, Volume 8, Issue 4, pp 327-349
Date: 13 Oct 2009

The decline of academic bilingualism in South Africa: a case study

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Abstract

Language policies in South African higher education were formalized between 2000 and 2002, just prior to a major restructuring of the higher education system. During this period institutions of higher learning were expected to formulate both a language policy and a detailed language plan. National policies on language in education are intended to substantiate the constitutional commitment to using and developing the 11 official languages. Gaps between official commitments to ‘multilingualism’ and actual language practices are nevertheless evident at national and institutional levels. In this article I explore the concepts ‘bilingual university’ and ‘academic bilingualism’, as a prelude to a contextualized discussion of the decline of English-Afrikaans bilingualism at the University of Port Elizabeth (which after the January 2005 merger with the PE Technikon, became part of the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University). I explore the emergence of a gap between formal policy pronouncements and actual institutional practices. I then situate this local trend within the wider context of post-1994 political and socio-economic changes and the emergence of a new official discourse on ‘multilingualism.’ I explain the ostensive shift from a ‘dual medium’ to a ‘multilingual’ policy at UPE in terms of broader trends and contradictions in the national field of higher education. The article employs a theoretical framework, which—drawing on the work of Bourdieu—seeks to (a) situate the case within a wider national field of higher education, and (b) theorise ‘academic bilingualism’ as form of cultural capital within this field. In terms of this framework, the analysis of the case raises specific questions about current institutional language policies in South Africa and more general questions about the nature of bilingualism in higher education.