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Every year on February 21, the world celebrates International Mother Language Day. This year’s theme was ‘Multilingual education – a necessity to transform education in a multilingual world’. Multilingualism is not only about speaking different words. Flora Lewis reckons that “Learning another language is not only learning different words for the same things but learning another way to think about things.” This, therefore, calls for universities to introduce programmes that advance African languages as languages of research, teaching and science, beyond being mere vehicles of translated western ontologies, as well as promote multilingualism in teaching and learning.


Given the importance of multilingualism, it is necessary to promote multilingual education and situate African languages at the centre of research, teaching and learning to drive the sector priorities of institutional transformation, epistemic access, and student success. In this regard, at institutions of higher learning we need to create modules in African languages for staff and students toward closing the communication gap and advancing social cohesion.

The need for this has been accentuated by a resolution adopted by the United Nations proclaiming the period of 2022/2032, the International Decade of Indigenous Languages, based on a recommendation by the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. The effective implementation of multilingualism requires resources, such as language practitioners, language labs, translations tools, audio-visual tools, textbooks, language learning apps and software, dictionaries, and other language resources.


In a highly pluralistic society, it can be challenging to provide these resources for all the languages spoken, particularly for less commonly spoken languages. Besides the need for resources, there will be a need to preserve the differences in cultures and languages that foster tolerance and respect for others. However, this might be a challenge due to attitudes and beliefs from different speech communities.


Some speech communities may see themselves as more dominant, prestigious, or important than others, which can make it difficult to promote the use and learning of less commonly spoken languages. Moreover, political and economic factors may put pressure to promote a particular language or set of languages, which can limit the opportunities for individuals to learn and use the less commonly spoken languages.

However, in promoting the importance of cultural and linguistic diversity for a sustainable society, particularly for multilingual education, there should be a multifaceted approach that acknowledges the diversity of the population, while promoting a sense of common identity and shared values.
Universities can achieve this through encouraging the learning of an additional language by students and staff, offering bilingual or multilingual education programmes, providing language support services, translating or versioning the existing teaching and learning materials into indigenous languages and initiating multilingual projects.


There is also a need to partner with organisations that can provide opportunities for community members to participate in university language events, and work with community leaders to support language learning and cultural exchange initiatives. The promotion of multilingual education can help create a more inclusive and culturally diverse learning environment that supports the academic and personal development of all students. Once institutions of higher learning get it right, this can be extended to all sectors of society such as airports, where not only one language is used to make announcements.

Mpho Ngoepe and Napjadi Letsoalo

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