South Africa is a multicultural society, boasting 12 official languages with 10 of them indigenous languages. Due to colonialism, these native languages remain underdeveloped, much like in the rest of the continent. There is an ongoing critical dialogue on language policies and decolonising the curriculum in higher education, making the work of the African Languages Association of Southern Africa (Alasa) more relevant than ever.
The University of the Free State’s (UFS) Department of African Languages hosted an array of panel discussions under the theme Indigenous African languages and decolonisation: Revitalising African ways of knowing in a digital age from 8-10 July 2019. Distinguished scholars including Prof Nobuhle Hlongwa, Prof Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni, and Prof SF Matshinhe delivered keynote addresses for the 21st biennial Alasa International Conference.
Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, Prof Heidi Hudson, offered a warm welcome to delegates on the first day of the conference at the Bloemfontein Campus. Prof Hudson echoed the beliefs of Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o regarding the entwined nature of language and power. “Ngũgĩ reminds us that the language question cannot be solved outside the larger arena of economics and politics or the question of what society wants.”
Prof Monwabisi Ralarala, chairperson of Alasa, echoed similar sentiments in his opening remarks. “It is also worthy of note that the conference is taking place at an opportune time, when the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) saw it befitting to recognise the rights of indigenous people, and thus declaring 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages,” he said.
If discrimination and inequality are to be uprooted, indigenous African languages and Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) should be at the centre of the transformation agenda. Prof Hlongwa addressed this issue in her keynote address titled: The role of indigenous African languages in knowledge production, dissemination and social transformation. “Historically, higher education in South Africa and Africa in general relied on foreign languages,” said Prof Hlongwa, Dean and Head of the School of Arts in the College of Humanities at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN).
Prof Hlongwa advocated the revisiting of teaching and learning methods where learners are examined in a language they do not understand and where educators teach in a language in which they are not proficient. One solution would be to reposition mother-tongue education and implement a policy framework which guides language practice in South Africa.
Models for intellectualisation of African indigenous languages can be benchmarked from UKZN and Rhodes University where major strides have been made to develop terminology, term banks, reading and writing clubs, even as Apps.