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South Africa: New language policies for access – a diversity challenge

Two South African universities, namely the University of Pretoria and Stellenbosch have recently adopted new language policies, augmenting the role of English as a medium of instruction, towards improving access to higher education and to support inclusivity.

In the plethora of languages that permeate the South African context, Afrikaans is spoken by about 14% of the population, while English places only as fourth (9.6%) most commonly spoken language. English has a special standing in the national context, being the dominant language of government, trade and media, evidently also accounting for South Africa’s substantial capacity to interact on the global stage, while enhancing its attractiveness to international talent.

Stellenbosch University, in an official statement, emphasises the promotion of multilingualism through its new language policy – explicitly supporting students who prefer studying in Afrikaans while simultaneously enhancing access opportunities for students mainly proficient in English. The university reaffirms its commitment to the Western capes main languages – Afrikaans, English and isiXhosa- in the revised policy.  

In the case of Pretoria University there has been a clear move to English becoming the primary language of instruction, from 2017, gradually phasing out Afrikaans for those students already registered. The decision follows a transformation process the university is currently subject to, and a declining demand for Afrikaans. Framing English as a main medium of instruction is to promote social cohesion, while sustaining a commitment to multilingualism by emphasizing Afrikaans as a language of scholarship.

Both Stellenbosch and Pretoria University, in past shuffles on language policy were reluctant to a takeover of English, as the dominant medium of instruction. Current moves towards a greater provision of English were also fuelled by a series of student led protests claiming preferential treatment of Afrikaans at universities, while in turn the new policies now leave further interest-groups apprehensive about an endangerment of South Africa’s higher education landscape engaging equitably with knowledge, in its linguistically diverse culture.

Different languages cutting across subject, disciplinary and micro-cultural levels, that yet are to unite in one study and knowledge paradigm, teaching body and degree structure in the university, continues to be a balancing act - in the wake of diverse voices of Africa’s southern cape, looking to be heard under the common umbrella of equitable access.

Stellenbosch University – statement
The University of Pretoria – statement