A major feature of the African continent is its linguistic diversity. Very few African countries can define themselves as monolingual.
Even so, self-identifying as monolingual would be a simplification of the reality in that, beneath any surface monolingualism lies a more complex reality masked by colonial language planning processes that viewed linguistic diversity as a problem on the continent.
It is on that account that, as part of colonial processes, foreign languages such as English, French, and Portuguese were imposed on African communities.
Consequently, the continent can now be divided conveniently into Anglophone, Francophone and Lusophone countries.
Linguistic imperialism was an element of colonialism that sought to assert the assumed superiority of colonial languages, resulting in the underdevelopment and marginalisation of African languages.
As such, the language question was one of the major issues of contestation during the anti-colonial struggles on the continent.
In 1985, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), now the African Union (AU), adopted the Language Action Plan for Africa as an Africa-wide drive to centre African languages in the continent’s post-independent development programmes.
The language issue remains pertinent to the continent’s decolonial project.
The research programme of the DSI-NRF South African Research Chair Initiative’s (SARChI) Chair in Intellectualisation of African Languages, Multilingualism and Education is underpinned by, among others, the Language Action Plan for Africa.
Its research focus seeks to inform and drive the intellectualisation of African languages for use in the powerful social, political and economic domains that are currently reserved for ex-colonial languages.
In South Africa, it is anchored on the legislative framework that, starting with the Constitution, recognises twelve official languages and seeks to valorise these to give spirit and meaning to the country’s culturally inclusive democratic ideals.
The research of the SARChI Chair relates to, among others, issues of social cohesion and social transformation with a particular emphasis on the role of African languages.
Within the academy, the research advances the role of African languages as legitimate academic languages and sources of knowledge for various disciplines in the human, social and natural sciences.
At Rhodes University, the Chair provides a collaborative fulcrum for interdisciplinary research and initiatives that are implementing multilingual interventions to address epistemic challenges imposed by the predominantly English monolingual academic culture.
It works with academics in research-based design of multilingual tutorial interventions and assessments. Such collaborations affirm the potency of African languages that needs to be harnessed not only to make our higher education linguistically diverse, but also to legitimise ways of knowing that are beyond the monolingual academic culture.
Collaborative conference presentations and publications from such interdisciplinary work demonstrate the integral role of language in the knowledge production enterprise.
The Chair is at the forefront of asserting multilingualism and the legitimacy of African languages as integral elements of the institutional culture as provided for in the national legislative framework, particularly the Language Policy Framework for Public Institutions of Higher Education (2020).
At a sector level, it collaborates with other institutions through CoPAL, the Community of Practice for the Teaching and Learning of African Languages, one of the communities of practice established by Universities South Africa (USAf) to promote collaborations in specific disciplines.
In January 2022, the Chair hosted a symposium that brought together academics from different universities to reflect on the Language Policy Framework and deliberate on its implementation. Some of the presentations from the symposium will be published as an edited book.
The Chair is also involved in national and international collaborations which complement its work.
These include the BAQONDE and CALT projects. Boosting the Use of African Languages in Education: A Qualified Organized Nationwide DEvelopment Strategy for South Africa (BAQONDE) is an Erasmus+ co-funded consortium of four South African universities (Rhodes University, North-West University, Rhodes University, University of KwaZulu-Natal and the University of the Western Cape) and three European institutions (University of Salamanca, Trinity College Dublin and the University of Groningen). It is a capacity development project which seeks to boost the use of African languages for academic purposes by sharing good practices in multilingual pedagogies and multilingual pedagogical resources.
The Centre for African Language Teaching (CALT) Project seeks to establish a centre of excellence in the teaching at the University of the Western Cape of Foundation Phase reading in isiXhosa.
Research by academics and postgraduate students from the University of the Western Cape, Rhodes University, the University of Fort Hare and Walter Sisulu University will offer expertise and guidance for the centre.
Postgraduate students and postdoctoral Fellows contribute immensely to the work of the Chair.
Master’s and Doctoral students continue to produce research on various topics within linguistics, applied language studies and literary studies, with a focus on African languages.
Some of the students and postdoctoral Fellows have been drawn from African countries such as Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, Zanzibar and Zimbabwe, which has increased the Chair’s scholarly influence on the continent.
Postgraduate students and postdoctoral Fellows from the continent are retained at the end of their programmes as research associates of the Chair to strengthen the research network on African languages.
The strategy of the SARChI Chair in the Intellectualisation of African Languages, Multilingualism and Education is clear.
It has positioned itself as a key player in scholarship that promotes multilingualism nationally and continentally, while also ensuring that the scholarship contributes towards global engagements.
Later in the year, the Chair is looking forward to the publication of Sesotho, isiXhosa isiZulu, isiNdebele and Kiswahili translations of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature.
The book has influenced debates on the language question in Africa. Its translation into African languages, a collaboration involving academics from South Africa, Lesotho, Kenya, and Zimbabwe, implements some of the ideas articulated in wa Thiong’o’s book on the intellectualisation of African languages.
*This article was written by Dion Nkomo, DSI-NRF SARChI Chair in Intellectualisation of African Languages, Multilingualism, and Education. The views expressed by Dion Nkomo are not necessarily those of The Bulrushes