Thursday, June 23, 2016

Stellenbosch University - New Language Policy

Stellenbosch University (SU) has a new Language Policy (PDF, 12 pages). The university went through an elaborate consulation exercise. The policy in "essence"
advances institutional multilingualism and individual multilingualism in [the university's] academic, administrative, professional and social contexts. The Policy aims to increase equitable access to SU for all students and staff. Since our campuses are situated in the Western Cape, we commit ourselves to the promotion of the province’s three official languages, namely Afrikaans, English and isiXhosa.
The policy comes in the wake of what a news report describes as "chaotic scenes last year as student lobby group Open Stellenbosch protested against the language policy‚ arguing that the policy "safeguards Afrikaner culture" and excludes black students. The group demanded that English be the main language of instruction."

The new policy, though, gives equal status to the two languages: "Afrikaans and English are SU’s languages of learning and teaching" (p. 4). Section 7.5 of the policy, "Promotion of multilingualism" spells out some of the provisions for Afrikaans and isiXhosa.
7.5.3 SU advances the academic potential of Afrikaans by means of, for example, teaching, conducting research, holding symposia, presenting short courses, supporting language teachers and hosting guest lecturers in Afrikaans; presenting Afrikaans language acquisition courses; developing academic and professional literacy in Afrikaans; supporting Afrikaans reading and writing development; providing language services that include translation into Afrikaans, and editing of and document design for Afrikaans texts; developing multilingual glossaries with Afrikaans as one of the languages; and promoting Afrikaans through popular-science publications in the general media.
7.5.4 IsiXhosa as an emerging formal academic language receives particular attention for the purpose of its incremental introduction into selected disciplinary domains, prioritised in accordance with student needs in a well-planned, well-organised and systematic manner.... In certain programmes, isiXhosa is already used with a view to facilitating effective learning and teaching, especially where the use of isiXhosa may be important for career purposes. SU is commited to increasing the use of isiXhosa, to the extent that this is reasonably practicable, for example through basic communication skills short courses for staff and students, career-specific communication, discipline-specific terminology guides (printed and mobile applications) and phrase books.
Here are some other learning and teaching provisions of the new policy. Learning opportunities, such as group work, assignments, tutorials and practicals involving students from both language groups are utilised to promote integration within programmes.

7.1.4 For undergraduate modules where both Afrikaans and English are used in the same class group...: During each lecture, all information is conveyed at least in English and summaries or emphasis on content are also given in Afrikaans. Questions in Afrikaans and English are, at the least, answered in the language of the question. For first-year modules, SU makes simultaneous interpreting available during each lecture. During the second and subsequent years of study, simultaneous interpreting is made available by SU upon request by a faculty, if the needs of the students warrant the service and SU has the resources to provide it. If two weeks have passed with no students making use of the interpreting service, it may be discontinued. Where all the students in the class group agree to it by means of a secret ballot, the module will be presented in Afrikaans only or English only, provided that the relevant lecturers and teaching assistants have the necessary language proficiency and agree to do so. All compulsory reading material is provided in English except where the module is about the language itself. Compulsory reading material (excluding published material) is also provided in Afrikaans unless it is not reasonably practicable to do so.

7.1.8 Question papers for tests, examinations and other summative assessments are available in Afrikaans and English. Students may answer all assessments and submit all written work in Afrikaans or English.

7.1.9 In postgraduate learning and teaching any language may be used provided all the relevant students are sufficiently proficient in that language. Where students or staff need alternative texts such as Braille or enlarged texts as a means to communicate and understand information and these are not available, the relevant member of staff should liaise with SU’s Braille Office to arrange the timeous availability of the alternative texts. As South African Sign Language is the primary means of communication for some Deaf people, a sign language interpreter and/or real-time captioning is available during lectures, tutorials and principal SU public events, where it is required and it is reasonably practicable to do so.

The policy lapses after 5 years from its date of implementation. Within this period, or latest during its fifth year, it must be reviewed.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Exams and suicides

My colleague Rohit Dhankar has an essay in today's The Hindu called "Staying power of the pass-fail system". It gives a historical and sociocultural perspective on why examinations dominate our education system. Here is one of his conclusions:
But it seems that the biggest force behind the persistence of this curse [of a] useless examination system is a social one which is grossly under-examined. We are a caste-based and strictly hierarchical society. In earlier times, this hierarchy had the iron-clad stability of the caste system. That determined the place, function, work and life of an Indian even before his/her birth. There are attempts now, which range from constitutional rights to political struggle, to break that mould. It may not have been dismantled yet, but is under tremendous pressure ever since the freedom movement began.

But social hierarchies involve privileges, prestige and goods of life that are cherished by all. [No one] is ready to let go of the privileges one has. As a result... attempts to maintain the old hierarchy as well as...  ways to challenge it look toward education. Education, therefore, becomes a means of fierce competition either to remain in one’s position of privilege or to rise in the hierarchy. It completely stops being a self-motivated way of forming an authentic self and gaining an understanding of the world, and is reduced to a means to beat/best the neighbour. A more open and thoughtful system of education will challenge the hierarchies which are so dear to a caste-minded Indian. The result is that the authoritarian system of pass-fail stays.
The months of March through June in India are fraught with news reports of students commiting suicide because of the examination system. "When will we ever learn?" asks an anguished teacher Devi Kar. As she chillingly says of our suicides: "Our children are usually found hanging from ceiling fans."

Dhankar's essay (also available on his bilingual blog Thinking Aloud) notes: "There is no commission or committee report after Independence which does not acknowledge the burden of rote learning and the examination system on its students and its futility in assessing their real abilities." In fact, a decade ago, the magazine India Today told us several heart-rending stories about these "Killer Exams". It concluded by suggesting the following measures:
  • Instead of one-shot terminals, exams would be staggered over two semesters to ease pressure.
  • Evaluations would be a mix of internal and external. No sprinting through answer papers.
  • Restricting the number of pre-board exams and possibly banning them altogether.
  • A combination of multiple choice and traditional questions to test understanding and broad skills and not just memory.
  • No more failures in the new grading system being evolved
A decade later in 2016, we seem to be no better in stopping our children from killing themselves because of the examination system.