Issues warranting priority attention in universities’ pursuit of multilingualism in mathematics teaching and learning 

Published On: 21 August 2023|

Each of the three communities of practice (CoPs) that jointly hosted last week’s Colloquium on Multilingualism in the Teaching and Learning of Mathematics – Enhancing Success had come to this Colloquium driven by a set of distinct concern areas. In setting the tone for the day’s discussion, the chairpersons of these groups highlighted the key points underscoring the importance of this meeting.

Professor Pragashni Padayachee (left), the Chair of the CoP for the Teaching and Learning of Mathematics (TLM CoP) and a Senior Lecturer: Mathematics; Academic Support Programme for Engineering (ASPECT) at the University of Cape Town, said mathematics, as a discipline, holds a special place in higher education. However, the learning of mathematics, especially in multilingual contexts, came with unique challenges and extraordinary opportunities.

Linguistic diversity is an asset

She drew thedelegates’ attention to the matters warranting priority attention below.

  • Linguistic diversity as an asset: it was important for the participants to recognise their institutions as a vibrant tapestry of diverse languages and cultures. She wished to see multilingualism viewed, not as a challenge to be overcome but rather as an asset to be embraced for its value in enriching the learning experience by offering diverse perspectives and fostering a deeper understanding of mathematics concepts.
  • Equity and access: She said multilingualism had the potential to bridge gaps in educational equity. By embracing diverse languages, educators could create inclusive leaning environments where all students, regardless of their linguistic backgrounds, could access and engage with mathematics education fully.
  • Enhancing cognitive skills: she said research had proven that multilingualism enhances cognitive skills such as problem-solving,critical thinking, and adaptability. These skills were not only essential for mastering mathematics but also equipping students to thrive in an ever-evolving global landscape.
  • Cultural relevance: integrating multiple languages into mathematics education helps make the subject more relevant to students’ cultural contexts. It provides opportunities to connect mathematical concepts with real-world scenarios, making learning both meaningful and impactful.
  • Pedagogical innovation: embracing multiple languages in teaching and learning challenges educators to explore new teaching strategies that cater for diverse linguistic needs, fostering a dynamic and engaging learning environment.

Professor Padayachee said all the groups gathered at the Colloquium understood their significant roles in this agenda. “It is our shared commitment to advance the field of mathematics education by promoting effective teaching practices, sharing experiences and collaborating for innovative solutions.  By sharing best practices and exploring strategies that harness the power of multilingualism, we can collectively shape the future of mathematics education, ensuring that every student succeeds.”

We must address the linguistic injustice that starts at home

Professor Nobuhle Hlongwa, Chairperson of the CoP for the Teaching and Learning of African Languages (CoPAL) and the Dean & Head of the School of Arts at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, said she had just realised from Professor Kakoma Luneta’s keynote address that she would have probably grasped mathematical concepts better and turned out differently, had her elementary school teachers made the connection between these concepts and Zulu cultural artefacts and images.

“As we grapple with this topic, I just want to state that using learners’ home languages in teaching and learning has always carried a stigma among speakers of African languages – a result of mental colonialism which made black parents favour English above their own indigenous languages. It is a linguistic injustice that parents want their children to learn in a foreign language when they have not even mastered their own home language.”

Professor Hlongwa pointed out that there are still challenges of epistemological access and throughput rates. She said that the lack of attention to language issues at tertiary level suggests that a key potential facilitator to learning is not being considered. From an access and equity perspective, this is highly problematic, she said.

Stating that the multilingualism agenda was politically charged, Professor Hlongwa added that it is in multilingual classrooms that the hegemony of English and the power of mathematics interact in complex ways. She encouraged delegates to work on interdisciplinary projects and promote multilingualism in the teaching and learning of mathematics.

Imminent teacher shortage by 2030 has implications for African Languages teachers

Representing the Chair of the Education Deans’ Forum (EDF) who could not attend this Colloquium, Professor Mbulungeni Madiba (left), Dean in Stellenbosch University’s Faculty of Education and a member of both the CoPAL and the EDF, referred to findings of theSchool Teacher Supply & Demand in South Africa 2019 and Beyond (Van den Berg, Gustaffson & Burger, 2020) to state that the EDF was concerned that South Africa was currently producing new teachers at an insufficient rate, considering that this country projections placed teachers’ demand at 50,000 by 2030.

He said although the data from that 2019 study was being contested in some stakeholder quarters, “what is undebatable is that we will have a shortage of mathematics and literacy teachers by 2030.  Considering these stats, how much more dire will the situation be, regarding language teachers? I argue that multilingual teaching in mathematics teaching poses a challenge. All our teachers are currently being trained in English. How do we get unilingual students to teach in multilingual environments?”

Professor Madiba pointed to the gathering that enrolment numbers in mathematics teaching and languages teaching were already going down. “This means by 2030, we will have major challenges.  If I had a billion Rands I would throw it into producing multilingual teachers.”

Prepare teachers for multilingual teaching and incentivise them appropriately

He urged the higher education system to concern itself now, with preparing teachers for teaching in all languages generally, not just for teaching mathematics. “We are preparing our teachers to teach in English — thereby equipping them more to teach in the United Kingdom than in Lusikisiki.”As a response to the School Teacher Supply & Demand in South Africa 2019 and Beyond study, Professor Madiba said theEDF was following up with two studies. The first one would entail additional analysis of the national teacher supply data “to create our own interpretation of facts” and to understand teacher demand by 2030, per subject. The second study was the Teacher Tracer study to establish where initial teacher education graduates ended up, and to find out what became of those not employed in the education system.Professor Madiba concluded by emphasising the need for South Africa to incentivise teachers to teach in Lusikisiki.  “Unless we begin to produce teachers and retain them for our own national market, we will only produce them for the United Kingdom that is now offering them attractive incentives, which include a re-settlement allowance.”

‘Mateboho Green is Universities South Africa’s Corporate Communications.