Universities South Africa (USAf) News Update

African language experts set up committees to explore sharing resources and mentoring new academics

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed several systemic forms of inequality in the higher education system. It is essential that Universities South Africa (USAf), the representative body of the 26 public universities, create a platform to ensure critical engagement that translates to meaningful outcomes in advancing the sector's interest. This was the message that Dr Linda Meyer, Director: Operations and Sector Support for Universities South Africa (USAf), delivered at the start of USAf's Community of Practice for African Languages (CoPAL)'s first meeting for 2021 in March.

Dr Meyer affirmed the importance of the USAf Community of Practice for African Languages (CoPAL) and its role as a catalyst for advancing meaningful change in decolonising education and transformation as a productive framework in the academic project and in promoting the decolonising education agenda.

She said CoPAL's position in contributing to equality and parity of African languages was critical, as the sector moves to implement the new DHET language policy.

What the new language policy is about

The government's Language Policy Framework for Public Higher Education Institutions was gazetted on 30 October 2020, and was therefore effective thenceforth. It aims to strengthen indigenous languages that, despite their status as official languages, have structurally not been afforded the space to function as academic and scientific languages.

The framework also stated that language continues to be a barrier to access and success for many higher education students. Now universities have to draw up a plan which shows the investment they have made or will make, in the development of official languages into languages of teaching and learning, scholarship and research. The plan must include how they will strengthen African language departments.

In an effort to cultivate a culture of multilingualism, all official internal institutional communication must be in at least two official languages other than English. Institutions must also consider all possible options to accentuate the use of indigenous African languages in official communication and ceremonies.

The new chair of CoPAL, Professor Langa Khumalo (right), Director of the South African Centre for Digital Language Resources (SADiLAR), said the policy was the elephant in the room. "We really need to tease it apart, understand it," he said, before seeing how it could enable what universities are already doing. "Then we can actually begin to say we are implementing the new language policy for higher education."

Professor Langa Khumalo
Professor Nokhanyo Mdzanga

CoPAL's new deputy chair, Professor Nokhanyo Mdzanga (left) of the Faculty of Education at Nelson Mandela University (NMU), said CoPAL would provide an opportunity for universities that have already started implementing the language policy to share their processes and tips. In this regard, she thought it was important to collaborate with the Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB). Part of CoPAL's advocacy will involve updating key individuals at universities on the revised policy and implementation plans. It needed to be brought to their attention that language policies had previously been hampered by budgetary issues.

At NMU, they had proposed a language institute to collaborate with all stakeholders on the policy's implementation. Professor Khumalo reiterated that it was one thing to have a language policy and another to implement it. Many universities' language policies had been criticised as "pious articles of faith". It was CoPAL's imperative to "devise a strategy to move beyond rhetoric" and present tangible ways of implementing it.

Universities need to share information

Dr Dion Nkomo, Senior Lecturer in the School of Languages and Literatures at Rhodes University (RU), said universities needed to share resources to implement the language policy. Most, if not all, higher education institutions in South Africa already have language policies, which now have to be conceived and implemented according to the new policy framework.

He said some institutions have "amazing success stories with respect to the development of multilingual resources". Others cite resources as the main impediment to the intellectualisation of African languages. Yet, despite all individual success stories, sector-wide, progress remains unsatisfactory. There was duplication of efforts, lack of or limited collaboration, restricted dissemination of and access to developed resources, he added.

Dr Nkomo proposed auditing the type of resources available at institutions in much the same way as CoPAL's previous audit of language policies. In addition, he proposed an audit of universities' projects related to developing multilingual and African language resources. "If we share information around these projects, we identify possible areas of collaborations or areas where we can consolidate our efforts. And then we'll actually maximise on the opportunities that can be gained from those projects," he said.

He advised consolidating inter-institutional collaborations, as well as those with other stakeholders, both internally, such as language committees, and externally, such as the departments of arts and culture and education. By identifying strategic stakeholders, they could work together in developing relevant materials. Dr Nkomo also recommended exploring and applying principles of open access, as well as establishing a CoPAL repository which, while people continued with individual projects, would allow resources to be shared widely.

Copyright was raised as a potential problem for such a repository, but Professor Khumalo said SADiLAR had a repository, and they had discovered "very creative ways of navigating around copyright issues" when it came to sharing resources. At Professor Khumalo's suggestion, a subcommittee was established to look into turning Dr Nkomo's proposals into an actionable plan. Dr Nkomo heads the committee that comprises Professor Nobuhle Hlongwa of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Professor Linda Kwatsha from NMU, and Dr Elias Malete of the University of the Free State. They will report back at the next CoPAL meeting on 8 June.

Some ideas on where to obtain funding for projects

Professor Kwatsha outlined some sources of funding for African languages projects. These included:

  • DHET;
  • Department of Arts and Culture;
  • National Arts Council; and the
  • Eastern Cape Provincial Arts and Culture Council (ECPACC).

Mentoring young academics

Ms Janet van Rhyn, Project Manager for Sector Support at USAf, said there was a need to raise a new generation of early career academics, in light of an ageing professoriate.

Government initiatives to address this issue include:

  • New Generation of Academics Programme (nGAP); and the
  • Higher Education Leadership and Management (HELM) programme, housed within USAf.

She suggested CoPAL consider initiating a three-year project with a group of universities and perhaps another organisation such as USAf or DHET; as well as lobby USAf to seek funding from the Education, Training and Development Practices (ETDP) SETA to establish a bursary fund for African languages and literature PhDs.

Similarly, she said, "there is the scope, and there is opportunity'' for USAf to sponsor training, perhaps in African languages research or computational linguistics, along the lines of a previous CoPAL workshop on writing funding proposals.

Ms van Rhyn is now coordinating a sub-committee to look into mentorship proposals. Professor Mbulungeni Madiba from Stellenbosch University, Professor Stanley Madonsela from the University of South Africa and Ms Brenda Nomadlozi Bokaba from the University of Pretoria are on the committee.

Why Google Translate won't work with some African languages

Dr Khumalo pointed out the fourth industrial revolution, or 4IR entails the rapid rate of automation of things, such as the way we talk – even this CoPAL meeting was held virtually.

He said the next generation of teachers of African languages require natural language processing skills. This needs lots of digital data, but African languages does not have much. "If you ask Google to translate something in Xitsonga, it won't. Not because the system is not working but because it needs a lot of data to recognise that language." Dr Khumalo went on to say that for African language practitioners to develop technologies for 4IR to take place, they need to develop data, plus they need the linguistic skill to annotate that data so that machines can use it to train technologies.

One advantage of working with 4IR and African languages is that it attracts funding "because you are moving with the times", he said.

SADiLAR's resources include voyant tools, available on https://service.sadilar.org/voyant/, which can analyse digital texts in isiZulu and other Nguni languages, such as telling you how many times a word is used. Punted as a way to see through text, it can be used as an online teaching tool. He added that a team from SADiLAR would be visiting universities to identify what they are calling digital champions: those interested in being trained to use 4IR methodologies to teach African languages.

A conference coming up on African languages

Dr Vulindlela Godfrey Mona, Director of the Language Centre Faculty of Social Science and Humanities at the University of Fort Hare, said everything was on track for the university to present the African Languages Association of Southern Africa (ALASA) conference, together with PanSALB, from 23 -25 September. It will be at the International Conference Centre in East London, a venue chosen to allow for COVID-19 protocols, with a virtual linkup. There are early bird discounts.

The theme is "New perspectives in indigenous languages for decoloniality and the fourth industrial revolution in the 21st century". Subthemes include literature, linguistics, inter/transdisciplinary approach to language and/or literature research, and sign language.

The conference will end with an excursion to the university's Alice campus because international delegates said they want to see the Fort Hare of Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo.

The Writer, Gillian Anstey, is an independent writer commissioned by Universities South Africa.

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