Multilingual education provision is invaluable provided this model is appropriately resourced, says a higher education top executive

Published On: 21 August 2023|

Learning environments allowing students to exchange mathematical ideas in their mother tongue enable learners to grasp complex concepts more naturally and deeply, thereby turning multilingualism into a gap-bridging asset between abstract mathematical thinking and real-world application. Professor Deresh Ramjugernath, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Learning and Teaching at Stellenbosch University (SU) said this in his opening remarks at last week’s joint Colloquium of Universities South Africa’s three communities of practice (CoPs).

Officially welcoming the over 50 delegates to the Joint Colloquium onMultilingualism in the teaching and learning of Mathematics in Higher Education – Enhancing Success at SU, Professor Ramjugernath (right) said by coming together in this fashion, the senior academics from the three CoPs were looking to jointly identify and develop innovative teaching strategies that would optimise multilingualism and interdisciplinary learning to enhance the quality of mathematics education.

“This is all about student success,” the DVC: Learning and Teaching said.

He added that the fusion of multilingualism and mathematics was an opportunity to revolutionise education by fostering a holistic approach that catered to the individual needs and strengths of each student. By embracing this approach, universities could promote inclusivity of students from all linguistic backgrounds, “ensuring that language is never a barrier to learning the fascinating world of numbers and patterns.

“However, this transformational shift in education requires effort and dedication,” the DVC: Learning and Teaching went on to say. “Educators must be empowered with the tools and training to effectively teach mathematics in various languages. Curriculum development should incorporate diverse perspectives, ensuring that all students can relate to and engage with the subject matter. Resources, from textbooks to digital platforms, should be available in multiple languages, catering to the needs of a multicultural classroom.”

The choice of SU as host was fitting

He said it was apt that the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study (STIAS, pictured below), had been chosen to host this meeting — for two reasons. First, STIAS was widely recognised as SU’s epicentre for thought leadership and scholarship – not just nationally or continentally, but globally. “I am proud to say that STIAS is the host of the Nobel in Africa Symposia — this being the only site outside of Scandinavia in which the Nobel Symposia are held.” He said STIAS hosted the first of the annual symposia for Physics in 2022, which would, in due course, be followed by another in Chemistry and Economic Sciences.

Stellenbosch University was also the appropriate host in that “we were one of the first institutions to revise our language policy in response to, and aligning it with the new Language Policy Framework for Higher Education Institutions.”  Having joined SU in January 2021– a few months after the new policy framework was published, he was naturally tasked to oversee the revision of the then expired language policy of the institution and was given until the end of 2021 to accomplish that task. “I was little aware of what a contested space language was, here, not just internally but among this institution’s external stakeholders. You would have seen the evidence in media reports.”

He said when they delved into the process of revising the policy, government’s Language Framework became a guiding beacon. “It showed us how to build social cohesion and guide student success.  That is why, even with those challenges, we were able to build into our policy, the three fundamental language pillars: multilingualism as a resource, as a tool to bring about access and success, and as a catalyst for pedagogically sound learning and teaching.”

In terms of the revised policy, SU offers instruction in both Afrikaans and English in undergraduate teaching and learning but provides for answering students’ questions in the language in which the question was posed – subject to the lecturer proficiency in it.  The policy also supports use of other languages where possible, offering simultaneous interpreting on-site or online.  In post-graduate teaching, the policy makes provision for English or any other language(s), provided the lecturer and all students are academically proficient in the other language(s). The policy also provides for use of Afrikaans, English and isiXhosa in all official internal communication at all levels including at Chancellor, Council, Senate, Rector, senior executive level, extending to the entire university.  In external communication, the language policy provides for use of Afrikaans and English, including isiXhosa where reasonably practicable. Where capacity poses a challenge, the institution defaults to English.

Overall, SU accepts co-responsibility for advancing multilingualism and commits to incentivising innovative multilingual practices. The university undertakes to advance the academic value of Afrikaans while promoting isiXhosa as an indigenous formal academic language. It pledges to strengthen language departments and entities through collaboration and to advance the study of international languages.

Multilingualism opens students’ doors to a bright future

Professor Ramjugernath reminded the Colloquium delegates that the goal of embracing multilingualism in mathematics education was not limited to teaching the subject. The intention was also cultivate critical thinking, problem-solving abilities and lifelong love for learning in students. “By merging language and mathematics, we open doors to a brighter future where every student has the opportunity to excel and contribute to a global society.”

In conclusion, he invited all delegates to collaborate, innovate and inspire one another “to create an educational landscape that  celebrates diversity, empowers students and paves the way for a more harmonious world.”

The Colloquium had gathered over 50 senior academics combining members of the Community of Practice for the Teaching and Learning of African Languages (CoPAL), the Community of Practice for the Teaching and Learning of Mathematics (TLM CoP) and the Education Deans’ Forum (EDF).  The CoPs were exploring ways to make Multilingualism in the teaching and learning of Mathematics in Higher Education a reality, especially as public universities gear themselves up to implement the Language Policy Framework for Higher Education Institutions, which came into effect from January 2022.

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