Language can be your most powerful ally in your arsenal, or enemy; for centuries it has been used to divide and unify a nation.
Taking a closer look at it's role in educating our children in subjects like maths and science, specifically at an early age. As we indulge in this matter with Hendrik Marais to explore it's impact and how it can be addressed.
The inability of hundreds of languages around the world who don't have direct translations of core scientific and mathematic terms is a hindrance for students to face the real world, and apply their knowledge, resulting in them being globally incompetent.
The obstacle is the absence of certain terminology in many languages compared to English. The underlying implication is that it's the language barrier preventing students from excelling in maths and science.
It is easy for countries like Australia, England and Canada where the majority speak English, the matter is not of greater concern; but when you look at countries in Europe, Africa and Asia, this becomes a challenge to be dealt with.
Key to the debate is the issue of understanding, whether through a certain medium of instruction, be Spanish, Afrikaans, Venda or English, particularly at a foundation level of schooling; that if not carefully addressed it might have remedial consequences.
If you are in education or politics and you have failed in your mission to ensure there are enough learners leaving school to fill all the vacancies for positions where mastery of maths or science is required, possibly 80% of well-paying jobs.
We also know from all the current brain research that the foundation for later learning must be laid from as early as six months. This window of opportunity to learn an extra language and master the basics of maths is wide open in the early years but largely closed by about eight or nine and then become remedial.
Why don't we spend time and money to let children learn basic concepts which are the foundation for all future learning, especially mathematics in English from the earliest grade - when it's natural and easy for them? Officially they are supposed to have four or five EFAL (English First Additional Language) classes per week. When I talk to teachers they tell me nothing happens in those classes in far too many schools. Children at this age can easily understand mathematical concepts in English such as counting, addition, subtraction, shapes etc.
It's sickening that learners who will eventually be taught in English maths and science, but it is introduced in Grade 4 where the learners have to switch to maths in English; even when many of them haven't yet mastered basic numbers, addition and subtraction, even in their mother tongue and now they have to start in English from scratch! No wonder schools lose more than half the Grade 1 enrollments before they reach Grade 12! Had they learnt their maths in English they would have been far better off - as long as the curriculum makes provision for them to catch up and the teachers use proper ways of teaching.
There can be no good reason why we should not use words like oxygen, calculus and algebra, if we don't have our own indigenous names. We talk of computers, cell phones, soccer and taxi without trying to find IsiZulu, isiXhosa or Tswana translations. We will not stop using isiZulu or any other indigenous language because some technical terms are borrowed from English.
Our children are already starting behind, why make it more difficult for them?
Professor Themba Dube, Unisa professor of maths recently made a strong plea in The Star in South Africa for us to borrow these words from English. Students going to study at University will have to master the terminology in any case once. Should we force them to do it twice? So many words and terms do not exist in indigenous languages and we should far rather use the academics we have to teach the students instead of trying to invent thousands of new terms.
We know Afrikaans managed to do it to some extent - but they had access to other Germanic languages like Dutch and German, with strong histories and terms in maths and science, making it dramatically easier. Even so they still have serious backlogs with terminology and many Afrikaans students at school and varsity prefer to rather learn in English as that is the language most widely used in the world of maths, science, research and commerce.
Only if our politicians push and allocate funds for a different approach in EFAL in ECD (early childhood education, i.e. pre-school and Grade R-3) will we start producing the academics, engineers, technicians, doctors in the numbers our country needs.
Debate around language is linked to heritage, self-identity, in an integrated world, we need not to be stuck up on not being flexible, as much as we embrace our mother tongue, we should make sure our children are taught in languages universal to the fields of maths and science.