at higher education institutions in South Africa advances the objectives of the Language Policy Framework for Public Higher Education Institutions,” Mabizela added.