Teachers preferred adapting words from English rather than using coined terms in their first languages — a study revealed

Published On: 24 August 2023|

Last week, Universities South Africa (USAf) held a Colloquium on Multilingualism in the Teaching and Learning of Mathematics – Enhancing Success but framing mathematics education in the context of African languages is not new. This was highlighted in one of the colloquium’s presentations, which outlined an inter-university study on the subject initiated over 20 years ago.

“We’re going back in history now,” said Professor Rosemary Wildsmith-Cromarty about the Concept Literacy Project in which she played a key role. “Twenty years down the line since this particular research, and it has now become an imperative with the new framework for multilingualism that we have to implement”

Professor Wildsmith-Cromarty (above), an Applied Linguist who is currently coordinating research on multilingual pedagogies at North-West University (NWU), was speaking at the Joint Colloquium held at Stellenbosch University (SU) on 17 August. The gathering was a collaboration between three of USAf’s communities of practice: the one for the Teaching and Learning of Mathematics, the one for African languages, and the Education Deans’ Forum.

The Concept Literacy Project took place from 2002 to 2009. It originated at the University of Cape Town’s (UCT’s) Centre for Applied Language and Literacy Studies and Services in Africa (CALLSSA) and was then extended to include Rhodes University and the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN). The University of Pretoria was also involved: Professor Sarah Howie, former Director of its Centre for Evaluation and Assessment, now at SU, evaluated the project.

Professor Wildsmith-Cromarty is responsible, among other functions, for monitoring and evaluating the implementation of multilingualism across NWU faculties. She became involved with the Concept Literacy Project when she was at UKZN, where she headed the School of Language, Literature and Linguistics.

What was the Concept Literacy Project?

The project aimed to make key concepts in mathematics and science accessible to both teachers and learners through their home language. A secondary aim was to provide a textual resource of mother tongue equivalents of core concepts to help teachers understand them better.

The project resulted in the publication of two multilingual resource-books for teachers:

  • one for grades seven to nine, which provided detailed meanings and definitions for 56 concepts in English, Afrikaans, isiZulu and, isiXhosa: and
  • one for grades 10 to 12, which covered 68 concepts in the same languages.

UCT’s vice-chancellor at the time of the first book’s publication, Professor Njabulo Ndebele, wrote an inscription saying that it represented “a moment of immense opportunity, not only for South Africa’s indigenous languages, but also for the enhancement of multilingual competence for all South Africans”.

Wildsmith-Cromarty said the project was a collaboration between specialists from four universities, who came together “to pool their expertise in maths and science content knowledge, knowledge of the languages in question, translation expertise, and expertise in evaluation and monitoring in order to produce the books. And it was an in-service education project which joined local secondary teachers from regional schools in order to gain feedback on the books.”

Code-switching into African languages

Wildsmith-Cromarty said South African teachers have historically tended to resort to code-switching into their first language, that is, African languages, “but we don’t know what kind of code switching it is. We don’t know whether they’re creating spontaneous concepts rather than scientific concepts, and this is why we had specialists in science and maths to work with us.” Code-switching is the process of alternating from one language to another in one conversation.

The project aimed to provide answers to questions such as whether the provision of a textual resource in teachers’ first languages affected their use of code-switching. “Does it enhance it, or does it detract from it? What happens? Do they use it?” said Wildsmith-Cromarty.

She said the project showed that code-switching needs to be studied further, both in terms of disciplines, and by teams of specialist translators and linguists working together.

How they created the first book

The first phase entailed subject specialists identifying core curriculum concepts in mathematics and science. Other specialists then validated the English definitions and explanations to eliminate ambiguities. Then they translated and validated the concepts, so they were validated twice. They next developed the multilingual resource book.

How they used the books

Twenty-seven teachers from seven schools in the Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng attended five workshops:

  • The first one was to present the project’s aims before the teachers were given the book to use for a month;
  • The second was to design a lesson plan in groups, one in maths and the other in science;
  • The third was to reflect on the usefulness and sequencing of the tasks in the previous workshops as well as their experiences of the book in class in terms of the languages used in the various sections, the translations and the visual aspects;
  • The fourth was an evaluation questionnaire on the teachers’ perceptions of and attitudes towards the book; and
  • The fifth workshop consisted of focus group interviews to probe the answers to the evaluation questionnaire in smaller groups using semi-structured interviews.

“So the book was thoroughly researched, developed and revised according to the feedback we got from the teachers,” she said.

The evaluation phase

Evaluating the project involved observing the teachers’ use of the books in their classrooms over two months, videoing the teachers and interviewing them to deconstruct the lessons.

“We wished to confirm the accuracy of the topics in terms of scientific and mathematical content. It was really important that it didn’t get changed or lost in the adaptation or in the translation. We also wanted to confirm the clarity and appropriateness of the translations,” said Wildsmith-Cromarty.

The findings

There was a mixed reaction to the use of the first language for instructional purposes. This was due to the complexity of code-switching, which brings the mother tongue into the classroom.

Teachers considered the use of the first language too difficult sometimes “because it was imposed from the top down. If it was from the language bodies and boards, it will be unfamiliar language. They did not consider L1 (first language) of value in knowledge construction,” she said.

“Their teacher training had been through English, so the teachers found it difficult sometimes to adapt to teaching through isiZulu even though they used it a lot for code-switching purposes.

“We’re getting the same replies and responses now at the university when we use multilingualism. And the same standard versus non-standard varieties,” said Wildsmith-Cromarty. “This is a very big elephant in the room. In fact, it’s a number of elephants and has been for a long time.”

Unfamiliar terminology was perceived as being archaic and both teachers and learners found some of the terminology difficult, which brings into question the issue of standardisation, said Wildsmith-Cromarty.

The teachers were using their first language for processing academic content when they code-switched for explanatory purposes. So the project did serve to enhance that. Plus the teachers relied on the resource book to improve their own content knowledge, “so that was also a good thing”, she said.

Teachers didn’t like coined terms

Professor Wildsmith-Cromarty said teachers “tended to prefer borrowings or loan words for core concepts rather than coined terms”. So they would use “iatomi” for “atom”, “igeometri” for “geometry” and “ipercenti” for “percent” instead of the coined terms in their first languages.

“They did prefer the borrowings because they were closer to English. There was also a dialectal variation, which brings in the question of standardisation, “something that this country needs to talk about: which standards are we going to use, when and for what”, said Professor Wildsmith-Cromarty.

Teachers also wanted the contextualised explanations for the concepts in the resource books to be in African languages rather than in English.


1) Kate le Roux (right), Associate Professor in Language Development for Science and Engineering in the Academic Development Programme in the Centre for Education Development at UCT: “We have a challenge in terms of producing resources, which are incredibly rich, and then building those into everyday practice in the classroom rather than being stand-alone resources that we expect teachers or students to refer to. I’m grappling with how we embed those resources in the classroom.

“I also wondered about how we might disrupt the thinking, of the notion of certain languages having to be developed as scientific languages that simply reinforces the hierarchies.”

Wildsmith-Cromarty: “I agree about translanguaging being organic and natural and we need to decolonise our ideas. But at North-West University, we have two imperatives: to give students access to knowledge through their own repertoires, and to deliberately support the development of the African languages in the disciplinary discourses. That’s a double imperative from the government and what we’re working with in our own language policy. We agree that we don’t want to recreate or continue with hierarchies. They exist. And I think the speakers of those languages themselves want the discourses.

2) Ms Nomxolisi Jantjies (left), IsiXhosa Language Specialist at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) and a member of CoPAL: “Students are compartmentalising their languages. In our approach of introducing African languages, are we not also reinforcing this by saying we’ll leave English for the main lessons but for everything else, we will sneak in your other languages for you to make meaning?”

Wildsmith-Cromarty: “The Concept Literacy Project did not want to do that. We were focusing on developing the languages that we used, equally, but obviously that was a start, and we hadn’t gone any further. But at North-West University, we are definitely focusing on creating academic registers so that it’s not just resorting to the students’ repertoires in tutorials and sidelining them.They’re becoming mainstream.”

3) Anthony Essien (left), Associate Professor in Mathematics Education and Interim South African Numeracy Chair at the School of Education of the University of the Witwatersrand: “As you (Professor Wildsmith-Cromarty) also indicated, part of the development of any language is coinage: at some point you have to be able to coin a word that does not exist. As much as you borrow, you also coin. That’s where the big issue is, not with your study, but generally. Because when we start coining words, and there is no umbrella body that sees to it that these coined words are standardised, then we have different groups of people coining different words for the same term and that becomes a problem.”

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer at Universities South Africa.