Enablers and barriers to multilingualism in South African university classrooms

  • JM Thamaga-Chitja
  • T Mbatha


Abstract: Despite a robust national language policy, multilingual learning has yet to make headway in South African universities. In addressing the gap between the language of instruction and the languages South African university students are competent in, this article begins with a brief review of current national and institutional policy positions and recent multilingual learning theoretical discussions at university. Lines of thinking that emerge include: significance of academic literacy and how it underpins university studies; and separatist solutions where academic literacy is taught in dedicated modules. However the uncertain academic status of African language studies and negative attitudes to its speakers may compromise the potential of multilingual initiatives in universities. To solicit student impressions on the actuality and potential of multilingualism in universities, a focus group discussion was conducted with 15 students in the School of Agricultural Sciences and Agribusiness at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Students concurred that trying to process information in a language they were not competent in limited their understanding of lectures. Attempts to cope using mother tongue in study groups was limited by lack of terminology and conceptual equivalents, however, being taught in mother tongue was unacceptable to students because their aim was to acquire better English at university. In addition, foreign students expressed anxiety that multilingualism might disadvantage them. The study concludes that multilingualism could assist students in developing academic literacy and academic discourse but students seem blind to this advantage.

Southern African Linguistics and Applied Language Studies 2012, 30(3): 339–346

Author Biographies

JM Thamaga-Chitja
African Centre for Food Security, School of Agricultural Sciences and Agribusiness, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa
T Mbatha
School of Education, University of Kwazulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa

Journal Identifiers

eISSN: 1727-9461
print ISSN: 1607-3614