Interesting piece by Prof. Senior Lecturer in French and Francophone Studies, University of the Witwatersrand.
French has been taught and learned in South African classrooms for decades, even though it isn’t one of the country’s official languages. The language doesn’t carry the same colonial stigma as it does in other African countries such as Côte d’Ivoire and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In these countries people’s relationship with French is often fraught as a result of France and Belgium’s colonial history.
South Africa’s relationship with the language has gone through a number of changes over the past 30 years. During apartheid, French was offered exclusively at white schools and universities. Its main thrust was the study of literary texts from the French canon – the imagined linguistic, cultural, and disciplinary “centre”. As a result its status was elite and perceptions about it were Eurocentric.
Perceived as linguistically and culturally “exotic”, attitudes towards French started to change after apartheid as South Africa opened up to Africa and the rest of the world. The increased presence of migrant Francophone Africans in South Africa, principally from the DRC, added to this understanding. The changing profile of academics and students at South African universities has also helped to reshape the identity of French studies.
French is no longer perceived and taught as a European language representative of “French” culture in South Africa. New modes of teaching, learning and research speak to an inclusive Africanist – and globalised – agenda. Within this transnational paradigm, speaking French would equip learners to become multilingual, global citizens.
The French language is no longer bound to one culture or territory, but seen as another resource in an individual’s skill set. Similarly, the literary text is no longer seen as a cultural “monument”, but an instrument to stimulate critical thought, personal awareness and dialogue.
The broadening of the scope and range of texts taught, and the focus on the reader and learner in the reading process, signals a significant democratisation of the discipline. This is embedded in the collective project of decolonisation, given the European heritage of the discipline and its historically normative teaching approach.
In this way, modern languages can provide valuable examples to other disciplines rethinking their curricula and teaching and learning cultures.