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English as a medium of instruction at universities

The Going Global conference in Cape Town ran from the 3rd to 5th of May, whereby a very interesting panel discussion on the use and preparation of English at university level ensued. The title of the presentation was, “Multilingualism versus English as a medium of instruction.” The chair of the discussion was Elizabeth Shepherd, who is the senior research manager at the British Council in the UK. Other participants included: Prof Russell Kaschula from Rhodes University; Dr Gölge Seferoğlu from the Middle East Technical University and Roger Smith director of the English Language Enhancement Network. 

The session gave an interesting insight to the role that African languages are starting to play in tertiary studies, in comparison to how other foreign universities are presenting study with regards to English.

Professor Russell Kaschula from Rhodes University explained how certain degrees such as the Bachelor of Journalism; now require mother tongue proficiency in order to graduate. Furthermore, it was mentioned that at the University of Cape Town (UCT), medical degrees now require students to take isiXhosa courses.

 Dr Gölge Seferoğlu highlighted that university bridging courses are mandatory for all students who are second language English speakers in Turkey and Pakistan. These courses rage from a year to six months. The students who are required to do these bridging courses are identified by either university created tests or internationally recognised tests such as TOFEL or IELTS. When asked what language assessment was used at Rhodes, it was mentioned that the policy in place is one of descriptive linguistics, rather than prescriptive linguistics, hence the assessment was based on intelligibility, rather than formal, structural issues. In other words, students’ grammatical correctness is not the main issue, but whether they can be understood in their context is important. Therefore, this makes Rhodes students’ abilities’ unmeasurable in a global context. There was however mention made that because some of the instruction given at Rhodes is in mother tongue such as isiXhosa; students’ pass rate has increased markedly. 

Moreover, questions arose regarding what vocabulary and terminology is used to present tertiary level subjects in isiXhosa as it has been raised as an issue barring the language’s use at other institutions. Professor Russell Kaschula highlighted that there was terminology developed for these concepts under the apartheid regime, which is now being used. Also, through the use of the language at the institution, terminology is also being created through a process of circumlocution i.e. because students need to talk about something; words and terminology are being created in order to do so.

The discussion also touched on the idea that there is an ethical responsibility to develop indigenous languages in South Africa. This was countered by members of the audience that, while this is an emotional issue in South Africa, we cannot afford to be romantic about language death. Many languages in the world are suffering a decline in speaker numbers, but this is a natural result of globalisation. If we do not empower students to study in English, their skills are not transferable to a global market. They will be forced to study extra English courses after their chosen degrees are completed in order to work in other countries. 

The discussion was passionate and well-informed with many opposing opinions being aired. It is this kind of robust discussion which should be had in many more forums across South Africa, so that we can all be aware of the positive and negative effects of language policy in our tertiary institutions. An informed opinion on these issues will ensure that speakers of all languages in South Africa will have their say about the language they speak at university