Wits will make African languages mandatory for incoming students in the Humanities and Engineering departments.

Wits University students starting a Bachelor of Arts degree in 2019 will be required to learn an African language as part of their academic requirements.

The move is part of the implementation of the Wits Language Policy that aims to promote isiZulu, seSotho and South African Sign Language (SASL) at the institution .

“When the new policy was approved (in 2015), by Senate we did not have resources so we started with lower hanging fruit like changing business cards and new signs that have gone up to reflect in English, seSotho and isiZulu,” said Deputy Vice-Chancellor (DVC) of Academics, Professor Andrew Crouch.

Head of the School of Literature, Languages and Media (SLLM) Professor Dan Ojwang said that the Humanities Faculty and Senate approved a curriculum rule change earlier this year to make an African language compulsory for the BA General students. Students will be required to choose between isiZulu and seSotho as second language courses which will run over the course of a year. The courses will replace one of the electives that students normally choose from. Those who are fluent in isiZulu or seSotho will be required to take the other, while students who are fluent in both, will be required to choose an additional language such as SASL, French or Italian.

“As of 2020, South African Sign Language will be phased in as an African language choice taught alongside isiZulu and seSotho. The language requirement will only be applied to new students. No current students will be affected,” Ojwang added.The implementation of the policy at Wits is expected to happen in phases with both Humanities and the Faculty of Engineering introducing compulsory language components from next year. The Health Sciences Faculty rolled out their Uthini app, which assists students with translating clinical records, at the beginning of 2018.

Crouch said his office reviewed the language policy in 2013 and found that isiZulu was the African language predominantly spoken on campus. The current policy was approved by Senate in 2015. Crouch said that a Language Planning and Development Board was established which is responsible for rolling out the implementation of the policy.

Crouch added that 2018 was the first year the university has had resources for the wider implementation of the policy. This has resulted in the provision of African language courses for academic staff, which are being offered by the Wits Language School and paid for by the office of the DVC. The first of the isiZulu and SASL courses started at the beginning of September.

A Wits professor who is participating in the isiZulu course, and who did not want to be named, said that so far he is enjoying the experience.

“I find the program very interesting, and so far very good. I keep wondering to myself why this was not done earlier and why not everyone is participating,” said the professor.
The Wits Language School is also training isiZulu and seSotho teachers to teach first year students starting in 2019.

Former head of SLLM, Professor Libby Meintjes, has been working closely with Crouch’s office to implement the policy since February this year. She said that the aim of the language policy is to ensure that people can communicate across campus, have a greater understanding and respect for cultural and linguistic differences and to increase the employability of students.

“People tend to forget the value of African languages and I believe that we do need to encourage people to learn them,” she told Wits Vuvuzela.

She added, “I believe languages are fundamental to communication, learning, and transforming campus. Learning a language opens up ones’ scope, insight, and understanding of their community.”

First-year Wits African Languages student, Calvin Lentswane, is in support of the curriculum rule change because it will be helpful to those who have little to no proficiency in their own language or the languages of others. “It’s good to have it [African languages] as a compulsory subject because it teaches us our culture and our languages.”

FEATURED PHOTO: The new entrances and signs reflect the university’s name in English, isiZulu, and Sesotho.
Photo: Naledi Mashishi