A South African academic and language activist told Witsies this week every white South African should be proud to speak, read and write at least one African language “and be ashamed if they are unable to”.
An ideal scholar for Dr Coetzee is one who is “aggressively multilingual”.
The author of Accented futures: Language activism and the ending of apartheid spoke at Wits on Tuesday afternoon while promoting her book in South Africa.
Coetzee told the floor that at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London (SOAS) where she lectures, all students are required and expected to study and learn an African language.
“It is inspiring to see how readily they do so. The contrast with South African universities is frightening and saddening for me,” said Coetzee.[pullquote]“It is inspiring to see how readily they do so. The contrast with South African universities is frightening and saddening for me.” [/pullquote]
Coetzee’s stance on African languages and multilinguism comes at time of the controversial proposed policy of the University of KwaZulu Natal to make learning isiZulu compulsory for first year students.
South African universities and monolinguism
The author said that South African universities work on the imagined idea that monolinguism is the norm.
“They fail to realise that multilingualism is a norm in South Africa,” she said.
Dr Nicole Falkof, who is a lecturer at Wits media studies, shared her issues involving supervising students who are not first-language english speakers.
“I am often faced with students who have brilliant ideas but are unable to adequately express them in English. I then find myself in a difficult position where I have to decide on whether to penalise people or not,” she said.
“How do you negotiate that? You want to maintain global standards but to completely penalise students on a linguistic level further perpetuates a system I am not entirely comfortable with,” Falkof said.
The fallacy of mastery
The South African born linguistic activist argued that what often happens is that individuals are concerned with mastering a language and would rather not learn a language at all than trying to learn the fundamentals of a language.
“People are often happy to learn enough French to order items from a menu and are not bothered with learning the basics of African languages,” Coetzee said.
This comment was in response to what Dr Pumla Gqola said about French at the media seminar. Gqola said people are more interested in learning French as opposed to isiZulu, for example.
“French is culture, art and inter-textual,” Gqola said.
Coetzee is aiming to “theorise diversity” in the South African context by not focusing on skin colour.
The emphasis on skin and race perpetuates “models of spectatorship” and results in little room for growth and development said Coetzee.
Coetzee said that we should stop translating African languages into English, which she foresees that people will disagree with.
She also said the effort to translate African languages into English is a burden to people who are multilingual for the benefit of people limited to one language.
Corina van der Spoel who attended the talk said: “I feel empowered because I know how to speak an African language: Afrikaans.”