Dear prof. De Villiers,
Our department does not consist of language activists or language fighters. We are an academic department that deals professionally with the subject area “Afrikaans and Dutch”, the languages Afrikaans and Dutch in particular, as well as multilingual language practice.
Up until now we have not publicly entered into the discourse regarding Afrikaans at Stellenbosch University (SU). However, it is due to our scholarly position that we can no longer maintain our silence regarding the university’s treatment of multilingualism and Afrikaans.
We are increasingly being asked if there really is another reason to train students for a multilingual environment, against the background of our own institution’s treatment of multilingualism. It is also continuously expected from our department to defend or explain the university’s decisions regarding language in general and Afrikaans in particular to the community, while we patently want to remain loyal to the university.
When “Afrikaans” and “Stellenbosch” appear in the news time and time again, we carry a unique burden. In the eyes of the public, we are responsible for what happens to Afrikaans at our institution, despite the fact that no member of our department was involved in compiling the current language policy or the revised draft version.
The first specific issue to highlight in this letter is the extremely problematic treatment of the concept of “indigenous language” in the new draft language policy. The statement in question was taken from the Department of Higher Education and Training’s latest language policy framework. The most ideologically charged part of this wording is not copied in our draft policy: “An indigenous language is a language that is native to a region or country and spoken by indigenous people.”
The exclusion of Afrikaans from this group of languages is, firstly, scientifically incorrect and, secondly, ideologically hued. The explanation may be that this wording was simply used to stay in line with the overall policy document, but then this fact must be explicitly stated and contextualised by also unequivocally stating that the university definitely considers the language Afrikaans to be the indigenous language it is. After all, this is also how linguists view it.
Experts from various disciplines have made it clear over decades that ignoring a person’s language is equal to ignoring their humanity, and even implicitly pretending that Afrikaans, and therefore Afrikaans speakers, do not actually belong here, is therefore shocking. Since the draft policy states that it can be updated with relevant terminology, we request that this gross error be corrected.
Afrikaans is undermined
Other relevant points in the conceptual language policy are briefly mentioned below:
- The definition of “translation” ironically reads like a poor translation. Words like “quality” or “quality assurance” do not appear anywhere. It is mentioned that professional translations “must be well-rounded products”, but there are no references to how the quality will be ensured. It is often apparent from informal feedback that students who want to make use of Afrikaans educationally receive poorly translated material that forces them to utilise the English material, with the associated potential pedagogical disadvantage – that is, if something is even made available. It is a huge shortcoming in the policy if no quality assurance process is explained and no channel exists for complaints about the defective application of that assurance. This undermines multilingualism and Afrikaans.
- The contextual factors involved in the use of Afrikaans, English and isiXhosa do not mention the significant academic, professional and international value of Afrikaans, but of English. We trust that this error will be corrected so that it does not appear that the value of Afrikaans is diminished or concealed.
- The term “pedagogically accountable” is explained, but the related term “reasonably practicable” is not mentioned. This vague and potentially problematic term needs to be systematised more clearly by explicitly stating at least something like a measuring instrument or related considerations, otherwise SU seems to be keeping a back door open for any deviation from the policy being ex post facto approved.
- There is no indication of who the contributors to the policy were.
- The accompanying correspondence mentions the fact that the current language policy is “constitutionally justified” and that the “process of adopting the policy” has met certain criteria. The frequent repetition of this information can be read as an implication that the language policy is actually above criticism. It should rather be mentioned explicitly that neither of these two statements truly makes an empirical or scholarly statement about (a) the quality of the current language policy or (b) the success and consequences of its implementation.
- A new draft policy has already been compiled and comments are requested before clear feedback is provided on the effects of implementing the current version. Policy review should not be done as an administrative exercise simply because the time has come to do it. It must be done within a clearly formulated scholarly framework that sets out to take actual policy effects and outcomes into account. After all, there is no reason to review a policy other than to improve it.
Subsequently, several questions arise:
- To what extent did the current language policy meet the set objectives?
- What has happened to the Afrikaans offer at the university since 2015?
- What were the consequences of the language policy?
- Has data on this been collected, processed and published publicly? If so, where is it available? If not, why not, and on what grounds is this review being undertaken?
Silence is an answer too
The previously mentioned impression that those who speak Afrikaans do not belong on our campuses to the same extent as their English-speaking counterparts, is reinforced in the second aspect that is addressed in this letter, namely the public discourse from the university where it concerns Afrikaans, and the university’s way of dealing with Afrikaans in general.
A recent illustration is the debacle over alleged cases of the enforcement of English in certain environments during the welcoming period.
The university then stated in the media that enforcing English is “not a policy”. However, there are no clear signs, at least from what we could find, of a formal investigation and plans for a high-level correction should it eventually prove necessary.
Those who have already been hostile to our institution are getting ammunition to inflict further reputational damage, and sentiments are running high based on unproven allegations.
The media is buzzing about this issue and students are sharing their own similar experiences in informal contexts, but the university’s top structures remain silent in the eyes of the public. What can easily be deduced from this without the necessary correction is that the content of the allegations is either implicitly approved or not acknowledged as a problem.
It is time for a senior member of the university management to take a clear stand on this and provide assurance that there will be a transparent investigation to prove the allegations to be true or false, and that there will be concrete action if monolingualism is enforced here. Silence is an answer too, as the saying goes.
In our own department, we are increasingly experiencing that students are surprised when they find out that they are allowed to communicate with their lecturers in Afrikaans. Student leadership structures (and even other formal university environments and structures) must be reminded frequently to make their material available in Afrikaans as well. Additionally, in many cases, requests for the use of Afrikaans are simply ignored or even rejected.
It is also becoming more and more common that certain pieces of official correspondence are initially distributed only in English with a promise that the Afrikaans version of it will appear at some later stage. This may well be justified when it comes to really urgent matters, but not otherwise.
For a significant part of the student community, this state of affairs is accompanied by personal tension and most likely also by educational disadvantage.
It would be effective if the university showed that they are committed to multilingualism by simply putting an end to this kind of harmful practice. This places Afrikaans in a secondary position by default and forces those who read Afrikaans more comfortably to read the English version if they want to be as up to date as their English colleagues or fellow students.
There also seems to be a misconception that staff members who understand English, even though it is not their first language, can automatically comfortably engage in high-level academic work in English.
As far as we can ascertain, the implications of a loss of communicative nuances when communicating only in a lecturer’s and students’ second language are not thoroughly investigated as part of the drafting of a policy. Not to mention the loss of depth and richness of the educational experience for the English-speaking student who now has no exposure to a second academic language.
The kind of actions mentioned above, which are a selection of examples and no comprehensive statement, are known in the context of social justice as microaggressions ̶ intentional or unintentional remarks, practices or actions that prejudice a particular group or person, usually a minority.
It can be something as small as complimenting a student with an Afrikaans-sounding name and surname on their “good English”, or as blatant as dismissing any request that the university deal with Afrikaans transparently and responsibly as a political or ethnic struggle.
It is typically not the big official gestures that symbolise this kind of aggression(s), but rather a variety of smaller remarks or actions that can individually seem insignificant in themselves, easily dismissed as innocent and not necessarily intentionally hurtful, but they collectively contribute to a hostile environment and atmosphere.
The university must take note of the fact that Afrikaans-speaking students are often the victims of this type of microaggression on the basis of their mother tongue; something the university undertakes to respect, utilise and make available when necessary. And the university needs to be serious about making sure their promises get carried out.
Our essential transformation cannot take place by restricting the living space of certain students because their language still has an outdated negative political connotation in some people’s perspective.
In the 1980s, Ruiz described three orientations towards language and multilingualism that are considered paradigms today: We can see it as a problem, as a right, or as a resource.
We hope that the university can make the urgent necessary head move towards real multilingualism rather than just English. The utilisation of the enormous resource that is Afrikaans is not only the most scientifically justifiable way forward, but in our country also the most ethical one.
THE SU DEPARTMENT Afrikaans and Dutch