Trailblazer: TAQA

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By Qhawe Bula

This article is exclusive to Online Edition 9 of VARSITY.


In South Africa, English and Afrikaans mother-tongue speakers account for less than 25% of the population. Despite this, these are the only two languages in which you can pursue an education from primary to post graduate level. The reality is that the majority of South African students study in a language other than their mother tongue and this has a very real effect on the ability of students to comprehend academic material. In a country with 11 official languages, the enforcement of English and Afrikaans as the sole languages of instruction in tertiary education is not only inaccessible, it is exclusionary.


Overwhelming research worldwide has long concluded that a student has a better chance of understanding academic material if it is taught in their mother tongue. Research conducted by UNESCO in 2008 concluded that “children whose primary language is not the language of instruction in school are more likely to drop out of school or fail in early grades”. We therefore see that a large majority of South African students resultantly have a less than optimum experience of education in which there are added barriers to their ability to successfully engage with academic material.


Paulo Freire argues that oppression is prescriptive, that the oppressor imposes their consciousness and view of the world on the oppressed. Language plays a huge role in this. Language is not just a medium of communication, although this alone is major, language also largely dictates how we emote, how we think, and even how we act. It is therefore important to note that the imposition of English as the language of academia in African universities speaks not only to how we communicate, but also to who we are. Thus, we understand that the imposition of the English language upon African students in academia is also the imposition of the English culture. Taking us ever further away from our African identities.


The English language has gained official status in over 70 countries worldwide, most of which are former British territories. Globalisation has also played a major role in this. The prioritization of English in African academia also speaks to the prioritisation of English academic texts in most spheres of instruction, from primary school to university. Philip G. Altbach argues that thisspeaks to the increased influence of the major English-speaking academic systems, such as those that exist in the United Kingdom and the United States. This, therefore, also speaks to the neglect of indigenous African knowledge in academia.


If we truly have an interest in the success of African students, and in the perseverance of our African cultures and knowledges, then indigenous African languages within academia on the African continent ought to be prioritised.


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This section of VARSITY is a vehicle for expression on any topic by members of the UCT community. The opinions within this section are not necessarily those of the VARSITY collective or its advertisers.

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