Stretch Students Beyond their Comfort Zones

Mother tongue versus becoming a global citizen

I assumed my duties as professor of communications at the University of Free State on 1 April 2015. A few days later, I attended a forum where key members of the university community publicly committed to a consultative process of public lectures, discussions, student events, and marches that sought to identify issues that need to be addressed in order to stamp out racism, promote equality and ultimately transform the institution, its policies and its practices.

Today, 28 April, the university held an assembly where members of the community—students, staff and lecturers—submitted their proposals for transformation. These ranged from changing language policies, to critical revision of curricula and student residential practices, as well as the placement of statues and other symbols across campus, among others.

One of the topics that garnered great interest and passionate discussion was the dual language policy of the university—English and Afrikaans. Arguments for and against the policy were presented with some proposals calling for English only (especially in the classroom) and others calling for creating a multi-language policy that would extend to isiZulu and Sesotho. Some speakers argued that the dual language policy effectively segregated the student community into blacks and whites. Others claimed that since the majority of the students in the university were Africans, the language policy of the university should be amended accordingly. It is not clear which of these recommendations will replace the current dual language policy, but it seems likely that there will be a change.

Before moving to South Africa, I spent 11 years teaching at the National University of Singapore. As I listened to the various proposals, I thought about the language policy in Singapore, which is a multi-cultural society with four official languages: English, Mandarin for the Chinese, Tamil for the Indians and Malay for the Malay Muslims. The primary medium of instruction in Singapore is English and students must take language courses in their mother tongue throughout their primary and secondary education. While I am not implying that this is an ideal policy, I wonder what would happen if English became the only medium of instruction at the University of Free State and all students were required to take courses that exposed them to cultures and languages other than their own. Since South Africa is a rainbow nation, it would make sense to stretch students beyond their comfort zone and promote exploration of at least one local language.

I am a pragmatic and strategic person. When I left my home in Puerto Rico to pursue post-graduate studies in the USA, I struggled with English. In the classroom I understood only a few words and had to translate every word of my weekly readings into Spanish. Then, when it came time to study for my exams, I had to translate everything again to English so I could memorize the material. It was hard work, but after a semester, it became easier and eventually, I was able to complete my doctoral studies with distinction and get my academic work published in international journals. I am sharing this because I believe that if students struggle with English at university level, translating class material into his or their mother tongue will keep them from growing. Instead, we should use those resources to develop programmes that enhance their English competence. This way, when they graduate, they can work or pursue post-graduate studies anywhere in the country or the world.

I acknowledge that language policies invoke complex historical, political and cultural issues. But after traveling and teaching around the world, I strongly feel that university students should be educated to become active members of a global community. Failure to do this shortchanges them and takes away opportunities for personal and professional growth. I know I am a foreigner and my views may be biased, but as a student in the audience said: “I’m just saying…”